A Guide to Australian Politics

By Tess Shannon, August 31, 2010

Julia Gillard Photo courtesy Flickr publik16

Julia Gillard Photo courtesy Flickr publik16

Bewildered by the Australian election results? Tess Shannon clears away the political debris and explores the origins of the nation’s electoral deadlock - which could result in Australia’s first hung parliament in 70 years.

Australia is in the grip of an electoral deadlock with the prospect of a hung parliament – the first time since 1940. There are huge implications for Australia’s position in the world and serious doubts as to whether Australia’s political culture can cope with the prospect of a minority government. This article explores how such a dramatic change in the Australian political landscape has occurred

Some Key Facts About Australia
To understand what has happened and why it has happened, a short background briefing is required.
· Australia is a federation consisting of six states and two territories.
· Its population of over 20 million people is spread across a vast land mass.
· Much of the country is uninhabited because of the arid landscape. Around 70% of Australians live on the coastal fringe in large cities and urban environments.
· The economy in these urban environments is driven by financial services, manufacturing, consumer services and tourism.
· Australia has a large number of regional communities often in extremely isolated locations.
· The economy for these communities is driven by farming and irrigated agriculture and a very, very strong mining and resources sector.
· In short, there are four communities: an urban community, a regional and agricultural community, a mining community and the traditional owners of the land – the Indigenous peoples who have the oldest continuing civilisation in the world.
· The mining community has enjoyed mega profits largely off the back of China’s economic growth.
· The regional agricultural communities have experienced the worst drought since written records began and are experiencing economic and population decline.
· These agricultural communities feel angry and aggrieved and let down by successive Australian governments.
· The traditional owners of the land, the Indigenous peoples of Australia, represent 2% of the population. Many live in appalling conditions within an affluent nation. Despite considerable effort by governments across Australia over a long period of time, the gap in health, housing, education and prosperity between Indigenous Australians and the rest of the population is a national disgrace.
· Much of the failure to address the economic, social, health and well-being of Indigenous Australians stems from the lack of recognition that they are the rightful owners of the land.
· Australia has a bicameral system of government, which means there are two Chambers or Houses in the federal parliament. The House of Representatives and the Senate. The Senate is the upper house and Senators can vote to block bills that are put before it.
· There are two dominant parties – the Australian Labor Party and the Liberal Party of Australia. A third party, the Nationals are in coalition with the Liberals.
· The Labor Party was established in the 1890s to protect the rights of workers and to represent workers in the federal parliament. It is now dominated by the organised trade union movement, with many union officials being automatically preselected for federal seats.
· The Liberal Party of Australia was established in the 1940s as a conservative pro-business party.
· The Nationals (formally the Country Party), also a conservative party, were established to give farmers and regional communities a voice in the parliament.
· The Australian Greens have Senators in the Federal Parliament. Following this 2010 election, the Greens now have a member in the House of Representatives.
· In Australia voting is compulsory.

The Build-Up to the 2010 Election
In 2007 Australians elected a Labor government for the first time in twelve years. The Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd defeated the conservative coalition government led by John Howard. Howard’s government had presided over a period of unprecedented prosperity. However its defeat, which saw the Prime Minister himself lose his seat, arose out of discontent with a lack of action on climate change; failure to turn huge budget surpluses into much needed infrastructure; a perceived harsh and often inhumane treatment of refugees arriving by boat; a failure to acknowledge the dispossession of Indigenous peoples and a refusal to apologise to the Stolen Generation.

The Stolen Generation is the name given to up to 100,000 Aboriginal children who were taken by force from their families between 1910 and 1970, on purely racist grounds, by government officials and placed with white families or put in institutional care.

There was also widespread criticism by the trade union movement of the Howard government’s industrial relations laws, known as WorkChoices.

Kevin Rudd was elected in a landslide, on a platform of positive action on climate change, ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, apologising to the Stolen Generation, a more compassionate treatment of asylum seekers, the abolition of WorkChoices, the reform of the nation’s health care system and the reform of Commonwealth/State relations.

The early years of the government saw an unprecedented popularity of the Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and the Labor Party. That popularity resulted in the demise of two successive opposition Leaders who failed to gain traction with the Australian community. By 2010 however, commentators and community opinion began to turn against the Rudd government. After commissioning endless reviews of policies and programs (that were largely ignored by the government), after talk-feasts, much media spin and multiple announcements with no substance, there was a perception that very little had been achieved.

It is important to say that during the term of the Rudd Labor government Australia survived the global economic crisis. The government claimed its stimulus package had been responsible for Australia’s strong economic performance. Others have argued however that Australia’s resilience to the global economic crisis was due to a strong budgetary position left by the previous conservative government, a highly regulated and high performing banking system and the continued strength of the mining sector off the back of growth in China.

Many critics of the government argued that the stimulus package and the debt that funded it, had placed the economy at risk. This debate will rage for some time, no doubt, but the fact remains that Australia avoided recession, and the worst effects of the economic downturn such as high levels of unemployment.

There were several key mistakes made by the Rudd government which turned the tide of political fortune.
· The centre of the Rudd government’s climate change policy, the Emissions trading Scheme (ETS) became a very divisive issue, particularly for the Liberal/Nationals coalition. Many saw it as a threat to regional agriculture and mining operations. The government handled the selling of the policy very badly and instead of convincing voters of its merits, rather they used it as a political tool to drive a wedge in the coalition’s leadership team. This backfired when the progressive pro-climate change Opposition leader, Malcolm Turnbull was overthrown by Tony Abbott.
· Abbott is a combative politician, who is highly effective at negative campaigning and is a self confessed climate change denier. Tony Abbott referred to the ETS as “A Great Big New Tax On Everything”.
· The ETS was defeated in the Senate on two occasions. This gave the government grounds to trigger an early election. The government failed to take up this opportunity. During that time the Copenhagen climate change talks failed to deliver on the much anticipated global action on climate change.
· The Rudd government mismanaged the delivery of a key platform of its stimulus package – the Home Insulation Program. The mismanagement of this program led to deaths and fires. Public funds were then wasted in addressing the safety problems that the poor implementation of the program had caused.
· Surprisingly, in a breathtaking about face, the Rudd government backed away from its Emissions Trading Scheme and with it, action on climate change. In a cynical move to dampen Tony Abbott’s claim of a “Great Big New Tax On Everything”, what started as “The greatest moral challenge of our time” (Rudd’s take on climate change) turned into the greatest political inconvenience for the poll and focus group driven Rudd government. But Rudd grossly miscalculated the intelligence and sentiment of the Australian people. People were bewildered and confused about what the government now stood for and what their vision was. The government had no fall back position. It was the beginning of the end.
· Finally, after another review – this time of the tax system (which took two years) Prime Minister Rudd announced a 40% super profits tax on the mining sector. This was done without any consultation with the industry, the wider Party or the electorate. It was symptomatic of Rudd’s leadership style which was increasingly being seen as authoritarian, secretive and devoid of the normal processes of good democratic government.

These factors, and other back downs, such as a reversal of more humane treatment of asylum seekers, led to a series of disastrous polls for the Labor Party and a free fall in Rudd’s personal popularity rating.

The Australian people had begun to see the government for what it was. An organisation driven by its backroom deal makers and party apparatchik who were driving the government’s policy agenda in response to push polling and focus groups in marginal seats. The Australian community and leading commentators could see through the fakery and deception. The government had lost its narrative and its coherence. It was a government who wanted to be in power for power’s sake, with no policy agenda, no vision and no commitment to tackling tough issues for the long term benefit of the Australian people.

Then, the very people who had driven this style of government turned on Rudd, who had now become the chief victim of the Party’s obsession with polling.

After a seemingly brief period of murmurs and whispers about the Prime Minister’s leadership, a dramatic coup took place over the space of 24 hours. The faceless men of the Australian Labor Party led by chief protagonists Senator Mark Arbib, Bill Shorten (union boss turned politician) and Paul Howes (union boss – yet to turn politician) and other backroom deal makers, rolled Rudd and installed the highly regarded and very able Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, as the first woman Prime Minister of Australia. The back room boys sought to capitalise on the novelty of a woman Prime Minister, and on her strong parliamentary and media presence. But in the same way they had misread the electorate on climate change – they misread the electorate again.

After only weeks in the job, a couple of good opinion polls, and a very scrappy effort to tidy up the string of disasters left in the wake of Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard called an election.

Tony Abbott Photo courtesy Flickr Mosman Council

Tony Abbott Photo courtesy Flickr Mosman Council

The Election, the Issues and the Results
Both parties fought this election on small issues, particularly those that were relevant to marginal seats rather than the wider community.

The coalition ran on a platform of ending the waste of government spending, reducing the debt associated with the stimulus package, stoping the so called “influx” of asylum seekers, and removing the mining tax.

The Gillard government ran a similarly small-minded campaign focused on fear tactics regarding the return to former controversial, conservative government industrial laws, and a series of speeches and announcements designed to appeal to swinging voters in marginal seats such as a tougher policy on asylum seekers and slowing Australia’s rate of population growth.

Both parties made terrible mistakes, but Labor’s were crippling. These included continuing to defer action on climate change and a bizarre announcement about the creation of a citizen’s assembly to talk about climate change for another year before any action would be taken. Tony Abbott meanwhile, announced that he would reverse the government’s decision to install Broadband to all Australian homes. This would have represented a potential to transform communications in regional and remote communities which would have given greater access to jobs and better services.

On August 21, 2010, the Australian people gave their verdict on one of the most uninspiring election campaigns in our history. With no party taking a leadership position on any issue, the Australian people decided that neither Australian political party was worthy of government. Consequently, neither Labor nor the coalition achieved the 76 seats needed to form a majority government.

Here are the results so far:
· The Liberal/National party coalition (conservatives) has 73 seats
· The Labor Party has 72 seats
· The Australian Greens have their first seat in the lower house
· There are 4 independents, 3 of whom represent regional farming and mining communities. These Independents will decide who forms government.

The Australian Greens had their most successful election result to date and will hold the balance of power in the Senate. They have taken those votes from the Labor Party. People abandoned the Labor Party in droves because of their climate change back down. The Australian Greens now represent a serious third force in Australian politics.

Ironically, Australia’s political fate will be decided by three people who represent the communities who feel so aggrieved and abandoned by mainstream Australia – the people in regional and remote communities.

It is difficult to see how any result will produce stable government. The Labor Party will find it difficult to form a coalition with the regional Independents. The conservative parties will find it almost impossible to govern with a Greens dominated Senate.

Minority coalition governments are commonplace in many countries and can often lead to good policy making. One would like to think we will see a new era of contestable policy and rigorous debate. This would be a welcome relief from the adversarial, combative style of politics Australians are subjected to by the major parties. It would also be a reprieve from the mindless robotic adherence to party discipline which dominates Australia’s political system…. but this is unlikely to happen.

The lack of vision of the two parties is more likely to produce issue-by-issue public policy making, rather than a long term plan for Australia’s future. When the two parties raced to the middle ground for a handful of seats, the Australian people saw that for what it was, and in a country where voting is compulsory, they could not decide between either of them.

Australians have every right to feel let down by both sides of politics but after two weeks of without an appointed government it feels like it is business as usual. No-one has really noticed.

Tess Shannon has an Honours Degree in Political Science, and is currently studying for a Post Graduate Diploma in Adult Literacy and Numeracy Teaching. She has just completed a board game about the Australian system of government which, she hopes, may inspire and engage Australians with their nation’s politics and political history through humour, the competitive spirit and that old political necessity, rat cunning.

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