Australia: Same Same, but Different

Australia went to the polls last Saturday to elect a new Federal Government to manage the affairs of this island continent of 25 million people..

As of the time of writing, there is no majority winner and the outcome is unclear. Some pundits are saying that the 2 main political parties — the conservative Liberal Party and left-of-centre Labor Party — may end up in a draw.

Australia’s Parliament is based on the UK Westminster model of territory-based electorate seats comprising a total 150 seats in the House Of Representatives.

Like England, our Government is based on the political party that can form a majority in the House of Representatives. And right now, it is anybody’s guess. Unlike England, the upper house in our bicameral parliament is not based on privilege but on voting. Australia’s Senate consists of 76 Senators divided equally between the Australian States, irrespective of population size.

And unlike everywhere else, voting in Australia is compulsory. We get a democracy that really represents the wishes of the nation.

In the election just voted, the big loser is the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, the leader of the conservatives. He is our fifth Prime Minister in as many years. For a country with a tradition of stable democratic government, our Prime Ministers are now being replaced faster that claimants to Westeros’ Iron Throne:

  • Kevin (Labor) defeated John (Conservative) in 2007
  • Julia (Labor) replaced Kevin (Labor) in 2010
  • Julia won an election as a minority government with the Greens in 2010
  • Kevin (Labor) replaced Julia (Labor) in 2013
  • Tony (Conservative) defeated Kevin (Labor) in 2013
  • Malcolm (Conservative) replaced Tony (Conservative) in 2015
  • Malcolm went to election in 2016, and blew it
  • Tony, of course, is sharpening the political knives to replace Malcolm.

This recent election is witnessing some big changes in our polity, and in many ways, this is a mirror of what is happening across the western world.

First is the continual decline of the political centre dominated by the 2 major political parties. In the lowest result ever, the 2 majors scored 72% of the total vote. More than 1 in 4 Australians are looking for answers elsewhere. I know some political parties elsewhere in the world will be salivating at getting 35% or so of the national vote, but in Australia, the dominance of the two major political parties is a continuous downward slide.

Some of the voting reactions are toward the far-right, who have won two or more seats in the Senate from a previous base of zero. Some are to the far-left Greens, who won 10% of the vote. While it is true that the Greens have been around for a while, their vote, mostly from inner-suburban bourgeoisie, peaks and troughs.

The Australian Green Party is not like their European counterparts; the Australian variety are more like the English Momentum variety — watermelons. Green on the outside and old-fashioned Trotskyite/Communist reds at heart.

New smaller parties have popped up in a variety of cities and regional areas, often local issue based or just tapping into the dissatisfaction with political elites. This is similar to the dissatisfaction with political elites felt in liberal democratic societies all over the world. We may not have a Donald Trump just yet, but the signs of disaffection and economic – social dislocation are giving rise to anger and rejectionism.

Immigration too is an issue. But in Australia the desire to point the finger at ‘the other’ uniquely manifests itself as a refugee issue. As an island, immigration is well controlled by government, but we do get boatloads of refugees being trafficked across the ocean from Indonesia (our near neighbour). These constitute our ‘illegals’, and the conservatives and far-right certainly know how to use the threat of being swamped by ‘illegals’ to electoral advantage.

It seems Australia is moving into coalition Government as a permanent state of affairs. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, the unique problem for us is that our electoral cycle is pathetically short. Federal Governments must be elected no later than every 3 years, and the term of office is not fixed but decided by the Prime Minister. The reality of this on actual governance is the first six months is settling in and the last 6 months getting ready for election. Our Government may, at the very best, get a two year window to GSD (Get Stuff Done). Short sightedness is endemic in our system. It takes brilliant leaders to rise above public polled short-sightedness of the electoral cycle, and we haven’t had a leader like that since the early 90’s. And before that it was the mid-70’s.

Tony Blair has written after Brexit that a political phenomenon has manifested itself. For the far-right the main threat to our societies is from immigration. For the far-left it is the banks and the worst forms of capitalism. These two are now meeting together to throw out the old rules of how things were done and decimating the centre. Hence the rise of quick-fix populists with quick-fix solutions.

Australia, given our physical distance, has been behind the times a bit. It seems we are being pulled along in the same maelstrom.

About the Author
Co-convenor of the Australia-Israel Labor Dialogue. Director of Blended Learning Group (Emotional Intelligence and Leadership training) Director of Bowerbase (IT start-up) Director of Soldales Pacific (Water technology start-up linking Israel and Australia).