Old school values and an inward focus: On Saturday, Australia goes to the polls to elect its sixth prime minister in six years in a campaign with no foreign focus. Helen Clark reports from Melbourne.
Australian politics has been brutal this decade with prime minister after prime minister being knifed by their own parties, and partisan debates between the two majors turning rancorous. This Australian election campaign has been negative, but not quite nasty.
The focus has been largely on domestic isues, with scare tactics from the opposition and a plea from the incumbents for just one more term for the sake of the nation’s stability.
Record numbers at polls
According to news reports over one million early votes have already been cast, a record. Despite the late winter afternoon weather a steady stream of voters arrived to vote and candidates for the electorate did some last-minute electioneering outside.
At an early polling center in Melbourne’s inner eastern electorate of Kooyong, Labor candidate Margaret D’Arcy and Green candidate Helen McLeod were both cheerful despite the rain and seemed more friends than political rivals, partly likely because neither has a strong chance of winning a seat in Kooyong, where Liberal candidate and Minister for Resources, Energy and Northern Australia Josh Frydenberg holds a seat (for the record they say they get along with Mr Frydenberg too).
D’Arcy was blunt as to who would win Saturday’s election – the Liberals, though polls are currently predicting a tie. McLeod is more of an optimist, believing that the once-small environmental party is gaining rapidly as educated voters become more aware of environmental issues. “A Green vote in Kooyong is a vote for the environment,” she told DW. D’Arcy says a vote for Labor is a “vote for health and education.” And health and education, far more than the environment, is what this election has been about.
Health and education
Alex Oliver, Director of Polling and Research Fellow at the Lowy Institute, told DW via email that the differences between the parties were domestic ones. “The first is health. The opposition is running a late scare campaign based on an allegation that the government has plans to privatize our public health funding system, Medicare.There are differences on economic management (a lowering of the corporate tax levels, and changes to tax treatment of superannuation contributions, which is currently generous). There are also differences in the approach to education.”
Climate change, once so divisive, has barely featured, neither has immigration or refugee policy. In terms of the latter Labor too is in favor of offshore processing of refugees and of stopping the boats.
Shaun Carney, a long-time political correspondent, told DW that Labor has been “taking risks on its economic policy by putting its higher short-term deficit numbers out there and arguing for a stimulatory approach that is more expensive… Under [Labor leader Bill] Shorten, the Australian Labor Party has been more classically Laborist, with the state intervening to protect health definitely, education possibly. It’s also committed to German-style industry to support policies in the social democratic tradition.”
The Liberals are “running on a ‘fair go’ platform of deserving a second term because it’s not right to ditch a first-term government,” said Carney. This is a first-term but two prime minister government, given Malcolm Turnbull deposed an increasingly unpopular Tony Abbott in September last year. The 2014 budget delivered by Tony Abbott and then-Treasurer Joe Hockey was austere, ideologically-driven and hugely unpopular. One of the least popular suggestions was a AUD$7 “co-payment” for a previously Medicare-subsidized visit to a doctor. Fears of Medicare being gutted by a Liberal government have not been assuaged, something Labor has played on.
A nation divided, a foreign policy shared
Post Brexit, one of the most divisive foreign policy issues seen for decades, Australia’s political consensus on foreign issues may seem odd to outsiders.
Both parties favor arbitration in the South China Sea, value trade with Asian and look towards the Asian Century (rhetorically, at least), put the alliance with the US at the front and center of foreign and security policy and, believe in a local build for Australia’s new AUD$50 billion (33.5 billion euros, $37 billion) submarine build.
Neither party was in favor of Brexit, but this may not affect the upcoming negotiations for an EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA). In Oliver’s view that may even help. “The EU may be more keen to conclude FTAs in the circumstances.” The Trans-Pacific Partnership, of which Australia is a part, has not been an election issue.
There are differences when it comes to the specifics of trade deals. Last year Labor threatened not to pass a lucrative FTA with China over worries of lowly paid foreign workers being allowed into Australia.
The main foreign policy challenge is from the Greens. Leader Senator Richard DiNatale gave a speech at the Lowy Institute in May outlining a foreign policy not just focused on the dangers of global warming (greater than international terrorism), but with a more traditional security bent. He suggested that the US alliance needs to be deeply rethought given how many bloody wars it has led Australia into. The chances of the alliance ever being rescinded are extraordinarily low (even under a President Trump), but its centrality to Australia is rarely questioned.
What can foreigners learn from this Australian election? It may seem that whoever wins it will be business as usual: trade with Asia and close ties with the US. But there will be questions beyond this, from the implementation of the TPP (assuming it survives the US election) to how much aid money Australia is willing to commit.