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My View of the Election Campaign

21 August 2010

This is my second post on Australia’s 43rd federal election, which is taking place today. Part 1 contains some background on the Australian electoral system and political parties. I had hoped to say everything that I wanted to say about the election before it was over; but time is fast running out, so I decided just to post what I can. I’ll write a followup post tomorrow. The split is not entirely logical, but this post has more of an emphasis on rhetoric and tomorrow’s will have more of an emphasis on policy. By the time I post the rest of my analysis, the polls will have closed and the result will probably be known. Sorry, I decided not to write the followup. However, I have posted a summary of the results. I am not entirely happy with this post, but I was forced to compromise between writing the perfect wrapup and writing something I could post in time. Kind of like politics, I suppose. Anyway, here is what I’ve written so far.

To recap: the incumbent centre-left Australian Labor Party is led by Prime Minister Julia Gillard. The centre-right Liberal Party of Australia led by Tony Abbott is in a long-standing Coalition with the rural conservative National Party of Australia. A growing third party, the progressive Australian Greens, is led by Bob Brown.

Most observers, including I, agree that there is little difference between Labor and the Coalition other than their rhetoric, and unfortunately rhetoric is mostly what the campaign has been about. So I’ll briefly summarize some of the spin that’s been flying around. Both major parties have framed the economy, population, and “border protection” as the major issues of the election, while attempting to neutralize the issue of climate change.

Julia Gillard has only been Prime Minister for two months, after the Labor Party revolted against its previous leader Kevin Rudd. The leadership change happened literally overnight and the reasons have never been fully explained (Gillard has answered such questions with vague statements such as “a good government was losing its way”). However, the catalyst was probably Rudd’s decline in popularity following a number of Labor policy reversals (most notably on climate change). Also, allegedly Rudd’s leadership was becoming increasingly autocratic, with several reports of ministers complaining that major policy changes had been announced without their being consulted. A third reason was Rudd’s refusal to placate mining companies (who wield a lot of political influence in Australia) by weakening Labor’s proposed Resource Super Profits Tax.

Some people distrust Gillard because of the way she came to power. Personally, I think most politicians would probably have done the same thing; if Gillard hadn’t agreed to challenge Rudd, the party would have found somebody else. But I distrust Gillard for other reasons.

For the first month of her Prime Ministership, and the first two weeks of the five-week campaign, Gillard bent over backwards to placate the mining companies; appealed to the xenophobic vote with some hand-waving about an offshore processing centre for asylum seekers; stated that she was in favor of a “sustainable population” (though she doesn’t seem to have any actual policy to achieve this); announced a climate policy that wasn’t actually a policy (more on that tomorrow); and monotonously repeated the slogan “moving forward” over and over. Then, evidently concerned that this wasn’t working, she suddenly declared that she would “throw out the rule book” and we would now see “the real Julia”. Personally, I haven’t noticed much difference.

Meanwhile, Tony Abbott has repeated his own slogan like a drumbeat: stop the waste, stop the debt, stop the taxes, and stop the boats. Basically, anything that the Government does, Abbott will run a scare campaign against. He claims that the Labor Government is incompetent, that it has clocked up a massive national debt (even though Australia’s debt is only a fraction of those of many other major economies), that its “great big new taxes” will hurt the economy (even though the Government has already made huge concessions on said taxes), and that Australia is being swamped with illegal immigrants. Now, he may have a case on the first point (this government has bungled quite a few of its economic stimulus programs), but I’m not convinced that a Liberal Government would be any better.

The focus on marginal seats has resulted in a race to the centre (and the bottom), with each party leader backpedaling on strong positions they have taken prior to this election. For example, Tony Abbott claims that the previous Liberal government’s unpopular industrial relations policy, WorkChoices, is “dead, buried, and cremated”. The party has not yet announced a new policy. In Gillard’s case in particular, the campaign has left me wondering whether she really stands for anything at all or if she’s just a weathervane, who will change her mind again when the wind changes. When she was first inaugurated as Prime Minster, Gillard told the ABC:

“I am not going to pretend a faith I don’t feel. I am what I am and people will judge that. For people of faith, I think the greatest compliment I could pay to them is to respect their genuinely held beliefs and not to engage in some pretence about mine.”

As an atheist, I was inspired to see an Australian Prime Minister openly admitting to being non-religious and refusing to pander to the religious vote. And yet Gillard does now seem to be courting the Christian vote. Two weeks ago she not only addressed the Australian Christian Lobby, but also spoke at the Mary McKillop Canonization Dinner. Also, the ACL asked each party a series of policy questions; Labor’s responses included that under a Gillard government marriage would remain defined as between a man and a woman, and there would be no change to the current practice of opening Parliament with a Christian prayer. Both of these stances seem nonsensical from a secular point of view.

Meanwhile, I think the media have given Abbott a free ride on environmental issues. Big business has a notoriously large influence on Liberal Party policy, and the party has a history of not listening to science when it conflicts with business interests. I think their opposition to both a carbon tax and a mining tax are indications that this has not changed — as is the fact that the party still accepts donations from tobacco companies, and Abbott says they will merely “consider” the Government’s policy of plain packaging for cigarettes.

Abbott himself does not have a good record either. In October 2009, before becoming leader of the Liberal Party, Abbott told an audience in the small town of Beaufort that the science of climate change was “absolute crap”, but “the politics of this are tough for us. 80% of people believe climate change is a real and present danger.” It sounds to me as though he was saying that even though he doesn’t believe in climate change, the party has to appear to do something about it because people want action. He later dismissed those statements as “a bit of hyperbole” and not his “considered position”. Yet in February this year, Abbott met with Viscount Christopher Monckton, a British politician whose view on climate change is that climate scientists are conspiring to fake their results as part of a plot to create a socialist world government.

More recently, Abbott has been vague on exactly what he thinks about climate change (though depending on the audience he parrots a number of contrarian talking points). For example, this week on ABC TV’s Q&A, he clarified that “this idea that the science was settled was not something that I wholly accepted”. He went on to say “there’s no doubt” human activity “plays a part”, but “how big a part, well, let the scientists argue about that”, and “what we should do, therefore, is take prudent and affordable precautions”. This might have been a reasonable position given the level of scientific understanding about three decades ago, but is completely unreasonable today. What Abbott doesn’t seem to realize (or care to admit) is that scientists have already argued about it and long since reached a conclusion. In the face of mounting evidence, it’s not acceptable for politicians to continue to hedge their bets.

Abbott also claims, like Gillard, that he believes in a sustainable population, saying “Australia’s cities are choking on their own traffic”, and promises to cut immigration (though the Labor government already has the same target), but he tends to contradict himself on the subject. For example, on another occasion during the campaign he stated “I’m not against a higher population”. And on the same Q&A program I quoted above, he argued that one of the benefits of his paid parental leave policy is that it will help increase the population! Evidently, it doesn’t bother him so much if the extra people arrive in wombs, not boats.

Yet another example concerns the issue of marine conservation zones. At the same time that 142 marine scientists wrote an open letter to Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard pleading them not to weaken the current policy of protecting 10% of Australia’s oceans by 2012, Abbott was in marginal electorate Eden-Morano promising not to create any more protected zones. All of this means that I don’t trust the Liberals one iota with the environment, and I don’t trust them to listen to scientists.

On a related note, a survey was published late in the campaign which asked Australian politicians several questions about their understanding of climate change. 98% of Greens politicians accept that humans are causing global warming (meaning the party has a similar consensus to the climate science community), and so do 89% of Labor politicians. However, only 38% of Liberal/National politicians agree. Also, 98% of Greens said they were “greatly influenced by scientists”, compared to 85% of Labor and just 44% of Liberals and Nationals.

By the middle of the campaign, the public debate had degenerated to the point where there was an inappropriate focus on the Prime Minister’s personal life. Gillard was subject to ad hominem attacks on the basis of being unmarried, non-religious, and childless. (Cue the photo opportunities with Gillard kissing babies.) She faced seemingly endless personal questions such as whether she would marry her partner (to which she responded “Decisions about me getting married are not just made by me”), and whether they would live together in the Prime Minister’s residence, the Lodge. One newspaper, The Australian,  published an extensive analysis of her clothing and hairstyles, which began: “Julia Gillard’s looks have taken a back seat to leadership…”

This is the first election campaign that I’ve really paid attention to, but I have a nasty suspicion that a male Prime Minister would never have to deal with this sort of crap. Although to be fair, Tony Abbott has also copped quite a bit of flak for his social conservatism and perceived unpopularity with female voters. He responded to the latter charge by saying that although he is not himself a woman, his wife, daughters, and sisters are (unlike, presumably, all the other candidates who have no female relations). Cue Tony Abbott’s wife being paraded around the country on the campaign trail.

Towards the end of the election campaign, it emerged that the biggest debate between the party leaders was over whether to have a formal leaders’ debate. Gillard and Abbott carried on this quarrel via the media for weeks, about first the number of leaders’ debates there should be, then what the second debate should be about, when and where it should take place, and what the format should be. All the while they traded jibes about the other’s dishonesty and insisted that they were in the right, but both of them ended up looking pretty silly.

Throughout the campaign, the two major parties have been neck-and-neck in media polls. (That is, on a two-party-preferred basis. The Coalition has been polling around 43% of first-preference votes, Labor around 38%, and the Greens around 13%.) Most of the time both sides have cast themselves as the underdog, except for one speech in Perth when Abbott declared confidently that “I think that I will be the next Prime Minister of Australia.” Three weeks later he was claiming “I’ve said all along that I would be the underdog.” Riiiight.

The booths in the eastern states close at 6 pm. It’s now 5:59, so I’d better stop typing and go and watch the ABC’s election coverage.

Post-Election Update: Who won? Read my (admittedly very belated) post-election wrapup here.

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