Unless you live in The Land Down Under you are probably unaware that Australians will be called upon to exercise their democratic right to elect their next Fearless Leadership to sit in the (somewhat) hallowed halls of the Parliament on 7 September. Our duly elected overlords have been softening the populace up to the idea since the beginning of the year when then Prime Minister Julia Gillard (remember her? me either) announced the auspicious day as 14 September.
Since then Julia has become the former PM and the former PM Kevin Rudd (of Kevin 07 fame) has been reinstalled in the top job (it isn’t as confusing as it sounds) after a “Night of the Long Knives” during which the shadowy men in grey suits of the Australian Labor Party sacrificed Ms. Gillard on the Altar of Political Propriety in an effort to reinstate their previously high popularity with the electorate in the face of the rapidly approaching Day of Reckoning. This sacrifice was held to appease the Kraken beast of poor performance in the Polls of Public Opinion and, in the time honored tradition of the Westminster Parliamentary system, the party threw the sacrificial victim into the volcano to gain the favor of the gods so that the people would love them as much as they had once done.
Almost the first thing that the new PM did was to announce a new election date and kick off the 2013 Labor campaign in earnest. His opposition in the upcoming bout, Tony Abbott, seemed reasonably ready for this turn of events and pushed the start button on the Liberal’s efforts to win government in response. With the armies of the two opponents assembled on the field they drew the battle lines by informing the Australian public of the important issues that they would debate in the coming weeks and the battle commenced.
What This Election is About
Both leaders began by telling the voting public what the upcoming election will be about- which is handy because we thought that it was about the economy (or at least 38% of us thought that it was kind of important to debate). In fact, according to Kevin, the election will be about a “New Way” in government that moved away from the “wall-to-wall negativity” that has been dominant. Meanwhile, the Fearless Leader (FL) of the Liberals told us that it is “not about Mr. Rudd, it’s not about me, it’s about you” (I think that an ex girlfriend said that to me once).
So now that the issues have been made so clear to me, I settled in to watch my fourth favorite spectator sport (behind cricket, Formula 1 and Australian Rules Football), politics. The opening salvo was fired on both sides when the protagonists met for the first Leaders’ Debate at the Press Club. In this opening round, the two leaders really didn’t say anything new and really limited themselves to squaring up to the opposition and testing his defenses. In spite of what they both said, the election will be decided by the economic policies that are put forward and the track record that both parties have accrued.
Show Me the Money
In the red corner (Labor), Kevin has the strong Australian economy and a less fascist approach to dealing with refugees that arrive here (but only slightly left of the Liberal Fuehrer). His weakness is his record of being hard to work with and for making unilateral decisions. In the blue corner (Liberal), Tony is strong on rhetoric and focused on finding fault with the government’s current efforts but has a fiscal weakness that can only grow into a serious debilitation unless he explains how he is going to slash taxes and still pay for everything (without slashing social services to do it).
Kevin veritably beams as he says the words “Triple A Credit Rating” and the clouds part as the Light descends from the heavens and angels trumpet him in his glory. Tony grimaces at this same phrase; in the current global economic situation it is tantamount to a Political Weapon of Mass Destruction (PWMD). His feeble efforts to remind us that Kevin took the nation from a surplus (i.e. we had money in the bank) to a $250 billion deficit are drowned out by the national pride at having a better credit rating than most of the Western World. The reality is that they are both right and they are both wrong.
The surplus that Tony keeps banging on about was achieved through the sale of the national telephone network, Telstra, which was in itself a major disaster for Abbott’s predecessor John Howard (George Bush’s arse kissing buddy who was dubbed a “Man of Steel” by George Dubbaya for jumping striaght into the War on Terror in 2001). Kevin’s AAA credit rating came on the back of a mining boom that was fortuitously timed to offset the crashing global economy and which is now winding back as the orders for Aussie minerals goes into decline in a recessive world economy. So, in the end, they are arguing about money that they don’t have to spend anyway.
Same Sex Marriage and Other Social Media Driven Policies
Another formidable weapon in Rudd’s armory is his announcement of a conscience vote on the issue of same sex marriage. This issue is currently accounting for a large percentage of the newsfeed on most social media sites as countries around the world pass laws to recognize these unions. It is such a contemporary hot button topic at the moment that Obama cites it as a major ideological difference between his government and the policies of the Russian president Putin. With that kind of exposure it is an issue that already comes with a highly polarized and focused support mechanism that any politician that is worth his salt would try to leverage.
Apparently Tony isn’t on Facebook very often because in his words same sex marriage is “an important issue, but not the most important issue” and he vaguely promises to put it on the table at some time in the future. On the other hand, Kevin’s finger is on the pulse of the people when he promises to put his conscience vote to the Parliament with 100 days of being reelected. This exposes the real weakness that is endemic in the Liberal camp with handling social media and the internet in general while Kevin is obviously more tuned in to the pace of cyber opinion. He also understands the widespread feeling that Australia should be a part of this modern zeitgeist by being at the forefront of these sorts of sensible libertarian movements, rather than following the lead of other countries.
Another issue that has social media working against both sides is the stream of refugees that arrive on Australian shores every week. As of April 10 this year there had been 75 boats carrying 5031 asylum seekers that had arrived illegally in Australia. That amounts to about 15,000 refugees arriving here every year which, when compared to the 60,000 that apply for asylum in the US or the 300,000 that arrive in European countries every year is quite small. In fact, according to the UN, Australia accepts only about 3% of the asylum claims made in industrialized countries and that the levels of refugees arriving here remain very low in comparison. The issue of their illegal status is also Liberal bunkum as Australia is signatory to the UN Refugee Convention that makes it legal for people to enter a country to seek asylum regardless of how they arrive.
This works against Tony and the Liberal Nazi Party and he is constantly beating the “Stop the Boats” drum even though it is physically impossible to do anything to curtail the exodus of refugees. When asked how he will stop them he has no answer and that is because it would be illegal for him to send them away. In the red corner, Kevin is talking tough about setting up refugee camps in Papua New Guinea, but this is just an obvious band aid solution that will be dropped like a hot potato as soon as the Labor Politburo is back in the driver’s seat. The reality is that they are arguing about something that neither of them has any control over (again).
Taxes and More Taxes (but Never Less Taxes)
Neither leader wanted to discuss the details of their tax plans in the opening round of the great bout. Abbott claims that he will scrap the carbon tax while Rudd points a finger at him and accuses him of planning to raise the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Of course the voting public of Australia understands that he is a Liberal and so when he gets into office he will tell us that it is just too impractical to unwind the carbon tax now and so we will be keeping it. Liberals have developed a habit of turning about face on their policies that they use to get themselves elected when faced with the economic realities of governing.
He has also proposed that he will scrap the current government’s National Broadband Network (NBN) scheme and implement his own which, he claims, is $60 billion cheaper. Again, Tony’s inability to understand the cyber age that he lives in has led him to make a bad call as millions of Australians see a future with dial up internet speeds interfering with the live streaming of their favorite American television shows. At the same time Kevin has inherited the much publicized NBN scheme which is popular with voters (because it will improve the quality of their television streaming experience) and so this is another area where Labor seems to have the upper hand.
The pillars of every good election campaign season are education, health and aged care. Apart from telling us that his government wouldn’t be able to afford to help us pay for the education of our children with plans to scrap the Schoolkids Bonus which effectively adds between $400 and $800 to the tax bill of families for every child that they have in school. His reason is that “we just can’t afford it” and he assures us that he is being “honest and upfront” about it. Giving him a mandate to govern on that basis really just opens the door to further social welfare cuts that we “just can’t afford” if he becomes PM. Neither side wants to discuss the ins and outs of their funding plans for aged care which begins to beg the question of “can we afford to get old?”
The State of Play
When Kevin Rudd executed his coup in late June, the Gillard Labor Government was in dire straits in the opinion polls. This was largely due to the impasse that was created by the formation of the minority government after the 2010 election that made her dependant on three independent Members of Parliament to pass her legislation. It was partly due to her ineffectual style of leadership that continued to allow the Rudd splinter faction to conspire against her. At the same time Tony Abbott has droned on with the same slogans for years and this has created a public image of him as a naysayer who has been reduced by his years in the political wilderness of the opposition benches to opposing everything just because that’s all that he’s got.
Since the Night of the Long Knives in June, Kevin has rallied from the lows of Gillard’s alarmingly low 29% approval rating to a respectable 50% (it was as high as 52%) while Abbott can rally only a meager 34% . Of course this is not about electing the Prime Minister and the two party preferred polls show that the opposing sides are now running neck and neck. The Rudd factor has brought the Labor Party’s election hopes back from the dead (much like Kevin himself) but it has only leveled the playing field.
That is only Round 1 and as we approach the designated day there doubtlessly be a number of gaffes and contradictory statements made by both sides that will ultimately decide the difference between them. Kevin Rudd needs to convince that he can maintain a steady hand on the tiller as he guides the nation through the treacherous waters of the delicate state of the world’s economy while still providing the services and support that got his party elected in the first place (more or less). Tony Abbott has to convince us to trust him in the face of his lack of exact figures or concrete policies. So far the most amusing thing to come out of the campaign is Tony Abbott’s words of wisdom; “No one, however smart, however well-educated, however well experienced, is the suppository of all wisdom”. We can only hope that there is more high quality campaigning like that over the next month.