I’ve recently noticed a few articles hopping roo-like across the Net pushing the idea that the Australian federal election this August could be a preview for the November midterms. “Australia has long been a leading indicator of what is to come in U.S. politics,” says one. “Australia will provide a testing ground for some of the core themes in this November’s American elections,” begins another.
I am voting in that Australian election this week—the official ballot is August 21, but we expats can cast our votes nearly two weeks early. And, as an Australian-born, Australian-raised, Australian-politics-watching-kinda bloke, I have to take issue with the idea that my more southern and sunburned country could be any harbinger of things to come stateside.
You see, despite sharing language and mass obesity, Australia and America aren’t so similar. Think to-mah-toes, Vegemite, Kylie Minogue, and universal health care, just for some clichéd starters. Start looking at our politics and political systems and the ocean between us just grows that much wider. It’s a point missed by many who’ve sought to draw some too-direct comparisons between the two nations.
The most buzzed-about column to draw that comparison in the last couple of weeks was E.J. Dionne Jr.’s syndicated piece, “Australia 2010,” which I happened upon here at tnr.com, before becoming distracted by WikiLeaks. I revisited it this week, and it’s a sharp look at the similarities in election messaging between the Democrats and the liberal Australian Labor Party. From Dionne Jr.’s piece:
Labor’s slogan, “Let’s move Australia forward,” is thus all about its subtext: that Australians don’t want to return to conservatives who governed the country for 11 years before Labor’s 2007 victory.
And in the coming months, one of the Democratic Party’s very favorite words will be “Bush,” as in George W. Bush, by way of making the same point. Democrats now hope they can persuade voters to see their ballots in this year’s midterm elections not as an up-or-down vote on their own stewardship but as a choice between—well, going forward, or moving back to the Bush era.
The piece astutely outlines the different circumstances facing the two parties pushing that message—with a 5.1 percent unemployment rate, the Australian economy is certainly a “global marvel” in a different position than the States—before concluding:
As Australia goes, so goes America? Not necessarily. But for the last decade, politics in the two countries have run in tandem, with Rudd’s 2007 victory prefiguring Obama’s. At the very least, when Democrats say our election is about whether we want to move forward or go back, they can give a respectful nod to Prime Minister Gillard.
Alan Mascarenhas at Newsweek made a similar point in looking at how the Australian opposition party—the conservative Liberal Party, not to be confused with small-L liberals—has branded itself. Like the Republicans and Tea Party advocates, opposition leader Tony Abbott has been campaigning as the anti-tax, anti-waste champion to Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s big-spending liberal incompetent:
… if the Abbott-led conservatives can engineer a turnaround by beating the drum on deficits and debt, then alarm bells should ring louder for Democrats. The Obama administration has yet to convince voters it can pull back from the fiscal cliff. If conservatives can mask their ideological baggage and win on a Tea Party–type economic platform in Australia—even where there is little basis for it—then just imagine the coming whirlwind in America.
Both authors are smart to layer on the caveats and highlight some key points of difference between the nations. But there is a danger in sweeping sentiments like “politics in the two countries have run in tandem,” in Mascarenhas’s piece, which imply a relationship more simple than exists, or could ever exist. While the messaging might be the same among the correlating parties in both elections, it’s important to note that different political systems and circumstances give the words different meanings where they’re being heard.
In any piece comparing Australia and the U.S. politically, especially where the reader is probably more shallowly steeped in antipodean politics than the author, it’s important to point out that Australian government operates under the British Westminster system, and not a presidential system. What does that mean? A lot. For one thing, the Australian people do not directly vote for their national leader. Instead, a party wins the election, and the party’s leader in the lower house, the House of Representatives, becomes the prime minister (similarly, there are no primaries to elect who will oppose the PM). It also means that the prime minister can be switched by in-party challenges during their leadership term.