Apples and Oranges; Grizzlies and Koalas

Why the Australian election is no preview for the midterms

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, 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.

A switch like that is rare, but is exactly what happened less than two months ago when Gillard, then deputy prime minister, challenged prime minister Kevin Rudd for the Labor Party leadership. The party voted and Australia woke on June 24 with a new PM.

I was drinking in a Sydney bar with a journalist friend the night before the change, when news of the leadership challenge fanned out across the Twitterverse. I knew then and there that we were set up for an election unlike any presidential contest in recent memory—and certainly unlike the upcoming U.S. midterms.

Paul Kelly, a renowned political commentator and columnist, and editor-at-large of national broadsheet The Australian, says that the leadership “spill,” and the system that allowed it to happen, makes it difficult to too closely associate the contests in both countries. “Comparisons are difficult precisely because of the unique situation we’ve been in,” he told me over the phone from Sydney. “Right on election eve, we’ve had for the first time in its history the Labor party overthrow an election-winning prime minister, Kevin Rudd. The prelude to the election is this political assassination and the creation of a new leader by Labor itself.” Kelly also notes that opposition leader Tony Abbott, though familiar to Australian voters from years as a cabinet minister in the conservative Howard government, is new to the job of opposition leader. In his party’s own “spill,” Abbott defeated former leader Malcolm Turnbull in a vote just last December.

The nature of each candidate’s rise to power has colored how each is viewed in the electorate. Just anecdotally, I was having a beer with a journalist friend here in New York this week (don’t judge) who was out from Australia. He said that Prime Minister Gillard’s actions revealed a character flaw—a ruthless ambition and willingness to knife an ally in the back—that made him uncomfortable about supporting her at the polling booth.

These currents shape the way each candidate’s messages are received; even if the talking points have a familiar ring for U.S. voters, they likely carry different meaning. In Australia, the messaging can feel especially strained because of another key difference between the two nations: there is very little to separate the Australian Liberal and Labor parties, policy-wise. Since taking the reins, Gillard has backed away from policies the opposition attacked and which proved unpopular with the public—negotiating with mining companies over a controversial mining “super profits” tax and shelving action on an Emissions Trading Scheme until 2012. (Though the majority of Australians support action, the failure to push an ETS bill through parliament damaged Gillard’s predecessor greatly.)

Kelly adds to the similarities: “They’ve both got the same trajectory to get back into the budget surplus, coming back to surplus in three years time.… There’s not much substantial difference on foreign policy; hardly any debate on foreign policy at all. And on boat people [asylum seekers bound for or arriving on Australian shores] Gillard has hardened up to try and minimize the differences with Abbott. That’s the policy framework.”

Hardly the vows to repeal health care that have been ringing across this great wide land.

And it should always be remembered that Australian conservatism under former Australian PM Howard (fiscally focused, no big defense spending, a commitment to social equality, and nary a mention of God) differs greatly from that of Bush. “There is no Tea Party in this country,” says Kelly. “There’s no evangelical Christian movement the way there is in the United States. Australian conservatism is much more mainstream. This is overlooked in a lot in these discussions.”

The fact that the opposed parties share many policies is partly due to another quirk of the Australian system: compulsory voting. As uninspired as people might be by either candidate—or the local candidates they would be voting for from each party—abstaining from the vote would mean having to either write a letter explaining why or incurring a twenty dollar fine. If you challenge the fine in court, it can exceed fifty dollars. (The system means Australia sees turnouts of about ninety five percent of registered voters.)

Peter Hartcher, the dapper political and international editor of broadsheet The Sydney Morning Herald, says the different voting systems shift the way campaigns are run and received in each country. “Because the U.S. has voluntary voting, the obvious incentive for the parties to get out the vote is to appeal to the extreme edges, to push the most emotional buttons, to get people to turn out, whether it’s abortion or gun rights or something else,” he said over the phone from Sydney recently. “In Australia, compulsory voting means the incentive for parties is to pitch to the middle and to pitch to the majority rather than the fringe. This explains why Labor, in trouble here, is pushing away from the progressive left, dumping things like climate change, running a million miles from anything that might look like an embrace of immigration. Whereas in the U.S., Democrats in trouble under Obama are increasingly turning to the left, to their base, pressing ahead with some sort of climate change policy, challenging the Arizona immigration law.”

He continues to say that in Australia the race to the middle has resulted in an election that’s a “sort of skirmish over vacuities, slogans, impressions; an incredibly vacuous exchange of nothingness which has made it difficult for voters to tell the difference.” At least some of those words can be shared by both nations’ elections.

Admittedly, there are similarities between us. It is “eerie,” as Hartcher calls it, that in the past decade or so the electorates have swung similarly. The conservative government of Australia immediately preceded Bush, and was ousted a year before Obama; and now, on both sides of the ocean, the liberals are in trouble. And, just as Obama gets little credit for massive legislative victories, Rudd, and now Gillard, get very little credit for Australia’s having been being spat out of the crisis with an economy of such relative health that Kelly says, “Our problem is economic complacency.”

But I’m with Kelly when he says that an “internal dynamic” drives countries and elections. “There are comparisons to make: both sides have had to respond to the global financial crisis, we’ve had the climate change issue, there are parallels. But I think to see the political systems in lockstep is too artificial.”

With near full voter turnouts, little difference between the parties, a dream economy, and an almost Shakespearian power-grab on election eve (okay, if Macbeth spoke like Russell Crowe), the Australian election is its own beast. While Dionne Jr. and Mascarenhas are right to point out that there are similarities in the campaign slogans, it is too brash to say the Democrats or Republicans can learn much from how those slogans play Down Under. If either message works, it will be for different reasons and under very different circumstances than they would face here in November.

Now, I’m off to save myself twenty bucks.

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Joel Meares is a former CJR assistant editor.