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.