Australia: A political fist-fight

Michael Peschardt

The unpopular carbon emissions tax and a controversial migration policy have left Australia’s Labor government needing critical life-support. 

Photo: ©Takver ( via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

Australian politics is rarely, if ever, for the faint-hearted. The Australian parliament is characterised by what is politely referred to as ‘robust debate’. In general, Australian society has come an awfully long way from the hard macho profanities and ‘fists-first’ culture of the 19th-century shearing sheds. But politics remains something of a ‘throwback’. 

Bearing in mind this environment then, Prime Minister Julia Gillard was never going to have an easy job of it, but she could hardly have imagined quite how much could go wrong, quite so quickly. The Labor Party government that she leads is in the record books for all the wrong reasons. According to recent surveys, this is the most unpopular government since polling began. The Labor primary vote has been below 30 percent on a fairly regular basis – a disastrous position for a party that only a few years ago seemed to have a stranglehold on power. 

So what’s gone wrong? The short answer is just about everything, beginning with the way the prime minister came to power. In 2010, the ‘Gillard Coup’ moved with astonishing speed and ruthlessness to topple Kevin Rudd, who just two and half years before had led Labor to a substantial victory over John Howard’s conservative coalition government. There is no doubt the Rudd government was in trouble: it had upset the very influential mining lobby by proposing a super profits tax on mining companies; it appeared to have lost control of the country’s borders as the number of asylum seekers arriving by boat continued to increase; and it had bamboozled many voters with a proposal for a trading scheme to cut greenhouse gas emissions. A policy memorably described by the opposition leader, Tony Abbott, as a “great big fat tax on everything”. 

The ‘great big fat tax’ slogan resonated strongly with the electorate and was absolutely fatal to Rudd’s own nerve. He promptly dumped the plan in an attempt to claw back some public support. It had the complete opposite effect. He was left looking weak and lacking in principle. The grandees in the Labor Party turned on him, and then promptly turned to his deputy, Gillard, to fill the gap. These things, of course, happen in politics all the time, but nevertheless it left a bitter taste in the mouths of many Labor supporters. Rightly or wrongly, Ms Gillard was tainted, but not terminally so. She went to the polls soon after and managed to come out with what can be best described as a ‘draw’. 

Labor lost its comfortable majority, as several previously safe seats changed hands. There were not enough Labor MPs left to form a government, but Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party had fallen just short too. With the parliament ‘hung’, everything suddenly depended on a handful of independents and the newly strengthened Green Party. 

Ms Gillard was at her best in the post-electoral negotiations. Enough of the Independents were flattered and promised sufficiently to induce them to support Labor, while the Greens were never really going to come to any sort of deal with Tony Abbott. He is not an enthusiastic supporter of the Green Party’s approach, famously once declaring that climate change science was “absolute crap”. He has since conceded that that pronouncement was neither his final nor his most nuanced position on the subject. 

In any event, the very forthrightness of her opponent played into Julia Gillard’s hands and with a deal in place it seemed as though she could look forward to three years in power and the chance to impose her own mark on Australian public life. But, ironically, she has come unstuck on exactly the same issues that plagued Kevin Rudd’s leadership, and which she was brought in to fix. 

As part of her deal with the Greens, the central plank of her government agenda has become a determination to take action to reduce Australia’s carbon footprint. The Rudd Emissions Trading Scheme has been re-jigged and re-branded so that the government is now committed to introducing a straight carbon tax that will in time evolve into a trading scheme. The snag for Julia Gillard is that the ‘great big fat tax on everything’ mantra now holds even more sway with the voters. 

The Australian economy is doing remarkably well on paper – arguably better than any other Western developed nation – but that is mainly the result of the mining and mineral boom. The fact is the economic benefits are not crossing over into other industries. The high exchange rate, a result of the commodities boom, is hitting every other export business, particularly manufacturing. There is increasing evidence, both empirical and anecdotal, that rising numbers of Australians are feeling worse off. Not the best environment in which to introduce a new tax and one which, by its very nature, is designed to put more financial pressure on Australia’s traditional industries. 

The government’s attempts to ‘sell’ the tax are not helped either by the fact that the prime minister herself has a credibility problem to overcome on the issue. During the last election campaign, she declared on nationwide television that “there would be no carbon tax under the government that I lead”. It now turns out that that was not a core promise after all. 

But the extent of that climb-down is nothing compared to the disarray over policy towards asylum seekers arriving by boat. In truth, by international standards, Australia does not have a very big refugee problem.

Fewer than 7,000 people arrived by boat last year, but the issue has become of disproportionate political importance. The prime minister said she would discourage the boats by setting up a holding and processing centre on East Timor – the announcement was made with much fanfare aboard an Australian naval vessel patrolling the Indian Ocean. Unfortunately, however, the government had neglected to consult the East Timorese who rejected the proposal in no uncertain terms. Next came a plan to move asylum seekers to Malaysia, but that was ruled illegal by the Australian High Court at the end of August. Gillard had indicated that she will press ahead with the plan despite the court’s decision. 

In other words, the Gillard government is faring no better than the Rudd administration she swept aside. In many ways, her position is more precarious. She holds on to power by a single vote in the parliament, and one of these has been looking shaky – a backbench Labor MP has been facing serious allegations regarding his use of a trade union credit card to hire escorts. 

Whatever the truth, the prime minister simply cannot afford to cut loose an MP and risk a by-election that Labor would most certainly lose. No one doubts the fighting instincts of the prime minister – you do not get to lead the Australian Labor Party without what’s often described here as ‘a fair amount of ticker’ – but she and her party are finding out that changing the leader does not count for much if the problems stay the same. 

About the author:

Michael Peschardt is a television presenter and senior foreign correspondent for the BBC.


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November 15, 2011 4:07 pm

It seems to me that the Australian government needs to restore a sense of perspective, as stated above ‘Australia does not have a very big refugee problem’ and ‘fewer than 7000 people arrived by boat last year’. These facts need to be better communicated and emphasized to the Australian people if Australia’s somewhat institutionally racist mindest is to be improved. Such is the extent of racism towards Austalia’s indigenous peoples, it is sad to see that they are no longer even considered worthy enough in the eyes of the nation to constitute a political vote-earner, unlike carbon tax and asylum seekers. Australia’s government needs to stop and think before they become yet more defined by their negative attitudes towards prople of non-western nations.

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