Tony Abbott’s Liberal–National coalition swept to power in the Australian general election, winning 909 seats to the Australian Labor Party’s 55, according to the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC), and easily passing the 76 threshold needed to form a government.
The campaign had been dramatic for Labor, with the outgoing prime minister, Kevin Rudd, ousting his colleague Julia Gillard for the party leadership (reversing Gillard’s own coup three years before, in which she deposed Rudd) just weeks before the polls. The putsch seemed to have given Labor a significant boost at first, as it closed the gap on the Coalition to a few percentage points. However, this fillip proved short-lived—one of the biggest turnoffs for the Australian electorate, it seemed, was the unedifying sight of Labor engulfed in civil war.
It was an emphatic win for the Coalition, although perhaps not as overwhelming as expected—a Sky News/Newspoll survey had predicted the opposition would win 97 seats to Labor’s 51, but a day after Rudd had conceded defeat, Labor still had more first-preference votes—33.8% to the Liberals’ 31.7% (up just 1.6%). On a two-party count, the swing was only 3.6%, according to the AEC. However, by including the votes garnered by the Liberals’ junior partners—the Liberal National Party, the National Party and the Country Liberal Party—the Coalition’s share was up to 45.3%.
Under Australia’s complex electoral system, the opposition coalition had quickly secured a decisive majority in the lower house. Whether they will control the upper house, however, was still unclear as The Round Table was going to press, but it seems likely that Abbott will have to broker deals in the Senate with ideological foes such as the Greens, as well as a ragtag mix of independents, to push his often controversial legislative agenda through parliament.
In his victory speech, Abbott crowed over the scale of the win and declared: ‘Australia is under new management and open for business.’ He also promised a government ‘that accepts the limits of power’, suggesting he will usher in an era of minimalist administration, which will please tycoons such as the iron-ore heiress Gina Rinehart.
Meanwhile, Rudd’s concession speech—a 22-minute peroration that thanked 24 Labor leaders and party workers but somehow did not get round to mentioning Gillard—looked for some positives in what was a dark night for Labor. He noted that all the cabinet ministers had held their seats and Queensland remained a Labor stronghold. Praising ‘a party of hard heads and soft hearts’, the outgoing prime minister said he had ‘preserved our federal parliamentary Labor party as a viable fighting force for the future’.
Nevertheless, the scale of the swing away from Labor prompted Rudd to declare that he would not stand again for the party leadership. Although credit was paid to the fierce campaigning by Abbott that had kept the Labor government on the back foot for the past three years (albeit as it struggled to push its policies through a hung parliament), it did appear that the swing was largely down to a vote against the incumbents.
This was underlined by the fact that the biggest gains were by ‘others’—groupings such as the Palmer United Party, a vehicle set up by mining tycoon Clive Palmer, who has claimed that Greenpeace is funded by the CIA, and the Australian Sports Party, which has no policies beyond a liking for sports. As a Guardian breakdown of the voting data showed, these fringe parties tended to be supported by less educated, rural or suburban voters who were in part-time or badly paid jobs, or with no job at all—and abandoning Labor in droves.
The economy, asylum-seekers and environmentally friendly taxes on carbon and mining were the main election issues. Surprisingly, Labor was not helped by enviably healthy economic data and the fact that it had steered the country through the global recession comparatively unscathed. Thanks to a decade-long Chinese construction boom sucking in natural resources such as iron ore, coal and liquefied natural gas, Australia has enjoyed 22 years of uninterrupted economic growth, with relatively low debt by global standards, unemployment at below 6% for more than a decade, and a triple-A rating from all three credit-rating agencies. Iron ore is Australia’s single biggest export earner, bringing in about A$60bn ($55bn) a year. According to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, China accounted for a quarter of Australia’s total exports in 2011. Exports to China grew from A$8.8bn in 2001 to A$77.1bn in 2011, representing average annual growth of 25.6%. The Australian dollar reached the symbolic landmark of parity with the US dollar and then for two years became the stronger currency. Despite this largely benign picture, though, Abbott pledged to boost economic growth by ‘living within our means’—controlling government spending with proposed cuts totalling A$42bn to ensure a faster return to budget surpluses.
Labor and the Coalition competed for the toughest position on immigration. Rudd agreed a deal with Papua New Guinea’s prime minister, Peter O’Neill, to send all asylum-seekers there, where they would be settled if found to be refugees, and signed an agreement for the fivefold expansion of its detention centre there to 3,000 places. It also said it would expand capacity in Nauru. Meanwhile, Abbott promised to use the Australian navy to turn boats back towards Indonesian waters, said refugees would no longer receive permanent visas and that those given visas would be required to work for their welfare payments. Labor and the Coalition were agreed on expanding the number of asylum-seekers who could be processed on Nauru.
In Abbott, Australia now has a climate-change denier in power. He promised to abolish the unpopular carbon tax imposed on Australia’s top 300 polluting companies in his first term. Brought in by Gillard in 2012, the 22.5% levy on the profits of iron-ore and coal projects was only on profits above A$75m. But the tax was not seen as a success, with the take expected to be far below initial estimates. Labor had promised to switch from a carbon tax to an emissions trading scheme by July 2014, linking it to a European Union scheme, which was predicted to reduce the carbon price and ease the costs on businesses.
New Scientist concluded that the election result ‘seems to be bad news for the climate … Australia is to abolish its emissions trading scheme, disband a climate advisory body and institute a carbon-reduction policy that experts say will fail to meet its meagre target. It will also scale back the country’s embryonic National Broadband Network and direct funding away from research projects it deems “ridiculous”.’
In an interview with ABC in 2009, Abbott said he was ‘hugely unconvinced by the so-called settled science on climate change’. A year later he told the national broadcaster: ‘The climate change argument is absolute crap’ and described the government’s emissions trading scheme as a ‘giant emissions trading scam’.
A staunch Catholic who once trained to be a priest, Abbott has a long history of similarly conservative, controversial comments, such as referring to abortion as ‘the easy way out’, saying vis-à-vis immigration that ‘Jesus knew that there was a place for everything and it’s not necessarily everyone’s place to come to Australia’ and prefacing a remark about the emissions trading scheme by saying: ‘what the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing …’ He opposes gay marriage rights, despite having a gay sister, though his opposition to gay marriage faces an immediate test after the Australian Capital Territory announced it would introduce legislation to legalise same-sex unions within weeks.
Abbott first came to prominence heading Australians for a Constitutional Monarchy, the group that opposed the campaign by former Labor prime minister Paul Keating to make the country a republic. Although Abbott was aRhodes scholar, and served nine years in John Howard’s cabinet, largely in employment and health, opinions about the prime minister designate vary widely. Despite this long ministerial career, ‘many questions remain about how he will handle the top job’, said a CNN analyst, noting Labor’s claim that the Coalition had a $70bn funding hole and would cut into health and education budgets. The New
Keating, his former adversary in the debate over ending the constitutional link with the British monarchy, was scathing, saying on ABC: ‘If Tony Abbott ends up the prime minister of Australia, you’ve got to say: “God help us. God help us.” He turned up in the last couple of years when I was prime minister—I used to regard him as a sort of resident nutter on their side.’
Another senior Labor figure, Anthony Albanese, was equally unsparing: ‘In your guts, you know he’s nuts.’
Within 24 hours, the internet was awash with clips of Abbott appearing nonplussed by fairly straightforward questions about his own policies or seeming unable to say anything while the cameras roll.
In what even seasoned commentators thought was a new low in Australia’s misogynistic political discourse, Abbott made a conscious appeal to the ‘larrikins’ and ‘ockers’ of Australian blokedom by using his two daughters as arm candy, or rather bait, in a cringeworthy video message shown to the Big Brother house (all the other leading candidates had a chance too, albeit with less of a viral effect). ‘If you want to know who to vote for, I’m the guy with the not bad-looking daughters,’ he told the incredulous contestants.
The support of Rupert Murdoch was crucial. The Australian-born media mogul’s newspapers—14 of Australia’s 21 leading daily and Sunday titles, with 70% of the country’s readership—heavily backed Abbott. The BBC said: ‘Under Mr Rudd, Labor initially saw its figures improve. But Mr Abbott, who enjoyed the strident support of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, then widened the gap again.’
News Corp’s Sunday Telegraph had a front-page photograph of Abbott and an Australian flag, above the screaming headline: ‘AUSTRALIA NEEDS TONY‘. Melbourne’s Sunday Herald Sun,also owned by News Corp, declared: ‘Australia cannot afford to keep the most dysfunctional and inept government in its history. After six years in which the government has declined from the inept to the disastrous … Mr Abbott deserves his chance and we believe he will be an outstanding prime minister.’
But Melbourne’s Fairfax-owned Sunday Age also came out for Abbott, if slightly reluctantly. ‘Ultimately, in the absence of policies and detailed economic information, voter decisiveness will depend on one issue: trust,’ its editorial said. It hailed Gillard’s reforms, including DisabilityCare and carbon-pricing, but concluded: ‘Labor’s legislative record has been strong, but it is Ms Gillard’s legacy, not Mr Rudd’s. There is still a question hanging over his ability to govern.’
On the eve of the election, Abbott described Murdoch as a ‘hometown hero’. The admiration was mutual: Murdoch tweeted his delight at the result: ‘Aust election public sick of public sector workers and phony welfare scroungers sucking life out of economy. Others [sic] nations to follow in time.’
To foreign observers and locals alike, the Australian polls raised serious questions whether the electoral system was creating a ‘democratic deficit’. Voting is compulsory in Australia. It is also complicated, leading to throwaway votes, known as ‘donkey votes’ (where candidates are numbered in the order they appear on the ballot), which have been estimated at between 0.5% and 1% of the national total.
With the Senate ballot paper reaching to one metre in length to accommodate 45 parties and 110 candidates, 40,000 magnifying glasses were issued to polling stations. Many voters simply opted for the first-placed party. Thanks to winning a ballot over which party came first, this gave the Liberal Democrats (a libertarian party unrelated to its British namesake) some success.
‘As a voter, you can either vote “above the line”, simply ticking one box beside your preferred party, or “below the line”, which involves ranking every candidate,’ the Independent wrote. ‘That process can take nearly an hour and requires “the skill of an origami artist, the dexterity of a contortionist and the eyesight of a hawk”, according to the ABC’s election expert, Antony Green.’
Abbott may face tough negotiations over core election pledges if the electoral arithmetic of allocating preferences under Australia’s complex voting system leaves the Greens holding the balance of power in the upper house. TheDaily Telegraph, in an article entitled ‘Six people who hold the balance of power in Australia’, criticised electoral rules that mean votes are ‘swapped’ between parties, allowing seats to be won with as little as 0.2% of the vote—or 1,900 votes—in the case of the Australian Sports Party (party slogan: ‘Are you more interested in sports than politics?’).
The New York Times noted that the party’s leader, Wayne Dropulich, who was on course to become Western Australia’s newest senator, had no stated policies beyond encouraging sports, but with preferences from other small parties, he was likely to defeat a Labor candidate who had the support of 12.7% of the state’s voters.
Similarly, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party—whose leader Ricky Muir has suggested George Bush was responsible for the 9/11 attacks—appeared likely to win a seat with just 0.5% of the vote. Other fringe partiesenjoying their moment in the sun included the Australian Stable Population Party, which wants to cut off government payments to families after they have two children, and the Outdoor Recreation Party (Stop the Greens), which campaigns for the right to go ‘bush-bashing’ (driving 4´4s around national parks).
Meanwhile, writing in the Canberra Times, Benjamin Jones, an academic, noted that in a country that led the way in extending the vote (the self-governing British colony of South Australia was behind only New Zealand in granting votes for women in 1895—although this right was not extended to all Aborigines until 1962), Australia was seeing more and more young voters demonstrating their apathy by failing even to register. The AEC revealed that one in five Australians between the ages of 18 and 24 had not registered to vote. This, it seems, was largely down to a feeling that none of the parties spoke to the concerns of young people together with a lack of trust in politicians—a recent Age/Nielsen poll suggested just 36% of Australians trusted Rudd, with Abbott winning the confidence of only 43% of the electorate.
Finally, in a bit of news that cheered this writer at least, the first Aboriginal woman was elected to the federal parliament. It is not the first time Nova Peris, who will represent the Northern Territory for Labor, has created new possibilities for her community: in 1996 she became the first Aboriginal Australian to win an Olympic gold medal (in women’s hockey at the Atlanta games) and also won gold as a relay sprinter at the 1998 Commonwealth games in Kuala Lumpur.