Five days after its July 2 election, Australians woke up Thursday morning to find that they still don’t know who will lead the next government — and that Standard and Poor’s is moving its ‘AAA’ credit outlook from stable to negative as political uncertainty reigns.
The only clear result of the first ‘double dissolution’ election since 1987 is that it might be days or weeks before Australians know who will hold a majority in either house of their parliament, with every possibility that both houses could wind up with no clear majority.
The other clear result is that the election is that, though his Liberal/National Coalition is growing closer to winning the narrowest of majorities, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull is the clear loser of the election. Just nine months into his premiership after he convinced his party to oust its prior (more conservative) leader Tony Abbott, Turnbull has lost at least 16 seats in the 150-member House of Representatives to the center-left Australian Labor Party (ALP). The Coalition, as things currently stand, is now trailing in the so-called two-party preferred vote (under Australia’s single transferable vote system) by the narrowest of margins — 50.09% for Labor to 49.91% for the Coalition.
For someone whose leadership pitch came down to electability, it means his days as prime minister might be numbered — even if the Coalition emerges with a majority.
Politics isn’t always fair, but Turnbull’s problem has always been that he’s a moderate in a conservative party.
I have no doubt that Turnbull, who has always been far more socially progressive than many other Coalition MPs, would like to accomplish some heady goals as prime minister. He’s been an ambitious man his whole life, and there’s no reason to believe that, with the right kind of mandate, Turnbull would like to solve several conundrums that neither the Coalition nor the Australian Labor Party (ALP) have been able to solve.
He might *like* to find a way to end the detention centers in Nauru and Manus Island without encouraging thousands of poor Asians to risk their live by getting on rafts to Australia, especially after Papua New Guinea’s supreme court ruled the Manus Island detention center unconstitutional.
He might *like* to have Australia’s parliament vote to pass marriage equality for gay and lesbian Australians and be done with an issue that now separates Australia from much of the rest of the developed world — almost all of western Europe, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.
He might *like* to redesign the failed carbon trading scheme that former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard enacted (and that Abbott, a few years later, abolished) as perhaps a business-friendlier carbon tax. After all, Turnbull lost his position as leader of the Liberal Party to Abbott in 2009 after he tried to compromise with the Labor government on climate change.
He might even *like* to take another run at an Australian republic after leading the pro-republic campaign in the failed 1993 referendum.
Since Coalition prime minister John Howard lost the 2007 election, and thereby leaving office after 11 consecutive years in office, Australia has changed prime ministers exactly four times.
That wouldn’t be so remarkable in an era of rapid change and economic anxiety — except for the fact that Australians have only gone to the polls twice since 2007.
Internal coups, unknown in the democratic and developed world outside Japan, within both the center-left Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the center-right Liberal Party (the dominant partner in the ‘Coalition’ with the more socially conservative National Party) have made politics in Australia possibly more exciting in between elections than during election campaigns.
Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull came to power only last September after ousting his more conservative predecessor Tony Abbott in an internal coup, as Liberal MPs in Australia’s House of Representatives began worrying about polls that showed Abbott would easily lose the next election. Those polls turned around when Turnbull, a more moderate figure who led the Liberal Party briefly from 2008 to 2009 and who led the 1999 campaign to transform Australia from a constitutional monarchy into a republic, became prime minister.
Labor leader Bill Shorten, in his own right, has managed to do in opposition what Labor couldn’t manage when it was in government for six years — remain united. Though Labor was elected in 2007 with a wide mandate for Kevin Rudd, he was ousted by his own deputy prime minister, Julia Gillard, within two years. Though she won a narrower mandate in her own right in 2010, the Labor caucus, in turn, ousted Gillard in mid-2013 when it appeared that she would not win the next election. Instead, they turning back to Rudd, who subsequently lost the 2013 election, however narrowly, to Abbott and the Coalition.
As Australia goes to the polls in a campaign that has been unmercifully long by Australian standards and mercifully short by American standards (eight weeks), neither Turnbull nor Shorten seem to inspire much confidence from the electorate. The two have spent the campaign tussling over issues from health care to the economy to LGBT marriage equality to immigration and, in the process, making voters like each of them less.
It’s a tight race. Polls show that the Coalition holds the narrowest of advantages, about 51% to 49%, over Labor in the so-called ‘two-party preferred’ vote — which reflects the outcome of a compulsory electoral system that features a preferential instant-runoff mechanism. It’s almost certain that the Coalition is doing far better than it would have been under Abbott’s leadership, though it’s almost just as certain that, even if Turnbull wins, it will be with a much reduced majority in both houses — and in each house, the balance of power may lie with third parties such as the Australian Greens.
Though both the center-right Turnbull and the center-left Shorten are sensible moderates well capable of governing Australia in a competent and centrist manner, voters seem to have tired of the internal scheming that have come to characterize both of the country’s two major parties.
Turnbull, once a moderate lion who championed climate change legislation, LGBT equality and an Australian republic, was forced by his more right-wing caucus to run on a platform around an AUS$48 billion corporate tax cut.
Shorten, who once vowed to defend the carbon trading scheme, is running on an ambiguous platform, shellshocked by the damage that Labor sustained in 2013 over what was perceived as a double mining tax and carbon tax. Those issues have become especially tender now that the Chinese economy has slowed and the global demand for commodities is somewhat subdued.
On gay marriage, both Turnbull and Shorten personally favor marriage equality. But Turnbull has been pushed towards supporting a nation-wide referendum on the matter, while Shorten has promised to call a vote in the Australian parliament if elected. The Labor position is that a plebiscite is a Coalition tactic to divide Australians that would bring unnecessary strife and animosity to the LGBT community (though Shorten in recent days has taken flak for once supporting such a vote).
Though the Great Barrier Reef is going through a horrific moment of coral bleaching, Australian politics is moving away from the carbon trading scheme (and mining tax) that Rudd promised, that Gillard enacted and that Abbott repealed. Ironically, Abbott ousted Turnbull from the Liberal leadership in 2009 after Turnbull tried to strike a deal with Rudd on the carbon trading scheme. Today, Turnbull, in thrall to his more conservative parliamentary caucus, would never sign up to a similar deal. Shorten, for his part, failed to stop the carbon trading scheme’s repeal last year.
In recent years, both parties have moved towards a more restrictive immigration policy. Both are now wedded to the policy of offshore detention of immigrants bound for Australia in subpar camps in Nauru and Papua New Guinea, notwithstanding a Papua New Guinean judicial ruling in April that called into constitutional question Australia’s immigration policy.
In some ways, the Australian election feels retro, like a British election a quarter-century ago. Australian commentators are still talking about ‘swings’ from the Coalition to Labor in a two-party world. That’s even as the Australian Greens stand to make even more gains in Saturday’s election, under the leadership of Richard Di Natale, a senator from Victoria, who took over the party’s leadership in May 2015. Nick Xenophon, an independent-minded senator from South Australia who came to power initially to oppose gambling machines in the late 1990s, is now leading a centrist ‘Nick Xenophon Team’ that could win seats in both houses.
The stakes are particularly higher in 2016, because Australia is having (for the first time since 1987) a so-called ‘double dissolution’ election, in which all 150 members of the parliament’s lower house, the House of Representatives, and all 76 members of the upper house, the Senate, are up for election. In most elections, only half of the Senate’s members are on the ballot — in other words, half of an Australian state’s 12 senators are up for election.
But the current Senate is deadlocked. While the Coalition has more seats than Labour (an advantage of 33 to 25), 10 members of the Senate belong to the Green Party and another eight senators belong to other small parties or sit as independents.
If Australia’s House of Representatives and Senate twice fail to agree on legislation, the government may prevail upon the governor-general to dissolve both the House and the Senate under section 57 of Australia’s constitution. In the current election, four bills qualify to trigger such a double-dissolution election.
Everyone expected that if Australia’s ruling Liberal Party were to lose the upcoming by-election in the Canning district, prime minister Tony Abbott would face an uprising against his hard-edged conservative style, even as rumors swirled that Abbott was preparing to call a special ‘double dissolution’ snap election that would involve members of both houses of Australia’s parliament.
No one expected that Abbott would face a leadership ‘spill’ even before the by-election, though it was abjectly clear that Abbott’s premiership was in danger as far back as February, when he defeated a leadership challenge by a vote of just 66 to 39.
Blindsided by a Liberal caucus worried about its fate in Australia’s coming election, which must be held on or before January 2017, Abbott’s internal party critics finally brought him down late Monday night, Canberra time, narrowly electing former leader and communications minister Malcolm Turnbull (pictured above) as the Liberal Party’s new leader — and, therefore, the leader of Australia’s Liberal/National Coalition government and Australia’s 29th prime minister.
Literally overnight, it brings a new government to Australia from the moderate wing of the Liberal Party — a new centrist prime minister who is LGBT-friendly, more likely to balance liberty and security, sympathetic to the fight against climate change and, above all, ready to signal a singular focus on Australia’s growing economic woes.
Turnbull — a moderate and a ‘small-l’ liberal
Turnbull is a moderate who has always been much more widely popular with the Australian public than Abbott, whose own prickly personality and economic and social conservatism dragged the current Coalition government firmly to the right. Six months into Abbott’s tenure as prime minister, Australia’s center-left Labor Party, under the new leadership of Bill Shorten, took the lead in polling surveys and never looked back. Labor now holds a healthy lead of between five and 10 points in most surveys on the two-party preferred vote (the measure when all third-party votes are distributed, through second preferences, to Labor and the Coalition, as the two largest parties).
Turnbull’s election will pull the governing Liberal Party back to the center of Australian politics after a two-year Abbott government that’s arguably one of the country’s most right-wing in history.
Turnbull is set to embrace a more urgent tone on economic policy, including a full-throated embrace of the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement (ChAFTA) signed in July 2015 and the multi-continental Trans-Pacific Partnership. Turnbull, in his post-election press conference, praised New Zealand’s prime minister John Key for enacting economic reforms and explaining them well to the electorate. Joe Hockey, the government’s treasurer (essentially the equivalent of finance minister), an Abbott loyalist who denounced Turnbull’s leadership challenge, seems certain to lose his role as the chief economic policymaker.
Turnbull also embraces a much more liberal view on civil liberties, even in an era of rising national security. Unlike Abbott, who firmly opposes LGBT marriage, Turnbull fully supports it and it’s reasonable to expect that he will allow the Australian parliament to hold a ‘free vote’ on the matter — if for no other reason than to lower tensions on the issue before the next election.
As a former environmental minister who once supported the opposition Labor Party’s attempt to introduce a carbon pricing scheme, Turnbull’s election will give Australia a much stronger voice as November’s global climate summit in Paris approaches.
The Canning by-election, scheduled for September 19, comes after the death of Don Randall, a sitting MP who was first elected to the Australian House of Representatives in 1996. The contest, which takes place in a district on the outskirts of Perth in Western Australia, is essentially too close to call, even though Randall and the Liberals easily won the seat in the 2013 election with 51% of the vote (and with 62% of the ‘two-party preferred’ vote).
Though the Coalition’s political troubles are in large part due to Abbott’s personal unpopularity, Turnbull’s election will not magically transform the perilous fundamentals for Liberal reelection hopes. The tanking price of commodities has hurt Australia’s mining-heavy economy, especially as China’s economy stalls after decades of double-digit GDP growth. If Turnbull waits until early 2017 to call fresh elections, Australia might well be in recession. Moreover, Turnbull may seek a personal mandate as the new Liberal leader — in 2010, Gillard called an election almost immediately after succeeding Rudd to legitimize her own premiership.
It’s difficult to say what the Turnbull coup will mean for Saturday’s by-election. The new prime minister may himself call snap elections earlier than absolutely necessary, despite the fact that the current government can expect to command a stable majority for the next 16 months.
Second time lucky
A Sydney native, Turnbull is a banker whose first involvement in Australian politics came in 1993, when he chaired the Australian Republican Movement, which aims to make Australia a republic with an elected president (and not a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state) — republicans only narrowly lost a 1999 referendum on creating such a republic. Though the 1999 fight brought together traditional allies from the right and the left, Abbott is a committed monarchist and he drew derision in January when he awarded a knighthood to prince Philip, Queen Elizabeth II’s husband.
Elected to the Australian parliament in 2004, Turnbull’s ascent was rapid and, in the final year of prime minister John Howard’s government, Turnbull served as minister for the environment and water. Though he won the Liberal leadership in 2008, discontent among the opposition’s right flank to the Labor carbon pricing scheme forced him out nearly a year later after Turnbull instructed his caucus to support the bill. After two leadership spills in a week, Abbott usurped the leadership in December 2009 after two ballots, by the narrowest margin of 42 to 41.
More than an unpopular mining tax or one of the world’s most progressive carbon trading schemes, Australian voters booted the last Labor government as a punishment for the personality-driven drama between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard who, in six years of government, traded the premiership twice and fought through four different leadership battles.
Rudd eventually returned to leadership in the summer of 2013 when its fickle members worried that sticking with Gillard would result in an electoral catastrophe. Labor lost the election anyways, and Tony Abbott, the conservative leader of the opposition Liberal/National Coalition, became prime minister.
Just 17 months after taking office, however, Abbott now faces the same dynamic, and Australia’s prime minister survived a ‘leadership spill’ earlier this week by a narrow margin of 66 to 39. If successful, the challenge would have opened the way for a direct leadership contest, presumably against either two more popular figures — communications leader (and former Liberal leader) Malcolm Turnbull or Australia’s foreign minister Julie Bishop, a rising star.
The leadership wobbles point to a growing trend of snap leadership contests that are reshaping Australian politics by narrowing the time horizons for leaders of both major parties. Though that makes party leaders conceivably much more responsive to their colleagues and it also gives individual government ministers more power and leverage, it correspondingly creates uncertainty and drives weaker leadership. Think, for example, of the rotating-door premierships so common in Japan or Italy for much of the post-war era.
Why Abbott was so vulnerable
Abbott largely did what he said he would do when he was elected in September 2013. He’s deployed enough military personnel and detained enough asylum seekers at detention centers in Papua New Guinea to sufficiently disincentivize immigrants from attempting the dangerous trek to Australia by boat. He successfully won enough support among the Australian Senate’s independents to kill both Rudd-Gillard era accomplishments — first, their landmark carbon trading scheme and, a month later, an unpopular tax on mining profits (that, in any event, raised far less revenue than initially anticipated). For good measure, Abbott finalized two key free trade deals, with Japan and with South Korea, at a time when the Australian economy is reeling from both China’s economic slump and a decline in global commodities prices. In the crisis over downed Malaysian Airline flight 370, he showed genuine regional leadership, especially in contrast to the Malaysian government. In Abbott, Australians got exactly the prime minister that was advertised — a passionate right-wing conservative not afraid of controversy.
Gough Whitlam served as Australia’s prime minister for just three years, but the tumultuous Whitlam era gave the country its most severe constitutional crisis, a universal health care program, diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China and a progressive statesman whose spirit continues to guide the Australian left today. Notably, his short-lived government was the only one headed by the center-left Australian Labor Party between 1949 and 1983.
Whitlam, who died today at age 98, left office in 1975 after Australia’s governor-general, Sir John Kerr, controversially dismissed him as prime minister, transforming Whitlam into something of a martyr. Whitlam lived for nearly four decades to watch seven more prime ministers come and go, including the internecine battles between the two prime ministers from within his own Labor Party between 2007 and 2013, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.
Whitlam personified the hope of the new post-war generation when he came to power in 1972, the first center-left prime minister in over two decades. Despite the opposition of the newly dethroned center-right Coalition of the Liberal Party and the Country National Party, Whitlam introduced a whirlwind of legislation. He created a national healthcare system, Medicare (initially ‘Medibank’), abolished student university fees, eliminated the federal death penalty, withdrew Australian troops from Vietnam and, most controversially at the time, recognized Beijing over Taipei. Within Australia, Whitlam delivered to the Northern Territory and the Australian Capital Territory representation in the Australian parliament’s upper house, the Senate, fought for environmental protections for the Great Barrier Reef (including a ban on offshore oil drilling) and delivered greater control over tribal lands in the Northern Territory for Australia’s indigenous population.
He introduced Australian, rather than British, passports and he replaced ‘God Save the Queen’ with an Australian national anthem. Decades later, he would team up with his former Liberal rivals to support an Australian republic in an unsuccessful 1999 referendum.
If the carbon trading scheme was the signature accomplishment of six years of Labor government, perhaps its second-most important policy achievement was the promulgation of a mining profits tax that came into effect in 2012.
But a month after Australian prime minister Tony Abbott successfully scrapped the carbon scheme, he’s now also managed to repeal the mining tax as well, which levied a 30% tax on mining profits. Ironically, the tax failed to raise anything close to the projections that the Australian Labor Party hoped, due in part a slowdown in demand for Australian commodities as China’s economy decelerates. Eliminating the tax was one of the chief campaign pledges that Abbott made in his campaign to defeat Labor last September.
Nevertheless, with the decision by Australia’s Senate to scrap the tax by a margin of 36 to 33, Abbott will easily pass the repeal through Australia’s lower house, the House of Representatives, where Abbott’s Liberal Party / National Party coalition holds a more solid majority.
As with the carbon scheme, Abbott secured the legislative victory with the support of Clive Palmer, a former mining magnate, and his new Palmer United Party, an alternative to the center-left Labor and to the center-right Coalition. Palmer holds the party’s sole seat in the House of Representatives, but the PUP holds three seats in the Senate, making it a key power broker in enacting Abbott’s policy agenda. Palmer himself is an often beguiling mix of ideologies, but he seems more at home on the right than on the left.
Palmer, who made millions as the owner of several coal and nickel interests, agreed to the repeal after securing the government’s support for several family-based initiatives. He also received a promise to freeze government contributions to Australia’s superannuation plan for nine years, forcing Abbott to rescind a campaign pledge, thereby halting a planned rise from 9% to 12% — employer contributions are now capped at 9.5%.
Under a policy introduced by former prime minister Paul Keating in the 1990s, agreed with business and labor unions, employers are required to make annual contributions to each employee’s ‘superannuation’ fund. The contribution level began at 3%, rose to 9.5% and was set to climb to 12% before the Abbott government’s latest decision, which would freeze contributions at 9.5% through 2025. That, in turn, has caused Keating and other Labor leaders to denounce the mining tax deal, arguing that it could derail the full potential of the superannuation program, which itself was designed to meet the rise of retirement-age Australians set to expand in the current decade and beyond.
Nevertheless, the deal leaves Labor in somewhat of a quandary under the leadership of former education minister Bill Shorten.
Australian voters aren’t exactly keen on Abbott’s government, which hasn’t had an incredibly easy first year in office — it’s been captive to small parties like Palmer’s in the Australian Senate and Abbott was also forced to shelve his plan to expand paid parental leave, one of his top campaign pledges last summer.
But it makes the drama of the last Labor government even more pointless. It now seems less relevant than ever if Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard was prime minister in 2010, because Abbott has, in about one month’s time, dismantled Labor’s two policy cornerstones. To have spent his first months as opposition leader railing impotently on the sidelines doesn’t make Shorten look like a prime minister in waiting, even as Abbott’s government suffers from its decisions on superannuation and paid parental leave.
In the end, Australian prime minister Tony Abbott didn’t have to call a special, massive ‘double dissolution’ election to roll back Australia’s carbon pricing scheme, the signature policy accomplishment of the six-year Labor government that preceded him.
All it took was some deft maneuvering to cobble together a working majority in the 76-member Senate, where Abbott’s Liberal/National Party holds 33 seats, just short of a majority.
Nevertheless, Abbott (pictured above) won a narrow 39 to 32 victory last month in the upper house of Australia’s parliament, on the strength of six additional non-Coalition votes to repeal the carbon trading market. Having been one of the first countries to adopt a carbon trading market, Australia on July 17 became the first country to repeal a carbon trading market.
That included the support of a mercurial former mining magnate named Clive Palmer (pictured above), whose maverick conservative Palmer United Party (PUP) became the swing vote in determining whether Abbott’s repeal push would succeed or fail.
The Labor Party’s new leader, Bill Shorten, led an unsuccessful push in alliance with the Australian Green Party, to oppose the repeal. Labor holds 25 seats in the Senate, while the Greens hold another 10.
Abbott’s resulting victory is primarily a triumphant tactical and policy victory for the Australian right, giving Abbott an easy talking point on reducing the price of electricity for the average Australian voter (though the real long-term impact of the repeal of a carbon scheme that had reduced emissions by less than 10 percent nationally is yet to be determined).
It’s also a narrative about the fragmentation of the country’s two-party system, as far as Australian senatorial elections go, with voters placing increasingly greater power in the hands of independent third-party candidates.
On the global scale, it marks a symbolic victory for opponents of similar climate change legislation worldwide, though the battle over carbon emissions was never going to be won or lost in Australia, a country of less than 23 million. Arguably, China’s decision in June, for the first time, to limit carbon emissions at the national level, will have a much wider impact on global climate change policy.
While British prime minister David Cameron continues to promote a progressive stand on climate change as an issue to pull his Conservative Party to the middle in the United Kingdom, there’s no indication that the UK is set to introduce any major climate change legislation on the scale of Australia’s experiment with carbon pricing beyond the EU’s own carbon trading scheme. Though there was a brief window in 2008 and 2009 when a carbon-based exchange system might have been enacted in the United States with bipartisan support, those days seem long gone. Nevertheless, the administration of US president Barack Obama and the US Environmental Protection Agency, however, introduced executive actions this summer that aim to reduce US carbon emissions by 30% by the year 2030.
Australia’s carbon scheme has its origins as one of the major promises of former prime minister Kevin Rudd’s widely successful 2007 campaign that brought the Labor Party back to government after more than a decade in opposition. It was, in part, Rudd’s decision to back away from climate change legislation that caused his Labor colleagues to dump him in 2010 in favor of then-deputy prime minister Julia Gillard.
After Gillard won a narrow reelection campaign of her own later that year, she enacted a comprehensive climate change bill in 2012, as well as a broader tax on mining profits (that hasn’t raised nearly as much revenue as expected).
The problem, both in Australia and beyond, is that the global financial crisis of 2008-09 left many national electorates wary of climate change legislation that, almost overnight, suddenly seemed much too costly to introduce at a time when so many developed countries were struggling with the highest unemployment and lowest GDP growth in decades.
That made Abbott’s pledge to repeal what’s popularly become known in Australia as the ‘carbon tax’ one of the most popular aspects of his agenda, which won wide support the parliamentary elections last September that brought Abbott’s Coalition into government. His recent victory in winning Senate support to repeal the carbon scheme will almost certainly rank among the chief legislative successes of his first year as prime minister.Continue reading How Tony Abbott killed Australia’s carbon trading scheme→
After today’s state elections in two Australian states, the center-left Australian Labor Party has lost power after 16 years in Tasmania and it may yet still lose power in South Australia, where the race remains too close to call.
If Labor hangs onto government in South Australia under premier Jay Weatherill, he’ll be the last Labor premier left standing in any Australian state, capping a catastrophic electoral run — just six years ago, Labor controlled the government in every Australian state. If the center-right Liberal Party emerges victorious in South Australia, Labor will control no state governments (though it remains in power in the Australian Capital Territory of Canberra).
In Tasmania, where Labor was believed to have had a better chance of hanging onto power, premier Lara Giddings lost her bid to win a fifth consecutive Labor government. With around 80% of the vote counted, Labor had won just 27% of the vote and six of the Tasmanian House of Representative’s 25 seats. The Liberal Party, under the leadership of Will Hodgman, who is set to become Tasmania’s new premier, will win at least 14 seats.
In South Australia, however, Weatherill could still remain premier, given the tight margin. Labor has lost ground, but not nearly as much as expected, and it’s been to the benefit of not only the Liberals, but also the South Australian Green Party. Going into today’s election, Labor controlled 26 seats in the 47-member House of Representatives (the lower house of the South Australian parliament), the Liberals controlled 18 and independents controlled three. As the final votes are counted, Labor now has 23 seats, Liberals hold 22 seats, and two independents seem increasingly likely to determine who will form the next government.
A conservative Liberal/National Coalition government under prime minister Tony Abbott swept into power last September at the national level, ending six years of rocky Labor government marked by infighting between supporters of prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Rudd initially brought Labor to power in 2007, but his Labor caucus pushed him out of office in favor of Gillard in 2010. Shortly before last year’s election and facing a landslide defeat under Gillard, the Labor caucus turned back to Rudd, who served as prime minister again for the final three months of Labor’s government. Both Rudd and Gillard have retired from politics, and former financial services minister Bill Shorten was elected Labor’s new national leader in October.
It’s hard to find anyone in Australia who lacks strong feelings about former prime minister Kevin Rudd.
Some Australians believe that Rudd is among the most talented politicians of his era, who led Australia’s Labor Party out of the wilderness and into government in 2007, who set the stage for a landmark carbon pricing scheme (that Australia’s new center-right prime minister Tony Abbott now hopes to repeal), and who earlier this year salvaged what would have been a landslide loss of devastatingly historical proportions under Labor prime minister Julia Gillard.
Some Australians believe that Rudd, for all his political gifts, is a temperamental figure who failed to push through legislative accomplishments and whose dysfunctional leadership inevitably led to the 2010 putsch that ousted him and installed Gillard as Labor Party leader and as prime minister. They also believe that his constant briefing after the 2010 leadership change almost fatally wounded Gillard and Labor in the August 2010 election, and that as foreign minister between 2010 and 2012, Rudd continued to harm Gillard to the point that a desperate Labor caucus turned to Rudd at the last minute in June 2013 to save them from impending electoral doom.
That’s why there was simply no way that Labor can fully move forward from the poisonous Rudd-Gillard era while Rudd continues to sit in the Australian parliament — and that’s why Rudd stepped down on Wednesday from his Queensland seat in the House of Commons, which he had held continuously since 1998.
As Rudd himself noted in his announcement that it was ‘time to zip,’ it’s become a precedent that former prime ministers on both the left and the right leave parliament shortly after losing elections:
“It was right and proper that I report my decision to the Parliament at the earliest opportunity. “That day is today. I have chosen to do so now to create minimal disruptions to the normal proceedings of the house.
“My predecessors as prime minister, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating, reached similar decisions to leave the Parliament before the subsequent election. As did would-be prime ministers, Costello and Downer, perhaps prime minister Howard would have done the same had he retained the seat of Bennelong, although we will never know.”
Hardly a month after the Australian Labor Party lost its bid for a third consecutive term in power under former prime minister Kevin Rudd, Australia’s chief center-left party has a new leader — Bill Shorten.
But Shorten, who won the leadership without the support of the party’s rank-and-file membership, will face an immediate showdown with prime minister Tony Abbott over scrapping Australia’s carbon pricing scheme, which in turn could lead to early ‘double dissolution’ elections within months that would favor Abbott’s Liberal Party (which governs in coalition with the National Party) — and that could see Labor switch leaders just as easily.
Shorten has his work cut out for him.
For now, however, the leadership victory caps a meteoric rise for Shorten (pictured above), who came to national prominence as the head of the Australian Worker’s Union between 2001 and 2007, when he was first elected to the House of Representatives on the wave that brought Rudd and Labor to power. As the AWU’s national secretary, Shorten attained national prominence for his role during the Beaconsfield mine collapse in Tasmania in 2006. Reelected in 2010, he was appointed minister for financial services and superannuation under prime minister Julia Gillard, and he took on the workplace relations portfolio in 2011. Shorten, who supported Gillard when Labor kicked Rudd out of office in June 2010, played a key role in backing Rudd in June 2013 when an increasingly desperate Labor Party caucus believed Gillard would lead them to an electoral disaster, and Shorten served for two and a half months under Rudd in 2013 as education minister.
But even under the more popular Rudd, Labor still lost the September 2013 elections, and the Coalition won a solid (if not quite landslide) victory, Gillard left parliament last June, and though Rudd was narrowly reelected in his Queensland district, no one expects him to play much of a role going forward — and if he follows the well-trod path of former prime ministers, Rudd will step down from parliament sometime within the next year.
Picking up the pieces of a defeated Labor Party — and facing down the conservative Abbott government — now falls to Shorten, who will benefit from a fairly united Labor Party supporting him. He certainly won’t face the toxic interpersonal, intraparty Rudd-Gillard schism that plagued Labor when it was in government, and new party rules adopted when Rudd most recently returned to the leadership mean that it will be especially difficult to remove Shorten from power.
In addition to the new rules for the leadership contest (described below), a 60% supermajority of the Labor parliamentary caucus (or 75% in government) is now required to remove a leader. That should slow Labor’s propensity to change leaders with such frequency — at least, unless Labor decides to change the rules to lower the threshold. The rules change dates not only from the poisonous Rudd-Gillard rivalry that so damaged Labor’s last stint in government — Labor went through five leadership changes the last time it was in opposition: former deputy prime minister Kim Beazley from 1996 to 2001, Simon Crean from 2001 to 2003, Mark Latham from 2003 to 2005, Beazley (again) from 2005 to 2006, and finally, Rudd until the successful 2007 election.
In the most recent leadership race, Shorten faced former deputy prime minister Anthony Albanese in Australia’s first dual leadership ballot — unlike prior leadership spills determined solely by the parliamentary caucus, the new rules require that the Labor caucus and the rank-and-file party membership hold dual votes — each vote has 50% weight in determining the final result.
That means that a leader can be elected despite losing a majority of the Labor caucus or of the Labor party membership and, sure enough, that’s what happened in the first contest under the new rules. While Shorten, traditionally Labor’s right wing, won 55 of the 86 Labor MPs (62.95% of the Labor caucus), Albanese, from Labor’s left wing, won 59.92% of the rank-and-file vote. So although Shorten lost the party membership by a wide margin, he won the combined vote with 52.02% due to his superior strength among Labor’s MPs. Continue reading Shorten set to lead Australian Labor through its wilderness period→
You’d be excused if you thought that Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s concession speech earlier today sounded more like the victory speech of a man who had just won the election.
In a sense, Rudd did win the battle against expectations — just barely. Even though Rudd will soon become a former prime minister and has already announced he will step down as the leader of the center-left Australian Labor Party, he can breathe a sigh of relief that Labor did not fare as poorly as some worst-case scenarios projected — either under Rudd’s return to the leadership or under former prime minister Julia Gillard. So Rudd was probably right to gloat in his speech that he preserved Labor as a ‘viable fighting force for the future.’ What Rudd didn’t have to say was his belief that Gillard would have led Labor to an absolute collapse.
With three seats left to be determined, the center-right Coalition government led by Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott has 91 seats in Australia’s 150-member House of Representatives to just 54 seats for Labor and two independents, with Adam Bandt, the sole MP of the Australian Greens, holding onto his Melbourne seat despite a strong Labor push. That’s a very strong victory for Abbott, who has picked up 18 seats, but it’s not a historic landslide — four of those gains come from seats formerly held by independents.
Rudd, on the other hand, can claim that his three-month leadership of the party helped avert a catastrophe, though we’ll never know whether Gillard would have done better or worse (and there are some reasons to believe that Labor should have simply stuck with Gillard through September).
You can get all of the seat-by-seat results here, and you can read the pre-election analysis of the marginal seats here.
Here’s the result of the primary vote count:
The most striking piece is that more than one of every four voters chose as their first preference someone other than a Labor, Coalition or Green candidate, and it corroborates that the election was more a statement of disapproval of the Rudd-Gillard governments than an embrace of Tony Abbott.
Polls are now open across Australia, where voters will elect all 150 members of the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Australian parliament, and a little over half of the 75 members of the Senate, the upper house.
If polling surveys prove correct, prime minister Kevin Rudd (pictured above, left) and the Australian Labor Party is facing certain defeat at the hands of Tony Abbott (pictured above, right), the leader of the Liberal Party and the center-right Coalition between the Liberals and Australia’s agrarian conservative National Party.
As we wait for results to come in later today, it’s worth taking a closer look at the voting to determine just what could happen.
Polls opened at 8 am and will close at 6 pm (for those of us on the east coast, polls close on Australia’s east coast at 7 am ET and on Australia’s west coast at 9 am ET). Voting is mandatory in Australia, with a fine of around A$20 for citizens who don’t participate.
Australia elects House members in single-member constituencies, but with a preferential voting system that ranks candidates (much like Ireland’s preferential vote). Each voter casts a ballot in one of 150 electoral districts throughout Australia. But instead of just voting for one candidate, voters rank their candidate to indicate preferences from first to last.
The so-called ‘primary vote’ is the tally of the first preferences of all voters. If, after the primary vote is counted, no candidate wins an absolute majority, the candidate with the lowest amount of support is eliminated, and the second preferences of the voters who preferred the eliminated candidate are distributed to the remaining candidates. Candidates are eliminated, and preference are allocated, until one candidate wins more than 50% of the vote. In reality, this typically means that all third-party candidates are eliminated, and the final count comes down to a contest between the Coalition and Labor — this is referred to as the ‘two-party preferred vote.’
So imagine a race with three candidate — Kevin, Tony and Christine. Suppose that in the primary vote, Kevin wins 35%, Tony wins 45% and Christine wins 20%. Christine would be eliminated, and we would look at the second preference of all of Christine’s voters. Suppose that Christine’s voters preferred Kevin and Tony equally — when the second-preference votes are added to the existing tallies, we would see that Tony wins the election with 55% to just 45% for Kevin.
The system for determining senators is even more complex because voters elect 12 senators for each state (in a typical election, voters select just six senators for each state, but in a ‘double dissolution’ election, voters sometimes choose all 12 at once). Senate elections are conducted with the same principles of preferred voting, but within statewide multi-member districts. I’ll spare you the details, but if you’re interested in how the vote count becomes exponentially more complex, feel free to watch this primer.
In the previous August 2010 election, neither Labor nor the Coalition won enough seats to form an absolute majority in the House — Abbott’s Coalition actually has one more MP in the House today than Rudd’s Labor (a 72-71), which means that Abbott needs to pick up just four seats to become prime minister:
Before the Kevin and Julia show, there was the Tony and Malcolm show.
The rivalry between the dueling camps of Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd and former Labor prime minister Julia Gillard is now legendary — Rudd came to power in November 2007 after waging a near-perfect campaign (‘Kevin 07’) that brought the Australian Labor Party back to power after over a decade in opposition. But his deputy prime minister Julia Gillard became prime minister in June 2010 after Rudd’s parliamentary colleagues wearied of his leadership style. Gillard led Labor to the narrowest of reelections in August 2010 in what remains a hung parliament. Rudd, who returned to government as Gillard’s foreign minister shortly after the election, challenged Gillard for the Labor leadership in February 2012 — and lost. But as Gillard’s poll standing deteriorated throughout 2013, Rudd’s supporters engineered another vote in June 2013, and so Rudd (not Gillard) is leading Labor into Australia’s election on Saturday.
What’s less well-known is that opposition leader Tony Abbott (pictured above) emerged as the leader of the Liberal Party (and the center-right Liberal/National Coalition) after engineering a leadership spill of his own in December 2009. After former prime minister John Howard lost his seat in the 2007 election, the Liberals turned initially to Brendan Nelson, but finally to Malcolm Turnbull as its leader in 2008. But when Turnbull pushed his party to support the Labor government’s carbon reduction scheme, Abbott challenged Turnbull and improbably won a 42-41 victory on the second ballot, giving the Liberals their fourth leader in three years.
It’s an understatement to say that Abbott has proven a hard sell to the Australian public — in some ways, Abbott is akin to the Barry Goldwater or even the Ronald Reagan of Australian governance, a conviction politician and a conservative’s conservative who will undoubtedly pull Australia to the right.
A staunch Catholic who once studied in seminary for a career in the church (nicknamed early in his career by the press as the ‘Mad Monk’), a boxer with plenty of appetite for aggression in Australia’s House of Representatives, and a conservative who once studied at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, Abbott is multifaceted and talented. But there’s no doubt that he’s socially and economically more conservative than Turnbull, Howard or Malcolm Fraser (prime minister from 1975 to 1983). Abbott also had more ties to the recently rejected Howard government than Turnbull, having served as employment minister from 1998 to 2003 and health minister from 2003 to 2007. Australian voters remained too hesitant about Abbott to hand the government back to the Coalition in 2010, but just barely. Today, the Coalition holds one more (72 to 71) seat than Labor in the House of Representatives, but independents and the Australian Greens have provided the Gillard/Rudd government a 76-74 majority since 2010. It’s a similar story in the Senate, where the Coalition already holds a 74 to 71 advantage over Labor, which governs with the support of nine Green senators.
Just as Rudd routinely garnered higher approval ratings than Gillard between 2010 and 2013, Turnbull posted higher ratings as well. Commentators in early 2013 daydreamed over the possibility that both of Australia’s major parties would dump their unpopular leaders in favor of their more charismatic alternatives.
But while Rudd and Gillard plotted and schemed over leadership, dragging Labor’s government and Australia into what amounted to a personality contest, Turnbull refrained from challenging Abbott for the Liberal leadership. The difference between the Labor approach and the Liberal approach is one reason why Abbott is a certain favorite to become Australia’s next prime minister.
Since returning as prime minister in June, Rudd has spent most of his time flailing — although a Newspoll survey showed Rudd’s Labor tied with Abbott’s Coalition as recently as July 8, Labor now trails the Coalition in the two-party preferred vote (i.e., after all third-party voter preferences have been distributed to Labor and the Coalition) by a 54% to 46% margin, according to the latest September 1 Newspoll survey.
But Rudd’s campaign has managed to do what even Gillard’s government could not — turn Abbott into a plausible prime minister. For the first time in the campaign, more voters prefer Abbott as prime minister (43%) than prefer Rudd as prime minister (41%) — that’s an astounding turnaround, given that an early August poll showed that voters widely preferred Rudd to Abbott by a 47% to 33% margin. Ironically, though Rudd was supposed to be Labor’s secret weapon in winning a third term in power, Abbott has so completely transformed his image through the course of the campaign that Rudd may now be saddled with the kind of landslide defeat that terrorized his Labor colleagues into sacking Gillard just three months ago.
If Abbott delivers the kind of victory that polls predict on Saturday, it will be in large part due to the self-destructive factional battles within Labor, but it will also have much to do with Abbott’s steady happy-warrior approach over the past four years.
So what will Abbott’s likely win mean for Australia as a matter of policy, beyond the presumable end to the instability of the Rudd-Gillard era?
Behind in the polls, despite the fact that supporters engineered his return as prime minister earlier this summer to boost the Australian Labor Party’s reelection hopes, Kevin Rudd is increasingly depending on his support for same-sex marriage to encourage young, urban voters not to abandon him in favor of the center-right coalition headed by Liberal Party leader Tony Abbott.
In a passionate plea on the campaign trail, Rudd confronted an opponent of same-sex marriage by arguing that supporting marriage equality is fully compatible with Christian faith, in one of the most memorable moments of the 2013 Australian campaign — and one that’s largely won cheers from Australians and same-sex marriage enthusiasts globally:
Challenged by a pastor on a Q&A programme on Monday night as to why as a Christian he did not follow the teaching of the Bible, that marriage was between a man and a woman, Rudd replied: “If I was going to have that view, the Bible also says that slavery is a natural condition because St Paul said in the New Testament ‘slaves be obedient to your masters’, and therefore we should all have fought for the confederacy in the US civil war.”
He added: “I mean, for goodness sake, the human condition and social conditions change. What is the central principle of the New Testament? It is one of universal love, loving your fellow man.”
It’s something worth watching in full:
While it might be a ‘West Wing’ or ‘prime ministerial’ moment for Rudd, it’s also perhaps one of the last tricks up Rudd’s sleeve to galvanize Labor enthusiasm ahead of Saturday’s vote — and to plant doubts about the social conservatism of an Abbott-led government.
Unfortunately for Rudd and proponents of same-sex marriage, most polls show that on the two-party preferred vote (Australians rank their preferred parties), Labor faces a 52% to 48% defeat. Although marriage equality has become one of the top issues in the election, it’s not nearly the only issue in the campaign — it joins Australia’s weakening economy, budget issues, how to handle the ever-growing influx of asylum-seekers, relations with Asia, a controversial Labor carbon tax, and paid parental leave, not to mention the stability, discipline and maturity of a Labor government that, over two terms, has purged a sitting prime minister twice.
Although Rudd has only came to the view that gays and lesbians should have the same marriage rights as other Australian couples, he campaigned in the 2007 election on greater marriage equality and enacted reforms in December 2008 as prime minister that delivered the same rights to ‘de facto partners’ as those enjoyed by cohabiting opposite-sex couples that included many of the key rights that married couples enjoy on joint taxation, inheritance, employment and entitlement.
After losing the prime ministership in June 2010 after an internal Labor revolt against his leadership style, Rudd returned three months ago after polls showed that Labor faced a catastrophic loss under former prime minister Julia Gillard. In that time, Rudd has not only become the first sitting prime minister to support marriage equality, but announced in the campaign’s first debate against Abbott that he would call a ‘conscience vote’ on same-sex marriage within 100 days of reelection. Although Abbott supported the reforms to provide same-sex partners with ‘de facto partner’ rights in 2008 and Abbott has a lesbian sister, he has insistently ruled out the possibility that a Liberal/National Coalition government would enact marriage equality.
The consensus is that prime minister Kevin Rudd, behind narrowly in the polls, had a better performance in the second leaders’ debate earlier in Brisbane, turning his underdog status as a way to poke holes in the platform of his rival, opposition leader Tony Abbott.
At one point, Rudd harped so much about the cuts that Abbott might make as prime minister that Abbott snapped, ‘Does this guy ever shut up?’
It’s a sentiment many of Rudd’s rivals — from former Liberal/National Coalition prime minister John Howard to Labor prime minister Julia Gillard, who Rudd deposed as Labor leader only in June.
But Rudd’s tenacity resulted in at least one major concession from Abbott — that Abbott’s plan to cover the costs of a $5.5 billion paid parental leave scheme are insufficient.
Rudd parried with Abbott on the carbon tax that Rudd initially championed, Gillard ultimately enacted and Abbott hopes to repeal. Rudd warned Abbott that the rest of the world, including the People’s Republic of China, is moving toward Australia’s carbon scheme — China launched its first experimental carbon scheme earlier this year in Shenzhen.
Rudd returned to his pledge from the first debate to introduce a bill legalizing same-sex marriage if Labor wins a third consecutive term, and Abbott reiterated his opposition to marriage equality, however gingerly — Abbott’s sister is gay:
All I can do is candidly and honestly tell people what my view is. I support the traditional definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. I know that others dispute this, because I have lots of arguments inside my own family on this subject now.
The two also bickered over asylum policy, an issue upon which Rudd and Gillard have now both made such a 180-degree turn that Labor’s policy on granting asylum to migrants who attempt to arrive in Australia by boat is now much tougher than the Howard government’s policy in the mid-2000s.
Rudd also repeatedly singled out Abbott’s record as health minister and he cheerfully alleged that Abbott cut $1 billion from public hospital budgets while in government. Abbott denied the charges, arguing that the Howard government cut the rate of growth in spending, and he asked Rudd to stop telling fibs.
In an early sign that the Labor leader needed a punchier performance than he had put in at the first debate nearly a fortnight ago, Mr Rudd capitalised first on the more flexible format of the people’s forum in Brisbane’s Broncos Leagues Club to accuse Mr Abbott of having ”ripped” $1 billion from hospital budgets and of planning further cuts. It was a charge Mr Abbott flatly denied after using his opening remarks to remind voters of Labor’s record in office.