I haven’t talked much about Australian politics on this blog because I struggle to understand it, but the political environment is so hot right now that I feel I need to say something especially for the benefit of my American Facebook friends puzzled by my updates on the subject (although my fellow expats and even Aussies are expressing confusion over recent events as well).
As an American expat, I think the best way to try and understand the politics of Australia is to forget everything you know about the politics of America. When I first arrived in Australia, I often compared the two government systems and I just couldn’t wrap my brain around some characteristics about the Australian system. For example, the two major political parties here are the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal Party of Australia (Lib). At a glance, this sounded to me like two sides of the U.S. Democratic Party, but in Australia, Labor and Liberal are different and liberal here means something else. But let me not get ahead of myself.
The Government of the Commonwealth of Australia is a federal constitutional monarchy under a parliamentary democracy. To keep it really simple, Australia has a national government and state governments each with their own areas of responsibility. The most important players are the governor-general, the prime minister, and the opposition leader (that is, the leader of the party that isn’t in power). The political landscape is dominated by two parties, as I mentioned above, Labor and Liberal, but there are other parties as well as Independents. Then there are many nuances. There is the local government, there are ministers and shadow ministers, the Cabinet, the High Court, and other powerful bodies that impact the political system.
So, what’s the difference between the Labor and Liberal parties? Well, I’m not entirely clear on that. The Labor Party represents the center-left, which means what you might expect as an American, and is a self-described social democratic party. The Liberal Party is center-right and represents Australian conservatism. So, yeah, in Australia, liberals are conservative, but even that doesn’t mean conservative quite like in the U.S.
Here’s an important consideration. When we talk about liberalism and conservatism in Australia, what we’re talking about is largely economic. In the U.S., we tend to divide social issues such as women’s rights, GLBT rights, and church and state issues along party lines. Those who are pro-choice or for marriage equality, for example, are generally described as liberal. That’s not the case in Australia. In fact, these issues seldom come up. The discourse is mostly around jobs, taxes, and, to a lesser degree, education.
Here’s another important consideration. In Australia, the wining party determines the Prime Minister. I’d elaborate, but I don’t have a good grasp of the electoral system and this suffices for now.
So what’s happened to bring on this post? We need to go back about three years. In November 2007, an election was held and Labor won. Kevin Rudd became Prime Minister and Julia Gillard became the Deputy Prime Minister. Rudd’s popularity and support declined over various policies and, in 2010, Gillard challenged his position by requesting a leadership ballot to determine the leadership of the Labor party, and hence the prime ministership. She won and became the first female Prime Minister of Australia.
It’s hard to characterize Gillard’s prime ministership. Some praise her for a strong economy while others say she’s driven Australia into deep debt. Some say she has acted positively on climate change while others criticize her for the carbon and mining taxes. Some praise her reforms in education while others complain she cut parental benefits. One thing that I’m certain of is that her prime ministership has been marked by sexism, not entirely unexpected for the first female Prime Minister or for any woman in a position of power. One thing I’m uncertain of is how unpopular the media claims she had become.
Gillard called for a general election in September. The public would have gone to the stands and vote Labor (and Gillard remained PM) or Liberal (and Tony Abbott becomes PM). But then something unexpected happened.
In the U.S., after a person has held the highest office, that is, the Presidency, after his term is over, he retires. He doesn’t become a Cabinet member or a Senator or a Governor or anything else; he goes away. But here in Australia, the former PM, Rudd, didn’t go away. He remained an active member of the Parliament and, over the last few months, he’s been on the campaign trail, for lack of an equivalent Aussie expression. I won’t get into the whole matter of campaigning today.
The media has been going on for weeks, perhaps months, about Gillard’s unpopularity, how the Labor Party is divided and imploding, and how it cannot defeat the Liberal Party under Gillard’s leadership come September. Additionally, there was speculation about what the heck Rudd was doing and if would he challenge Gillard.
On Wednesday evening, Gillard called for a Labor vote once and for all. What this means is that anyone within the party could challenge her for the Labor leadership and, hence, for the prime ministership. It was the last chance because the Parliamentary session would be ending and would not resume until late August, just weeks before the election. Rudd rose to the challenge. And won.
So now Australia has a new Prime Minister, the old Prime Minister. Make sense?