The Auspol Election Spill 2013

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?




  1. This is a good overview of Oz politics, Cosette, and it’s interesting to me because it’s from outside the square so to speak.

    I’m an Australian freelance cartoonist and so keep an eye on our politics looking for material. Smorgasbord over the last couple of years.

    You pointed out a significant difference in our systems (and please correct me if I’m wrong).
    Under normal circumstances, the elected President can’t be replaced by the whim of elected members of government, whereas in Australia, the Prime Minister can be replaced by the elected members of the government if they so desire, and follow all applicable rules.

    That has happened 5 times in our political history.

    The Australian media also play a big (unofficial) part, and can be a strong influence in the election and survival of politicians and their parties.

    Some social media has become quite ugly with unnecessary nasty hatred towards politicians and I feel it’s an unfortunate blot on our landscape. But minorities will do that !

    In the meantime, Cosette, ignore our odd politics and enjoy your time in Oz.

    • Thank you for your comments. You are correct regarding the difference on the replacement of leadership. In the U.S., the President may be removed from office only through the legislative process of impeachment for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.” It’s a sort of trial. Only two Presidents have ever been impeached, Andrew Johnson (1868) and Bill Clinton (1998), but both were acquitted and allowed to remain in office.

      Another important difference, I think, is that the American Presidency has a term limit. The term of office is four years and and a maximum of two terms.

  2. Forgot to mention,,, samples of my political cartoons can be seen here …

  3. Great summary of a hard to sum situation!

  4. My husband tried to explain it to me like this: The Democrats in the US just fired Obama and put Joe Biden in charge as president. Another friend explained that Aussies vote for a party and the party elects their leader. Made a little more sense but not really, lol.

    • I’ve been offered similar explanations, but then I just had more questions (like, “Why?” and “How is that possible?”) and about the role of citizens in the electoral process. In the end, I don’t find the comparisons between Oz and the U.S. all that helpful.

  5. The Oz system is based on the UK system where we too can replace a leader mid-term if the party (in or out of power) feel that the public dislike them or their policies. For instance, we are not keen on the Tory policies at the moment but don’t have a particular problem with the Tory ( Conservative) leader David Cameron. But, if he were to call an election now, I’m not sure Labour could win because their leader is viewed as a joke. Chances are they’d have to quickly vote themselves a new leader before going to the polls. Our third party, the Liberals couldn’t win an election since they have become hated as the party who became the balance that enabled the Tories to form a Government since they didn’t win enough seats for a majority at the last election. The Liberal leader was appointed Deputy P.M. on the strength of that alliance but is viewed with dislike as in return for the alliance he had policies changed that the people wanted ( eg. a referendum on leaving Europe ).
    I hope that makes some kind of sense. xx Hugs xx

    • That made my brain hurt a little. One of my biggest questions about this system is what prevents the constant turnover of a new PM? It seems unstable to have a PM in office for a while and then boot him/her because s/he becomes unpopular.

  6. The whole thing kind of makes me wonder what the point of compulsory voting is.

  7. Hi Cossete,

    Like you, but in reverse, I had a lot of trouble getting my head around the liberal vs conservative thing when I lived in the US. As you know, our politics are very different, but what I think is hard to understand for people from countries with presidents, is that the Prime Minister is not like a President. We don’t vote for the leader, we vote for the party.

    Well, that’s how it used to be back in the ‘good ole days!’ Unfortunately, the reasons for this latest debacle is because Australia is beginning to place far too much importance on the leader. The other change that appears to be happening as the years go by, is that politics has become more about getting the vote, than doing what is right for the country. Everybody loses when that happens.

    I love that we have compulsory voting. Living in countries that don’t have it, I am saddened by how few young people bothered with politics. When Australians turn eighteen, they can choose to ignore the value in having a say by turning in a donkey vote, but many will think about how they will vote. It is a privilege to be able to have a say in how our country is run and one we should all cherish. There are battles being fought right now by people who would love to have the rights we have.

    Regarding this latest incident – well, I’m just annoyed with the politicians, the media that caused this frenzy, and the public who get misled by the same media. The less I say, the better. 🙁

    • Juli, I read commentary this week on what you observed, that the prime ministership is increasingly being treated like a presidential position where voters are being asked to support a candidate.

      Regarding compulsory voting, I’d love to give both the U.S. and Australia a shake one year. Voter turnout in the U.S. is very low and I’d love to see whether Aussies would turn up at the polls in great numbers if they didn’t have to and what kind of message that would send the government. Just a crazy experiment.

  8. Woah, I was totally unaware of all this turmoil in Australian politics. I vaguely knew you could replace a PM in the UK but I didn’t know the concept also applied to Australia. The concept of having your president/PM replaced without a general election is so foreign to me, but you did a pretty good job of summing it up. So essentially the Australian government rehired their former PM. I suppose if a one term American president decided to run for a second term after losing a potential second term, he could? Is that allowed in the US? I don’t even know.

    Do Australians PMs have term limits? Could Julia Gillard run again if she wanted to?

    • The 22nd Amendment prohibits a person from being elected to the presidency more than once if that person had previously served as president. This does not apply to any person holding the office of President, which is why s/he can run for a second term.

      There are no term limits for the Australian prime minister (Robert Gordon Menzies was PM for 18 years!), but Julia Gillard can’t technically run for a few reasons. First, there isn’t really such a thing as running for PM. The prime minister is the leader of the party with majority support in the House of Representatives. Second, when she called for the Labor vote that led to Rudd replacing her, she said that the loser should retire from politics. Will she keep to that? I don’t know, but I can’t imagine she could draw up the support to find herself in the position of prime minister again (though I’m sure some people said the same thing about Rudd back in 2010).

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