My Place in Australian Politics

Woman in a crowded laneway looking at camera.

Image by Mike Wilson

You know how Buzzfeed has all those quizzes? Which Contemporary Artist Are You? Which “Twin Peaks” Character Are You? What Kind of Pocket Are You? Really, I’m not making that up. I need What Australian Political Party Do You Belong In?

There are several political parties, but the two major players here are the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and the Liberal Party of Australia (Libs). At first 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.

What’s the difference between the Labor and Liberal parties? The Labor Party represents the centre-left, which means what you might expect as an American, and is a self-described social democratic party. The Liberal Party is centre-right and represents Australian conservatism. So, yeah, in Australia, liberals are conservative.

When I first arrived in Australia, Labor was in power and Julia Gillard was the Prime Minister. She had ousted Kevin Rudd and, later, he ousted her. That may seem odd to Americans, but Australia has a parliamentary system; you vote for the party, not the person, and the party can make changes to its leadership. Rudd was no more popular the second time around. When election time arrived, the Liberal Party, headed by Tony Abbott, won.

When Labor was in control, discussions about the difference between it and the Libs were mostly about approaches to the economy. 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. In Australia, the discourse was mostly around jobs, taxes, and, to a lesser degree, education, but since Abbott has been in office, there has been a greater shift towards social issues.

Abbott is popularly viewed as being extremely conservative, in the American sense of the word – too religious, against marriage equality, sexist, unsympathetic to asylum seekers, environmentally irresponsible, and too strongly favouring the interests of the wealthy. In contrast, the Labor Party is viewed as the party of the people, as socialist parties often are.

The Labor Party is the party that creates a lot of social programs and enables a lot of people to get financial assistance from the government. The Labor Party creates a tremendous amount of debt in funding these schemes, but many people believe that’s okay. An interesting feature of Australian politics is that a lot of people believe the government ought to financially provide for them. It’s been quite a surprise to me to realize that many people I know are on some kind of government assistance even if they don’t really need it. People feel entitled to it and it’s not that hard to game the system.

To me, both Labor and Liberal seem extreme and I find it impossible to align myself with either party. I believe education and medical care are basic human rights, and that these should be affordable. I believe in social equality and in welcoming all refugees. I believe every political party should have a responsible environmental policy. I believe in investing in small businesses and in science and technology. I believe the arts are important. I believe people who are struggling should get the support they need to get on their feet. I don’t believe in throwing money at a problem and I don’t believe in keeping people on welfare indefinitely.

I was born on a communist island. My family fled an oppressive regime that has been in power for more than 50 years. There is a long list of Cuban atrocities, but I want to focus on two characteristics that communism cultivates in the Cuban people. One is that it makes people lazy. It makes them dependent on the government. They don’t want to work and they feel they shouldn’t have to. The second is a consequence of the first. It turns people into con-artists and they abuse a public aid system that is intended to help people who really need it. That’s what I see the Labor Party does and so I can’t support it. A January article in the Advertiser (from Adelaide) reported that 1400 South Australians have been claiming unemployment benefits for more than a decade. Australians call these people “dole bludgers”.

I may be oversimplifying. Australia is an expensive country to live in and the job market is tough. People struggle and so they look for government assistance to help them get by. The government creates programs, which need funding, which come from taxpayers, and so forth. It’s a vicious circle of problems.

In practice, this isn’t something I have to worry about; I can’t vote. Still, politics are important and the topic comes up. More often than not, I find it hard to engage in the daily political conversations.

For you expats that have been here a while, how is your understanding of the local political landscape? Are you able to align yourself easily with a political party?




  1. Not that I’m an expat…

    I’ve never aligned myself with Labor or Liberal. I cast my vote for more power to the Green party, which is slowly increasing over the years.

    The thing about Australian politics is that Labor or Liberal are always the two that will win, so as a voter your have to choose which are the lesser of two evils, know where your preference votes are going and then vote for a party that encompasses your views as best as they possible can, while sending their preference to the lesser evil so your party get a little more power in parliament and the lesser evil party governs for a while until you can rinse and repeat… The more seats your party hold in parliament, the more likely your views will get a say.

    I personally hate Australia’s voting system. I think it’s intentionally confusing so that new voters and lazy voters end up voting for the party in power to stay in, instead of having their vote count. But… I don’t see it changing in any hurry, so I guess you gotta work with what you’ve got!

    • Cosette Paneque

      The necessity of a green party is absurd to me (we have one in the USA too). Every political party should have a responsible environmental policy. As for the voting system, I can’t help but conspire to think that it is designed to confuse voters. It is so long and the way you have to order everything is crazy. Thanks for your comments, J!

  2. julesdownunder

    This is an excellent explanation of the party system here in Australia. As an ex-pat like yourself, I can’t vote here but I’m not sure I want to. I find both parties uninspiring and for the reasons you wrote of above, I would have difficulty aligning my vote to either of them.

  3. Wow, just came across your blog and fascinated to read this from an ex pat. I have been a long standing member of the liberal party but for the first time ever I have not renewed my membership. Our prime minister is an embarrassment and the party policies have turned vile in my opinion. As a person who works with asylum seekers this policy alone has me jumping up and down in anger most days. Thank you for a well worded blog about this crazy system and what you think each party should have policy-wise. I fully agree. I am quite disillusioned right now but hope that common sense will win out in the end. However, young Australians have developed an entitlement mentality like no generation before.

    • Yes, the treatment towards asylum seekers has been abysmal, embarrassing really for a nation that is progressive in so many ways. I hope we see a more sympathetic approach in the near future. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    • Cosette Paneque

      Yes, the treatment towards asylum seekers has been abysmal, embarrassing really for a nation that is progressive in so many ways. I hope we see a more sympathetic approach in the near future. Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

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