Daily Archives: August 20, 2010

Election Preview: Australia 2010

Australia will go to the polls on Saturday August 21 in an early federal election. All 150 seats in the House of Representatives as well as 40 of the Senate’s 76 seats will be up for re-election. This is a traditional half-Senate and full-House election, which come about normally unlike double dissolution elections where the entire Senate is up for re-election, which can happen if the Senate blocks House legislation twice in three months.

Voting System

All 150 seats in the House of Representatives are elected in single-member electorates or electoral divisions through preferential voting. Preferential voting, also known as IRV or AV, is fairly unusual in countries using single-member districts, most of which use Westminster-style FPTP voting. In the House, voters must number all candidates on the ballot in order of their preference. If no candidate has a majority of first preference votes, the lowest-placed candidates are eliminated and their votes are distributed based on the second preferences of their voters. This means that in the end, the winner of the seat will have a majority of the votes and is thus the ‘most preferred’ candidate. While preferential voting allows smaller parties to exist and sometimes win seats, the preferential voting system is not intended to be a proportional system and has thus maintained a two-party/coalition system in Australia. Furthermore, mandatory preferential voting can be hassle for voters who don’t know all the candidates standing and can lead to informal (invalid) votes or donkey voting. However, parties often hand out how to vote cards to potential voters outside booths, instructing voters intending to vote for party X on how to number their preferences to ensure either the victory of party X or the victory of the major candidate most preferred by party X. The two-party preferred result, or 2PP, indicates the results where preferences have been distributed to the major sides of politics. Nationally, the numbers are a Labor vs. Coalition matchup, though in some electorates, Independents or Greens can get into the 2PP count.

Australia’s Senate is an oddity in the Westminster system in that it is far closer to the American Senate than to the Canadian Senate. Australia’s Senate ensures the equal representation of all states (12 seats per state and 2 seats per territory) and, since 1948, also ensures proportional representation of parties within a state. This is done through use of STV, single-transferable vote, which is also used in Ireland and Malta. Parties nominate a slate of candidate (not necessarily six) which form a party list. On the ballot paper, voters have the option of voting above the line or below the line. 95% choose the simpler first option, which consists of placing a ‘1’ in the box next to the party of their choice. When voting below the line, voters must indicate their preference order for all candidates, often numbering up to 50-60, which explains why only 5% of voters vote below the line. The widespread use of above the line voting often leads independents to group themselves and form a slate, though same candidates remain ungrouped, and thus can only receive primary votes from the few below the line voters.

Senators facing re-election in 2010 are those elected in October 2004 and whose terms expires on June 30, 2011.

Voting in Australia, of course, is mandatory.

Political History

Australia has always had a two-party system of sorts, rarely challenged by outsiders, some of whom were integrated into the two party or two coalition system.

In 1901, in the first election following Federation, two main blocs opposed each other. On one side, Edmund Barton’s ‘governing’ Protectionists, who advocated high tariffs on imported good, and George Reid’s Free Traders, who, obviously, advocated dismantling the tariff system. The Protectionists, who were the de-facto governing party and whose ranks including high-profile colonial political leaders, won 31 seats to the Free Traders’ 28 seats, meaning that they were dependent on support from 14 Labor MPs, who allied with Barton’s Protectionists in return for legislative concessions. Protectionists found most of their support in Victoria, whose economy was more dependent on mining and farming, while Free Traders largely dominated urban New South Wales with its large trade-dependent economy.

Legislative concessions granted to Labor in the first government included the 1901 White Australia policy. In the 1850s, the Gold Rush in Victoria had led to an influx of Chinese immigrants, which later led to social tensions when gold became scarcer. The labour movement was also wary of Asian immigration, fearing that Chinese and Japanese immigrants would take jobs away from white workers. In 1901, a White Australia policy enjoyed widespread quasi-unanimous support.

Stepping down to join the High Court in September 1903, Barton was succeeded by Alfred Deakin, a Protectionist, who led the party into the December 1903 elections in which the Labor Party made significant gains at the expense of the Protectionists. Labor became a thorn in the side of the Protectionists who found themselves unwilling to support Labour’s more radical legislative demands. Unable to pass legislation, Deakin resigned and was followed by Chris Watson, the first Labor PM in the world, who was also tied down by lack of support in the House. The rejection of a compulsory arbitration act in 1904 and Watson’s failure to get a double dissolution let George Reid form a minority government which was largely a caretaker government which waited on the Protectionists and Labor to patch up and re-form government, which they did in July 1905 under the leadership of Deakin.

Deakin’s second government was largely successful, passing extensive legislation including compulsory arbitration of labour disputes, expanding the High Court to 5, arranging Australian control of Papua, passing the first protective tariff and taking the first steps in the creation of an independent Australian navy. Despite Deakin’s successes, the Protectionists further lost ground in the 1906 elections, losing 10 seats to independents, Labour and the Free Traders – now known as the Anti-Socialists. Deakin was forced from office by Labor’s Andrew Fisher. Fisher’s first government established Canberra to be the new capital and laid the blueprints for the new Australian navy and sought to extend federal power over labour, wages and pensions.

The rise of Labor and the subsequent disappearance of the middle-ground in Australian politics moved the Protectionists and Free Traders, who shared the same outlook on most realms except tariffs, further to the right. In 1906, the Free Traders became the Anti-Socialist Party, showing the switch in the party’s outlook from defense of liberal values such as trade to conservative values such as opposition to rising socialism. While George Reid was more lukewarm towards the change in the party’s orientation, his successor as party leader in 1908, Joseph Cook, was not, and acquiesced in 1909 to Deakin’s proposal to ‘fuse’ the two parties into the Commonwealth Liberal Party. As a result, Fisher was ousted from the premiership in 1909 by Deakin, who led the new party into the 1910 election.

1910 saw the first majority government in Australia, and it was formed by Fisher’s Labor who had soundly defeated Deakin’s Liberals, with 42 seats to Deakin’s 36 seats. Fisher’s government, which held a majority in both houses, passed 113 acts, a high point of parliamentary activity and the Labor Party’s legislative action. His government’s reforms included new old-age and disability pensions,  maternity allowance, workers’ compensation, Australia’s first paper currency and founding the Royal Australian Navy among others. However, 1911 and 1913 attempts at nationalisation of monopolies were voted down in referendums and Fisher finally lost the 1913 election to Cook’s Liberals by a mere seat (37 to 38) but Labor retained control of the Senate.

Cook argued that Senate control was necessary for him to govern and intentionally introduced legislation which the Labor-held Senate in order to force a double dissolution election in September 1914. However, Fisher reminded voters, in the midst of the first shots of World War I, that Labor had supported an independent defense force, something which the Liberals had opposed. As a result, Fisher’s Labor won him a third non-consecutive term.

Following Australia’s rout in the Dardanelles Operation in 1915, Fisher, finding the war taxing on his health, stepped down ceded his spot to a veteran Labor MP, Billy Hughes. Following massive loses in 1915 and 1916, Hughes became a supporter of conscription, something advocated by the army and conservatives but opposed by Labor’s Catholic and union base. A plebiscite on conscription was voted down in October 1916, but Hughes was unwavering in his support of conscription. The debate over conscription highlighted a split between Australians who were keen British Imperialists and ready to stand by the mother country, and other more nationalist Australians who were not so keen on steadfast allegiance to the old mother country. Labor’s base being made of Irish Catholics, socialists and trade unionists; Hughes found himself in a tough spot and his abrasive personality didn’t help his case. In September 1916, he was expelled from the party and founded the National Labor Party, a name which reflects the nationalist (meaning British Imperialist-nationalist, of course) nature of the party. Hughes concluded a confidence and supply deal with the Liberals to stay in power, but this deal quickly turned into a new party, the Nationalist Party, in 1917. The new party won the confidence of Australian voters who handed Hughes a large victory in the 1917 election, when he won 53 seats to Labor’s paltry 22.

Big and small farmers, especially wheat farmers, a traditionally conservative electorate, grew dissatisfied with Hughes’ economic policies, which reflected his left-wing past. For example, he retained a high tariff protection and supported price controls on rural produce. Between 1918 and 1920, they participated in the foundation of the Country Party, a party dedicated to the defense of farmers’ interests and the representation of ‘regional Australia’. The emergence of a new force on the right in a FPTP system threatened the conservative control of government, and would allow Labor to win seats on the basis of right-wing vote splitting, as happened in the 1918 Swan by-election. The results in Swan led Hughes’ government to pass an electoral reform establishing Australia’s current preferential voting system which would prevent a Labor win on sole basis of split in the right-wing vote.

In Versailles in 1919, where Hughes signed the Treaty of Versailles for Australia, he engaged in bickering with Wilson, whom he hated, and made sure Japan’s racial equality proposal (an attack on the White Australia policy) was struck down. An opponent of the League, which he viewed as flawed idealism, he also was a key supporter of demanding tough reparations on Germany and was wary of Japanese expansionism in Germany’s former Pacific colonial holdings.

Re-elected in 1919, Hughes faced increasing opposition from the Nationalist Party’s old liberal base, who were wary of Hughes’ support for continued government ownership of various companies. Yet, they stuck with him (save for a few dissidents), mostly in the interests of keeping Labor out of power. The Nationalists lost their majority in 1922, where they won 26 seats to Labor’s 29 and the Country Party’s 14, a result which gave Country leader Earle Page the balance of power. Page formed a coalition with the Nationalists, but indicated that they wouldn’t work with Hughes. The conservative faction of the Nationalist Party were all too happy to get rid of Hughes and they forced him out of the job in favour of his Treasurer, Stanley Bruce, who formed a coalition with the Country Party, conceding key posts (5/11) to his junior ally. An aristocratic ‘Tory’, who was also the first to preside over an entirely Australian-born cabinet, Stanley Bruce maintained a conservative policy which was anti-communist, pro-British and a key supporter of the White Australia policy, which he used as a campaign issue in 1925, when his coalition won an even larger majority over a demoralized Labor Party. During Stanley Bruce’s tenure, Australia returned to minding its home affairs, inciting British immigration, exporting its mineral and agricultural products, strengthening and protecting its economy. Stanley Bruce’s majority was reduced in 1928, but he managed to hold on.

His 1929 demise was brought upon first by a series of strikes, to which he responded by proposing the abolition of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. Billy Hughes and other Nationalist backbenchers got their revenge on Bruce and defeated his government, sending voters to the polls again in 1929 (a House-only election). James Scullin’s Labor Party won 46 seats to the coalition’s 24.

Scullin took office two days before the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which heavily impacted Australia’s economy, heavily tributary to international markets and British banks. Unemployment soared while profits from exports (notably wool) dwindled. Scullin’s new government and his party was split into three camps over the government response to the Depression. Scullin, guided by orthodox advice, was resigned to supporting orthodox salary and spending cuts (in which he was supported by Joe Lyons). His first Treasurer, Ted Theodore, was a Keynesian and advocated deficit financing to get out of the recession. Further on the left, NSW’s radical Premier, Jack Lang, advocated repudiating his state and the country’s debt towards Britain. Theodore was forced out in 1930 over a scandal, which led Joe Lyons to become acting Treasurer while Scullin spent most of 1930 in London. However, in January 1931, he re-instated Theodore as Treasurer, which led Lyons and his orthodox allies to join up with the Nationalists to form the United Australia Party (UAP) while Lang’s supporters founded a dissident Lang Labor group which finally allied with the UAP to pass a motion of no-confidence in Scullin in November 1931, forcing a snap election.

A divided Labor Party was swept out of office by Joe Lyon’s UAP, which won 34 seats (+16 Country) to Labor’s mere 14, joined by 4 Langites. Joe Lyon’s new government, formed only by the UAP, continued orthodox policies, and benefited from the gradual recovery which allowed Australia, by 1934, to resume its pre-Depression lifestyle. On the foreign stage, Lyons also supported the League and the British government’s appeasement of Germany though Lyons did build up the army. He was re-elected in 1934 and 1937, though in both those elections the UAP needed to form a coalition with the Country Party, which won its best result (15.6%) in 1937. The gathering war clouds depressed Lyons the pacifist, who was suffering from opposition within his party, coming from the young talented Robert Menzies. Lyons died in April 1939, and was replaced by Robert Menzies, who defeated Billy Hughes for the leadership of the UAP, although the Country Party refused to serve under Menzies until Page resigned the Country Party’s leadership in 1940. Presiding over Australia as a war-time Prime Minister after September 1939, Menzies’ leadership was judged to be uninspiring and voters had memories of the pro-appeasement Menzies who visited Germany in 1938. The UAP very nearly lost the 1940 election to Labor, winning 36 seats to Labor’s 32, and even lost the two-party preferred tally. Menzies’ government, which now included Archie Cameron’s Country Party, governed with the support of two independents). While he was in Britain conferring with Churchill (some say Menzies had his eyes on Churchill’s job in London) in early 1941, Menzies lost party support back home and was forced to resign in August 1941. The UAP, bereft of leadership, allowed the Country Party’s Arthur Fadden to form government, also reliant on the support of two independents, who in October 1941 voted his budget and allowed Labor’s John Curtin to become Prime Minister, with the strong backing of the two independents guaranteeing stability.

Threatened in its own backyard, Curtin shifted the country’s war policy towards the Pacific, where Japan’s unstoppable advances threatened Australia itself. In December 1941, Curtin pleaded to the United States for support in the Pacific, signaling a shift in Australian foreign policy from a close alliance with London to a close alliance with Washington. While Roosevelt was not fond of Curtin’s appeal, which he judged desperate, Curtin found a key ally in General MacArthur, who would be Curtin’s voice in Washington.

Even after the fall of Singapore in 1942 and the rising fear of a Japanese attack on Australia, Curtin was able to rally his country behind the war effort with success. It won him and his party a landslide in the 1943 election, in which the UAP was so bereft of leadership (its nominal leader was Billy Hughes) that the Country Party’s Arthur Fadden led the Coalition. The Coalition came out with only 19 seats and 42% of the 2PP, against 49 seats and 58% of the 2PP for Labor. Yet, a 1944 attempt by Curtin to give the government temporary control over resources and the economy was struck down in a referendum that same year.

Curtin died in office in July 1945 and was succeded by Ben Chifley, his Treasurer, who defeated Curtin’s deputy, Frank Forde. With the strain of the war effort over, Chifley’s government focused on the Labor Party’s democratic socialist ideals at home. This included a system of subsidised medicine for Australians, the foundation of Qantas and TAA, a social security scheme for the unemployed, the creation of Australian citizenship and finally laying the groundwork for an ambitious hydroelectric station in the Snowy Mountains. In 1948, the preferential block voting in the Senate was replaced by STV, an attempt to make the Senate more representative – block voting had allowed massive landslides for one party, most recently for the ALP in 1943. Chifley’s Labor Party won the 1946 elections easily, with 43 seats to the Coalition’s 26. The Coalition was now led by Robert Menzies, who had returned following Billy Hughes’ 1943 creaming. He found a moribond UAP whose branches lacked activity. Menzies was convinced that conservative opposition to the ALP needed to be re-organized, which he did in 1945 with the Liberal Party. Yet, Menzies still lost the 1946 election and criticism of his leadership abounded within the new party.

However, rising anti-communism in the Cold War context and domestic events provided for a conservative comeback. In 1947, Chifley announced a plan to nationalize the banks, something which was violently opposed by the press and the middle-class (the plan was struck down as unconstitutional). In 1949, a long strike in the coal industry allowed Menzies to play on an image that the ALP was soft on communism (the Communist Party of Australia never was a major party at any time). That same year, the Coalition swept Chifley out of office, with Menzies’ Coalition winning 74 seats to Labor’s 47. However, Labor retained the Senate.

Labor control of the Senate made life miserable for Menzies’ first government and his government attempted throughout 1951 to win a double-dissolution election. Menzies proposed a bill banning the Communist Party, hoping that Labor would reject it. But they accepted it. It was only after Labor rejected a banking bill that Menzies got a double dissolution. In a tight election, the Coalition won 69 seats to Labor’s 52, losing 5 seats overall, but did gain control of the Senate. Economic conditions deteriorated, which gave the ALP, and its new leader, H.V. Evatt, a boost ahead of the 1954 ballot. However, Menzies announced that a Soviet spy had defected and revealed the existence of a large spy ring in Australia. The Liberals jumped on this chance to play with Cold War scare and ‘won’ the 1954 election although the ALP actually won the 2PP. Evatt’s jumbled response to the spy ring case led to a 1955 split in the ALP, in which the party’s largely Catholic (and thus stringently anti-communist) Victorian base walked out following a letter in which Evatt blamed anti-communist Catholic Industrial Groups within trade unions for the party’s electoral defeat the previous year. Influenced by Catholic social teaching, the anti-communist ALP which later became the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), was a largely sectarian Catholic party supported by Irish Catholics and the Archbishop of Melbourne. Though the DLP never performed exceptionally well in elections, their preferences, which flowed to the Liberals, helped Menzies’ Coalition to win elections.

By this time, Australia’s post-war economy was booming. Australian agricultural exports were being sold at high price, immigration (white, of course) was booming, and income, fueled by the agricultural exports, were on the rise. Menzies’ Liberals, which won by wide margins in 1955 and 1958, well represented a prudent, conformist Australia, a stronghold of the white race in the Pacific, attached to material values and high incomes. On the foreign stage, Menzies was a close ally of the United States: the ANZUS pact was signed in 1951, Australia participated in the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. At the same time, Menzies was also a keen monarchist and was proud of Australia’s British heritage.

Though Menzies’ majority declined to a mere 2 seats in 1961 following an ill-advised squeeze on credit, the Menzies years were a high-point for the Liberals and their junior ally, the Country Party, which dominated Queensland politics between 1957 and 1989 (notably under Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen). Menzies retired in 1966, which, for some, marks the beginning of the Liberal downfall (it certainly does mark the beginning of the Country Party’s decline). The Country Party started losing support, a trend which came as a result of declining influence in rural Australia but also the modernization and urbanization of Australia which reduced the weight of rural Australia. In 1975, they became the National Party, which was a failed move to appeal to more urban voters.

He was succeeded by Harold Holt, his Treasurer. Although a reformist who relaxed the White Australia policy during his tenure as Menzies’ Immigration Minister, Holt’s main claim to fame in his short stay in office is his unwavering support of Australia’s commitment to the Vietnam War. He famously pledged to go “all the way with LBJ”. As in the US, the popularity of Australia’s role in Vietnam quickly declined and gave Holt a bad name in history books, although in 1966, the Liberals won an increased majority – 82 to 41 over the ALP.

In December 1967, Holt drowned, or disappeared, and was presumed dead two days later. The Liberal leadership was supposed to go to Holt’s Treasurer, William McMahon, but Country leader McEwen vetoed the nomination. John Gorton was elected Liberal leader and started out as relatively popular a Prime Minister, cultivating a ‘down-to-earth’ style which contrasted with Menzies’ aloofness. Yet, he proved to be a poor public speaker and media performer, especially against Labor’s new leader, Gough Whitlam. Whitlam’s party made large gains in 1969, reducing Gorton’s majority to only seven and even won a majority of the 2PP vote. The Whitlam-led ALP had reformed itself from an old factionalized machine to a modern, progressive party which was an electable alternative. Labor’s long-standing support of a White Australia policy was dropped and Labor appealed more to Catholic voters as well as a new, young generation of Australians unhappy with the conservative conformism of the Menzies years.

The close call in 1969 weakened Gorton’s control over his party, and opposition from Defense Minister Malcolm Fraser was particularly harsh. In 1971, he called a leadership ballot which ended up tied. Considering this support insufficient, Gorton stepped down and William McMahon won the party’s leadership. McEwen’s 1971 retirement and his replacement by a new leader who didn’t continue the Country Party’s veto of McMahon. He proved to be a poor leader, hurt by the unpopularity of conscription and Vietnam as well as rising inflation. He was outperformed by Whitlam, whose party was proposing popular policies such as universal health care.

In the 1972 election, Whitlam’s ALP defeated the Coalition, and finally won more seats than the Coalition: 67 against 58. However, the Senate, which had been elected in 1970 for a term lasting till 1974, remained in the opposition’s hands. Whitlam’s government quickly set out to work, notably ending conscription, getting all remaining troops out of Vietnam, voting in favour of sanctions on Rhodesia and South Africa, abolishing tertiary university fees, and abolished the death penalty for federal crimes. The government also finally got rid of the White Australia policy and started encouraging immigration from Asia. Whitlam had a hard time with the Liberal-dominated Senate, where the opposition sought make use of its power to block legislation. Whitlam also fought with state premiers, especially the Coalition-led governments of Queensland, NSW and Victoria as he attempted to reduce state power (a 1973 referendum transferring control of wages to the feds was voted down). Whitlam sought, desperately, to wrestle control of the Senate (a half-Senate election was due in 1974) from the opposition but his attempt at getting six seats up for election in Queensland instead of the usual five with the upcoming resignation of a DLP Senator was destroyed by Sir Joh. Instead, playing on the Senate’s rejection of his bills twice in a three-month period, he got a double-dissolution election. Whitlam’s House majority was reduced to five, while the Senate was deadlocked 29-29 with two crossbenchers holding balance of power. It would take Australia’s first and only joint sitting of Parliament for Whitlam’s universal health care bill, along with other bills including extending representation to the territories, to pass.

The 1973 oil crisis and the high cost of new social programs led to increased inflation and a boost in Australia’s trade deficit in 1974. Yet, the 1974 budget did not include spending cuts. Over 1974 and 1975, the crisis deepened and the ALP sank deeper into the water. Meanwhile, the opposition, now led by Malcolm Fraser, was determined to block supply while Whitlam did not want to call new elections (a 1975 by-election in Bass had been extremely bad for the party). Two principles of British parliamentarianism came to clash. On one hand, the idea that a government that did not have supply could not govern and the other idea that a government that had confidence of the House could continue to govern. Whitlam did not have supply, but he still had confidence from the lower house. Finally, in November 1975, Governor General Sir John Kerr dismissed Whitlam on basis that he lacked supply, and had him replaced by Malcolm Fraser. An election was called the same day, and in December, Fraser’s Coalition won a landslide win, taking 91 seats to the ALP’s 36. This came despite large protests opposing Kerr’s dismissal of Whitlam by Labor supporters earlier in November. Yet, a Coalition campaign focused on economic issues, notably scandals in Whitlam’s economic management, contributed to the large victory, as did the support of the press, led in part by Australian press magnate Rupert Murdoch.

Fraser’s government dismantled some of Labor’s programs and implemented some tough budget cuts, which reined in inflation, but his budget was relatively moderate, much to the chagrin of neoliberals in his party, notably his Thatcherite treasurer, John Howard. Fraser also represented a moderate wing of the Liberal Party in foreign policy, opposing apartheid in South Africa and playing a vital role in negotiations which led to black-majority rule in Rhodesia and Robert Mugabe’s 1980 election. He also surprised a few with his liberal immigration policy and his support for multiculturalism, a break from the Liberal Party’s conservative ‘British Imperialist’ type policy in regards to immigration. Ironically, despite his contemporary reputation as a moderate, the opposition of certain centrist Liberals, notably Don Chipp, led to the creation of the Australian Democrats in 1977. The Democrats were a centrist, socially liberal and environmentalist party which opposed neoliberal economics. The Democrats managed 11% in the 1977 Senate election. Though Fraser kept a strong majority in 1978, in 1980, the Coalition saw its majority sharply reduced, likely the result of high unemployment and tough budgets. His leadership was becoming weaker and he was faced with a new ALP leader, popular trade union leader Bob Hawke. Hoping to catch a swing to the Coalition seen in a early by-election, Fraser called a double-dissolution for 1983. He couldn’t stop Hawke and lost heavily, winning 50 seats to Labor’s 75.

Hawke’s government was a consensus-driven one in which he played only the role of a superior leader, while his close ally and Treasurer Paul Keating did the economic work. Economic work included the floating of the Australian dollar, deregulation of the financial system, dismantlement of the tariff system, and privatizations. Hawke was helped by the divided opposition, with the Liberals divided between economically and socially conservative John Howard and the more moderate Andrew Peacock; while the Nationals hurt the Coalition with a 1987 attempt by Queensland’s Sir Joh to go into federal politics. Hawke easily won in 1984 and 1987. Ironically, it was within the party that he faced more opposition. The ALP, a very factionalized party, was not universal in its backing of Bob Hawke. The Socialist Left saw Hawke’s good ties with big business, especially Murdoch, in a bad eye. Yet, Hawke was re-elected, albeit with a smaller majority, in 1990.

A late 80s recession and high interest rates hurt the government and Keating slowly broke with Hawke. He challenged Hawke for the leadership, but lost. However, a new Coalition leader – John Hewson – who proposed a detailed plan for economic change, was proving popular, something which led worried ALP powerbrokers to turn back to Keating, who finally beat Hawke 56-51 in late 1991.

Keating’s claim to fame is his ability to win the unwinnable 1993 election for Labor, giving the ALP yet another win after 10 years in power and despite the recession. He was able to turn some of Hewson’s proposals, such as the GST, against him. Keating’s government aimed to turn Australia into a republic, start reconciliation with indigenous Australians, but also to implement a tough and unpopular austerity program to fight the recession.

Keating couldn’t do his magic in 1996, and he lost the election to John Howard’s Coalition, which won 94 seats to Labor’s 49. John Howard, a senior Liberal and a well-known Liberal right-winger, came into office with a wide neoliberal reformist agenda. Howard’s first term was tough, with deep budget cuts being unpopular and tougher laws on gun ownership proving unpopular with Coalition supporters. In 1997, Howard also led the push to introduce the GST, turning the 1998 election into a referendum on the issue. He narrowly won a second term, winning 80 seats to Labor’s 67 but losing out to the ALP on the actual 2PP count. The election was also notable by the strong 8% showing made by Pauline Hanson’s far-right anti-immigration One Nation.

Under Howard, Australia led the UN’s INTERFET mission in East Timor and played a major role in pressuring Indonesia to hold a referendum on the issue. The INTERFET mission was popular, but by early 2001, Howard was struggling with high petrol prices, higher inflation, voter enmity over the implementation of the GST and an economic slowdown. It took external events, namely 9/11 and the Tampa issue, to get the Coalition back in the game. Howard’s exploitation of his government’s refusal to allow asylum seekers on the MV Tampa from seeking refuge in Australia played well with voters. The fact that the country avoided recession also played well. In November 2001, the Coalition won the 2PP and got 82 seats to the ALP’s 65. One Nation also saw its vote share dwindle, leaving Pauline Hanson’s party with only half the votes that it had won in 1998.

In his third term, Howard became a close ally of the US’s war on terror and became known around the world as being one of George W. Bush’s key supporters, especially in the 2003 run-up to the Iraq war, in which Howard’s government committed 2,000 Australian troops. In 2004, with support for the war on terror strong and a good economy, Howard went into campaign mode against Labor’s Mark Latham, claiming credit for low interest rates and noting that interest rates always got higher when Labor was in power. Howard defied polls showing a close race and won a fourth term, and a major victory, at the polls. The Coalition increased its seat share by 5, reaching 87 seats while the ALP won just 60. For the first time since Fraser, Howard also won a Senate majority. The 2004 election also saw the Greens reach 7% of the vote, mainly at the expense of the Democrats, who won their worst result to date.

The Howard-Costello record of economic management was strong, especially after 2001, with the government paying off the nation’s debt, low unemployment, low interest rates, high economic growth and higher incomes. Yet, Howard’s government showed signs of ageing in its fourth term and the election of Kevin Rudd as Labor leader allowed the ALP to finally get a competent leader. Some encouraged Peter Costello to challenge Howard for the Liberal leadership and lead the party into the 2007 election, but he did not do so. The unpopular industrial relations program, WorkChoices, which changed employer-employee relations significantly, were also unpopular.

On a platform of change and also a very ‘green’ platform, Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party swept into power in late 2007, with 53% of the 2PP vote and 83 seats to the Coalition’s 65 seats. Howard was defeated in his own seat of Bennelong, the second Prime Minister after Stanley Bruce to lose his own seat. The Coalition lost their Senate majority, but the Coalition still had the upper hand there, because their 2004 seats were not up.

In his first moves, Rudd signed the Kyoto Protocol and finally said ‘sorry’ to the Stolen Generations of aboriginals. His government proved very popular throughout 2008, and was helped by a weak opposition. Costello declined to run for the Liberal leadership, which was won by former Defense Minister Brendan Nelson, who then lost it in late 2008 to Malcolm Turnbull. Following a deal between Turnbull and Rudd aimed towards getting Senate approval for Rudd’s Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. This move angered the party’s right and led to another leadership challenge in which right-wing Tony Abbott narrowly and surprisingly won the party’s leadership. He moved the party to the right, refusing compromise with Labor on climate change legislation. This led Rudd to announce plans to put his emissions-trading scheme (ETS) on the backburner until 2013, and he also announced plans for a Resource Super Profits Tax, which would increase taxes on highly profitable mining operations. These decisions hurt Rudd’s credibility and allowed the Coalition – and the Greens – to eat up Labor’s advantage in polls. In late June, Labor’s powerbrokers switched their support from Rudd to his more popular deputy, Julia Gillard, who was elected unopposed as leader of the ALP, and therefore Prime Minister, on June 24, 2010. More coverage of this leadership coup can be found in this previous blog post.

Parties, Issues and Campaign

Gillard, seeing the ALP’s numbers bounce back with her, called an election on July 17 for August 21. Many thought that she could be able to gain back Green voters, which she did early on, and easily defeat Tony Abbott. Abbott, whose nickname is “the mad monk”, is a devoutly Catholic right-winger who is conservative on social issues, climate change and economic issues. Unlike the more moderate Turnbull, his leadership has polarized voters and pushed the Liberal Party to the right. Yet, Gillard jumbled her early campaign, letting voters forget about Abbott and think about how much they disliked Labor – thus leading Abbott’s Coalition to make up ground fast. He even took a lead in 2PP in early August, before Gillard took back the offensive and people didn’t like the sound of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. This allowed her to take back the lead in 2PP, but Labor still trails on preferences, meaning that a win for Labor will likely come off Green preferences – the Greens are polling well above their 2007 level and could break the 10% line. Green preferences to Labor will likely be large, given Abbott’s climate change policies.

The last Newspoll has Labor ahead of the Coalition 50.2-49.8 on 2PP, though trailing the Coalition by 4 or so in the primary vote, where the Greens are getting about 13-14%. Other polls have Labor tied or ahead, but no final poll gives the Coalition a lead on 2PP, and Abbott’s leadership numbers remain very weak when stacked up against Gillard’s numbers, although her numbers aren’t phenomenal either. These numbers make a close race pretty certain, and make a hung parliament a real possibility. In such a case, the 3 Independents and other crossbenchers who could win (a Green win in Melbourne is a big possibility) would be the main power-brokers. Unfortunately, perhaps, for Labor, these 3 Independents are all former members of the Nationals and hold traditionally National-leaning seats in Queensland and NSW.

Consider for a moment the results of 2007 on redistributed boundaries – boundary changes have occurred in NSW, QLD, WA, Tasmania and the Northern Territory. NSW lost one seat to Queensland, while the massive outback seat of Kalgoorlie in WA has been significantly re-designed. The new results give the ALP 88, the Coalition 59 (50 Liberals and 9 Nationals) with 3 Independents (factoring in the Independent gain from National in the Lyne by-election).

The pundits are saying that Labor should get between 75 and 80, the Coalition between 65 and 70, with 1 Green winning Melbourne and none of the three Independents losing their seats. Polling indicates that that while swings to the Coalition in Queensland (Kevin Rudd’s homestate, where he hasn’t proved too eager to help out), NSW and Western Australia are likely; the ALP could see a swing in its favour in Victoria, Gillard’s home turf. The Coalition needs a major swing in Queensland, NSW and WA to ward off a likely swing to the ALP in Victoria. As of now, swings in QLD, NSW and WA do not look like they’ll be large enough to carry the Coalition over the top.

Anthony Green’s guide, useful as ever, includes a good list of seats to watch, Australia’s classic pendulum, and information on the Senate. For those watching from the Americas, keep in mind Australia’s time difference and how that plays into election results coming out.