Australia’s close yet uninspiring election

Wednesday 18th August 2010
Abbott and Gillard.jpg

On Saturday, Australians will vote in their country’s federal election in what is shaping up to be an extremely tight race.

However, the contest itself – perhaps due to its closeness – has been both a dramatic and dull affair.

After gaining a new prime minister only two months ago, the election debate eventually stumbled towards things like broadband, a mining tax, parental leave and immigration, but without offering anything particularly impressive.

The two candidates for the top job are current Prime Minister Julia Gillard of the left-wing Labor Party and opposition leader Tony Abbot of the right-wing Liberal Party (leading a coalition with the smaller National party known simply as “The Coalition”).

Gillard has had the honour of being Australia’s first female prime minister after her party controversially ousted former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in June (she was his deputy).

Now she has the opportunity to be the country’s first elected female prime minister, if she can beat off the challenge by Abbott’s Coalition.

Tony Abbott completed a Masters in Politics and Philosophy as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford before returning to Australia and becoming a journalist for The Australian newspaper.

He entered politics in 1994 and made his way up through the ranks of the Liberal Party where he won the leadership eight months ago in a 42-41 vote defeating the party’s leader Malcolm Turnbull.

Julia Gillard began her working career as a labour union lawyer in Melbourne where she became a partner at the age of 29, before working as a chief of staff in the Victorian state government.

She moved into politics in 1998 by winning the seat of Lalor in the Federal election and took on various ministerial roles in immigration, health, employment and education. She became deputy prime minister when Labor won the last election in 2007.

Right now, the two parties are neck and neck in the polls at 52% to 48% in favour of Labor, although Gillard has a 15 point lead as favoured prime minister.

However, neither of these stats really matter. What matters, due to Australia’s voting system, is who wins the most seats, or better still, a majority of seats in the House of Representatives.

Current polls suggest Labor could lose its majority, with many predicting a ‘hung parliament’ as recently happened in Britain (where no single party has a majority of seats).

A lot of traditional Labor districts like those in Melbourne and Queensland have started supporting the Green party after the government forced Kevin Rudd out and also backtracked on a promise to bring in an emissions trading scheme.

That means Labor may be forced into a coalition agreement with the Greens in order to form a government – what many believe will be the likely outcome.

In terms of the substance of the election, like campaign policies, Australians haven’t had anything particularly exciting to go on.

Gillard wants to continue with their AU$43 billion (US$39 billion) fibre-optic broadband project to deliver fast internet nationwide, but Abbott wants to cut it in favour of a cheaper, slower version.

Abbott wants to introduce a paid parental-leave scheme by increasing company taxes, whereas Gillard wants to do the same but decrease company tax.

Additionally, Gillard wants to impose a 30% tax on iron ore and coal mining companies (a watered-down version of what Rudd got sacked for) and introduce an emissions-trading scheme – both of which are opposed by Abbott.

Probably the most heated debate is on the emotional subject of immigration. Gillard wants to keep population growth up for skilled migrants but redirect all asylum seeker boats to East Timor for processing (East Timor hasn’t yet agreed).

Meanwhile, Abbott wants to decrease population growth and send any asylum seekers arriving by boat to Nauru, as was the policy during the John Howard era.

It’s seems rather odd to be having an election race in today’s climate without the economy being the centre of attention (Abbott even blocked a television debate on the subject).

But it’s indicative of how well the Australian economy has performed throughout the global financial crisis by being the only rich country not to have gone into recession.

That may be Labor’s best chance of winning, with both Gillard and Abbott largely uninspiring Australians in both their character and policies.

But the subtle difference in direction that the country could head in after the election is still important.

And it looks like that direction will come down to a handful of marginal seats that will hold the country’s breath (or not at all) until Saturday.

By The Casual Truth

Photo – Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard

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