Sunday, August 22, 2010

A guide to the Australian election for non-Australians

I have already been asked by email what the Australian election result means and what will result from it.  At this point I do not know – and frankly nor does anybody else.  However I hope – and removing my politics from this – to give a quick handbook for someone with almost no knowledge of Australian politics.  So please forgive me starting very basic.

What you need to form government

Australian politics is based on a “Westminister system”.  That is – like the UK – to become a national leader you first need to elected a local representative in the “house”.  This representation is in single-member seats.  To become the national leader (the Prime Minister) you need to control the votes of a majority of the members of the House.  Normally this happens through tight “party affiliation”.  When you elect a member you know which party they belong to – and so you are really voting – indirectly and by convention – for a Prime Minister.

There are 150 members of the house – so 75 members for both sides would be a tie.  You need 76 members under tight control to form a majority government. 

A short summary of the political parties

I need this to explain roughly where the political parties sit.  The main conservative party in Australia is (strangely) called the Liberals.  There is a second conservative party called the Nationals.  It is generally impossible for the Liberals to form government without an alliance with the Nationals – and so the conservative parties are generally known as “the Coalition”. 

The Nationals are a strange and declining beast.  They started life as “the Country Party” and their affiliation was Agrarian Socialist and (highly) socially conservative.  The most famous of all Country Party politicians (Black Jack McEwan) was also probably the most economically interventionist politician Australia has ever had.  The reason that the Nationals are declining is largely demographic change.  Australia is becoming more urbanized as the average size of farms increases and agriculture becomes more of a “scale game”.  Secondly the coastal seats are having huge demographic change as Sydney and Melbourne voters are moving to the coast either for lifestyle reasons or retirement.   (“Sea change” is a big demographic trend in Australia.)

Like in America, conservative politics is an amalgam of economic conservatives and social conservatives.  In America the social conservatives are the dominant voting block within the conservative party.  In Australia it is more balanced.

The main non-conservative force is the Labor Party – a party which grew out of the (declining) unions and – is to some extent – still beholden to the unions.  In the dim-distant past Labor party officials used to refer to each other as “comrades”.  They continued to do it ironically well into the 1980s because it infuriated the right wing members.  Now they just call each other friends (which is itself ironic).  This is the party of factionalized power and voting blocks.  Other than ensuring a remaining power base for union officials it has been difficult for many years to say what the party stands for other than a pragmatic approach to gaining and holding power. 

Mostly to the left of the Labor party is the Greens.  The Greens are hard-line on environmental issues (mostly), mostly very left-wing on straight economic issues and mostly extremely liberal on social issues.  The Green policy summary for this election are (a) not just have an emission trading scheme for carbon but tax the polluters into the bargain, (b) make the miners pay the full-undiscounted original mining tax, and (c) legalize gay marriage.

The classic dividing line between the Greens and the Labor party is logging of high conservation value forests.  The Greens are hard-line opposed.  The Labor party is (mostly) inclined to take the position of the (unionized) forestry workers.  They can irregularly (say once per 20 years) take a power-pragmatic position to align with the Greens in exchange for Green preferences in urban areas. 

If you are mostly economically conservative, mostly socially liberal and fairly hard line on environmental issues there is simply no single party to belong to or vote for in that you will disagree with their positioning on something.

The balance elected last night

There are many “seats” (meaning positions in the “house”) that will come within a couple of hundred votes so final results will not be known for a while.  However the split is likely to be 73 Coalition, 72 Labor, 4 independents and a Green.  Three of the independents started their career with the National Party – so the most likely outcome is that they will support the Coalition on matters of confidence and we will get a Coalition minority government.  But that assumes (as I would not) that the independents are a stable block. 

The three conservative independents are very different beasts indeed.  Firstly Bob Katter – representing an electorate in remote far north Queensland – is an old-fashioned National Party politician – and split from the Nationals over differences on economic policy and social policy.  He is more interventionist on economic policy and more conservative on social policy than the Coalition.  Indeed his positions are so strong they are almost a caricature of old-fashioned National Party values.  The expression – not necessarily unkindly - is that he is as “mad as a Katter”.   This advert is representative of the man.


Do look at this video.  I cannot imagine any other politician advertising himself as the right guy when there are crocodiles on the loose or cattle have gone astray.

Rob Oakeshott by contrast represents a coastal electorate much closer to Sydney.  He is an economic conservative and social liberal.  His split with the Nationals is because his socially liberal values did not fit in.

My only involvement with him (or more precisely his office) came about because of Astarra.  He represents a coastal electorate with many retirees and some victims and he is the only politician who has taken up the issue.  Rob Oakeshott is likely to be friendly with Bob Katter – but on many issues they are a long way apart.  I can’t imagine myself ever voting National – but I have to confess to liking Oakeshott a lot of the time – and I suspect I would like the man (though I have never met him).   

I do not know anything about Tony Windsor (the third conservative independent) except that his electorate is more mainstream National Party territory – and it is likely the man is closer to the National Party than either of the other two conservative independents.

The Green is – as far as I can tell – a typical Green – he won a safe Labor seat taking extremely socially liberal positions in a socially liberal inner-urban electorate.

The remaining independent victory was a total surprise.  He is the only minor Australian politician I would expect any of my non-Australian readers to know.  The name is Andrew Wilkie – and I would describe him as a centrist with a white-hot fierce moral integrity that could easily be confused for self-righteousness.  He started his career in the military and was educated at Duntroon (the Australian equivalent of West Point).  He rose rapidly to Colonel and along the way joined the Liberal Party.  He left to be an analyst at ASIO – the Australian equivalent of the CIA.  He famously and publicly resigned when he felt the intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction was being doctored for political reasons.  His resignation was global news.  He later stood as a Green against the incumbent Prime Minister in the 2004 election.  He moved to Tasmania and stood as an independent against the Greens in a Labor stronghold seat and he has probably won. 


I do not know whether a stable alliance can be made of these people – but the Coalition plus three originally conservative independents makes one think the most likely outcome is a Coalition government.  However it will be very hard to keep Bob Katter in the tent simply because he is so extreme on so many issues.  If the issue-of-the-day however is one where the government is more socially liberal than Katter (ie most people on most issues) then perhaps they can make up the numbers with either Wilkie or the Green. 

Hope this helps.






Nemo Incognito said...

This is a total disaster - worst thing about it all is that if they hadn't rolled Malcolm you'd have a moderate Liberal government with a significant majority. I figure we go back to the polls in 18-24 months.

Duff Samoa said...

Firstly, to Nemo, I don't think you could really put forward the argument that Turnbull would have finished as strongly as Abbott and hence be in Abbott's position today. He was floundering badly and after the scandal involving the treasury official he appeared way out of his league leading the opposition. This coming from someone who voted for him in '04 and '07.

When Abbott took over most people were wondering whether the coalition would be able to win the next election let alone the one held last night. As much as people, including myself, disagree with Abbott you have to give him credit for being a good politician. The party with him leading did a good job capitalizing on the labor government's faults in the last couple of months to a degree they never could have, I believe, under Turnbull.

Seconly, I wanted to post a link to my favorite exchange of the night. Hopefully someone will put up the whole interview because the way it stands right now is very bias against Wayne Swan (I'll post the full version if I can find it) but it's still quite funny given that Wayne Swan's response was something like "I don't know what raving lunatic you have on the panel tonight."

I watched the whole interview and the guy from Nine who starts talking about corporate morality as the reason labor lost was, to put it bluntly, a retard.

Channel Nine's coverage was ridiculous. I have no idea why people listen to Barnaby Joyce. He's like a farmer's version of Pauline Hanson.

Duff Samoa said...

Found the video.

Andy said...

Thanks for the insight- my folks are both from Brisbane, but I grew up and live in America (so naturally I have to get my news elsewhere!) so this was a great primer! Cheers!
Andy Galloway-Long

Unknown said...

I only hope that at some stage a "Green Liberal" party will come about, even if it is a loose collection of MPs. Maybe Wilkie & Oakeshott could on a platform of Fiscal Responsibility, Social Justice & Environmental Stewardship?? If only to get a Senate ticket in place.

I helped out the Greens in this election but I think there is a big gap between the Green voters (more pragmatic) & the usual Green supporters (ideological).

John Hempton said...

Sean - I could vote for that too...

Socially liberal, economically conservative, swayed on environmental issues -

Nobody to represent you in Australia.


Anonymous said...

Pedantic perhaps, but Andrew Wilkie used to work for the Office of National Assessemnts (ONA), not ASIO.

John Hempton said...

Re Wilkie: You may be pedantic - and on that you may even be right. But I would not posit ANYTHING about where he used to work.

He was militarily trained and he went to an agency. My guess = spy.

But he would never confirm or deny anything - and nor should he be forced to be.

Wilkie, Wilkie, He's My Man said...

Would Wilkie put a boot up ASIC's arse and get them to actually do something pro-active for a change, in your opinion?

Anonymous said...

Are you kidding me? What did Kroger say for Swan to react with abuse? Check the interview out. I think he just snapped and showed us all his true (lack of) class. Then everyone jumped in, and guess what - fair game mate - sink to a new low then expect a reaction.

BTW, I didn't get Laurie Oakes outburst about this later. Maybe the great Laurie was just tired to remember what transpired? First time boo-boo, Laurie

John Hempton said...

Wilkie? No Opinion. Oakeshott? Yep. Think who he represents!

Unknown said...

At the 1/2 way mark for 2 Party, Anthony Green's last tweet from end of day results yesterday :
#ausvotes #denison Results in 26 booths compared, Wilkie projected to be 51.1% - still too close to call
Fingers crossed!

Brad Olsen said...

As an American reader for what has been nearly two years, I just wanted to say thanks for providing insightful and non-polemical posts about finance, politics and a variety of other topics.

As almost all mainstream news media in the US has moved towards sensationalism-in-pursuit-of-ratings model, your blog is consistently a breath of fresh air.

Thanks for the great primer, but it's really just a tip of the iceberg of great material since I started reading your posts about Japanese banks.

Todd Myers said...

Socially liberal, economically conservative: isn't that the Labor party (albeit a centrist version of such)?

apodeictic said...

There's nothing "strange" about the name of the Liberal Party as the author suggests. The choice of the name has to do with the party's association with the ideas of classical liberalism. What is "strange" is the modern American usage of this word essentially to mean "left wing".

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