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Australia’s Political Soap Opera Heats Up

Australia is one of the pillars of America’s new Pacific strategy. It’s a staunch, long-time ally that has backed the United States ever since it realized in the middle of World War II that it could no longer rely on Britain.

Lately, its politics have had a melodramatic air. To recap: Kevin Rudd was leader of the Labor Party before being turned out in a sort of palace coup by his longtime associate, the current Prime Minister Julia Gillard, largely due to worries among Labor MPs that he couldn’t win the next election. But Gillard didn’t do all that well in the election either, and her shaky government relies on a handful of independent and small-party MPs for its majority. Recent polls have her trailing the leader of the opposition, and there is some panic in the parliamentary ranks. After serving awkwardly as Foreign Minister in Gillard’s government, Rudd resigned—in Washington. Amid rumors that Rudd intended to challenge for the Party leadership and Prime Ministership, Gillard decided to get the drop on him and call a leadership ballot early, which is now scheduled for Monday.

It’s all very interesting to Aussie political junkies, but fortunately the rest of us can take a relaxed view. Both Gillard and Rudd have been good friends and partners to the United States, and the opposition Liberal Party wouldn’t change that if it took power. When the drama dies down, the basic dynamics of the U.S.-Australian relationship will remain the same.

We could use more allies like this.

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  • WigWag

    “We could use more allies like this.” (Via Meadia)

    Absolutely! The United States is lucky to have an ally like Australia. It is hard to conceive of a more loyal friend than Australia.

  • Charles Sturt

    You are correct that neither outcome would change any dimension of US-Australia relations but if you look at this imbroglio more closely you’ll see some worrying confirmation of some of your other theses about the characteristics of current western governments.

    1. Carbon politics kills everything it touches. The initial trigger for Rudd’s demise in 2010 was his decision to back down from a promise to implement carbon trading, a move that made him look weak and caused his popular support to drop. Gillard explicitly promised not to introduce a carbon tax during the 2010 election, then when saddled with the burden of running government with the support of Greens, had to legislate a carbon price scheme. Her broken promise is now being punished with the government’s current low opinion polls. With the Australian people probably split on the issue, the government’s gyrations have simply fed support to the Tory opposition who’ve maintained opposition to a carbon tax.

    2. Good times breed decadence in governance/ we live in an era of low leadership. Australia has avoided any serious consequence of the global financial crisis and avoided recession. Consumption remains high and savings low. It is only in these circumstances that a government can indulge in such an orgy of self-indulgence. It will come at a price as Australia does confront many of the same negative demographic challenges as the rest of the west (ageing populations, declining educational outcomes etc) but the consequences are being hidden temporarily by the commodity price bubble. It has reformed some of its welfare state (I’d recommend all Americans study Australia’s private retirement incomes policy as a potential model) but not all (its healthcare costs are about to grow massively). In a sense Australia is still living in 2007, sublimely unaware of the maelstrom to come.

  • Swearjar

    Well, as a patriotic Australian, the current leadership farce is nothing short of a national disgrace. And assuming Rudd loses Monday’s ballot, which he probably will, he’ll just go to the back benches and continue his destabilisation campaign until Gillard becomes so toxic the party calls on Rudd to lead it back out of the wilderness (at which point the ALP will probably implode). At least, that’s probably Rudd’s plan. Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, tends to attract Bush-like criticisms (most negative, ultra-right wing leader the country has ever seen, yada yada) but the reality is probably different. Much of this criticism seems rooted in anti-Catholic bigotry (Abbott is Catholic) among the progressive Left. All the government seems to have at the moment is an anti-Abbott scare campaign while at the same time giving the opposition all sorts of soundbytes to use in the next election, which if Parliament runs its term (a big ask right now) could be over a year away.

    You’re right, though: there’s nothing to fear in terms of the alliance relationship. This is a purely domestic matter – the alliance enjoys very broad bipartisan and community support.

  • Mrs. Davis

    Australia is the only ally to have fought with us in EVERY war since WWI (when we fought with them) [excluding our banana wars]. True allies.

  • Toni

    Don’t they call theirs “the Lucky Country”? I love their cheerful, can-do response “No worries!” I was there when Reagan bombed Libya, and I loved a protest sign I saw outside the US embassy. “Stop it! Both of you!”

    Having started as a penal colony (because Britain could no longer ship convicts to the new USA), Australia’s culture is also egalitarian. And about the same size as the Lower 48, so…

    To Charles Sturt above: What prevents the Lucky Country from admitting young immigrants, perhaps poorer ones more apt to have large families, to change its demographics? Is this a problem they can solve, once they recognize that they have a problem?

  • BTR

    A couple of decades ago the Australian Labor Party had a preponderance of hard-headed, good-hearted men and women in leadership roles. It did some good work opening up the Australian economy to the world and maintaining a benign but not overly generous safety net.

    The big fallout from the current struggles is that horrified Aussie Labor voters have now realised that the ALP is just a shell company with some glossy PR. The membership base declined radically over the past 10-15 years and the Party is now controlled by a conga line of entitled union hacks and mediocrities, flanked by a few hand-wringing ineffectual do-gooders. Having no real policies of its own beyond staying in power, the ALP dog is being wagged by the quasi-socialist Greens Party tail and a posse of eccentric independents sometimes known as the Three Stooges.

    It is not a good or a stable situation for a two-party democracy when the nation’s oldest political party contains few people that the average Aussie would trust to run a lamington stand.

  • Eric from Texas

    BTR @6,

    I like your description of the ALP. (I’m an American whose wife was an Aussie Liberal voter before moving to Texas)

    I believe you have also described the gentry wing of the American Democratic party as well.

    Are there any good, clear-thinking leaders in the major industrialzed countries these days? It’s depressing.

  • Lorenz Gude

    I was delighted to receive an email this morning from Australia’s upstart online retailer Kogan, a young Russian who came to OZ when he was 12. He was flogging a 55 TV for $699 with a picture of Gillard and Rudd apparently kissing on the screen with the caption “There is nothing like watching a good Soap Opera on a Big Screen.” It appears only to be on the customer email, not the website, but it still is a good indication of the low esteem in which Australians hold their politicians. Being both a Yank and an Aussie my inner cultural barometer indicated that that it was unlikely that any nationwide US retailer would have had the chutzpah to run a similarly irreverent picture of Barrack and Hillary during the Democratic primary in ’08. It looks like Gillard will prevail on Monday, but it will damage the Labor party for some time to come. Fortunately for the Labor party the opposition leader is an ultramontain Roman Catholic something like Rick Santorum with big ears.

  • Lorenzo

    I find the leadership stoush amusing but not serious. (PM Gillard was comfortable re-elected Leader._

    More broadly, the Australian public policy model is one everyone should be looking at closely. Low tax, low debt, high growth (including by the bottom decile), universal health, no recession since 1991: what’s not to like?

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