Monday, 23 August 2010

Planet earth is blue and there's nothing I can do

One thing that always puzzles me about Australia is the difference between people’s attitude to here when compared to Israel. In Israel, everyone is outspoken and you know to a fine degree who your office colleagues are going to vote for. In Australia, on the other hand, the matter is effectively considered a taboo: there could be talks about politics but they’re rather vague or things that everyone agrees with (e.g., “this guy’s an idiot”). You will have a hard time finding people arguing politics at an Aussie office or explicitly telling you what their political opinions are. Unless, of course, that someone is an ex Israeli.
I think it’s a shame to hide away political opinion because I think the biggest problem the Aussie political scene has is lack of debate, which leads the vast majority of the public to develop apathy towards politics. In turn, this leads to election campaigns of the likes we just had, where none of the truly important issues facing Australia were on the agenda. In its turn, this leads to ambiguous results such as the one we ended up with after this elections.

In a setting such as this, I find it interesting to think back with gained hindsight and have a look to see exactly what got us to where we are now in Australian politics. Or, to be more specific, what happened to rob Kevin Rudd’s immense popularity during early 2008 of all its charm, so much so as to get us to the point where Labor thought it wise to replace him in a nightly coup, and what has happened since for Labor to lose its majority?
The popular answer to the latter question seems to be that Labor lost because of a very badly run elections campaign. I agree: their campaign was a one big muffled joke, especially when compared to the Liberals well focused campaign. I disagree with the vast majority of the subjects of the Liberal campaign (especially the notorious “we’ll stop the boats”), but at least they said what they had to say clearly and effectively – unlike Labor. However, my opinion is that there is more to Labor’s loss than just a badly run campaign.
In my view, the public opinion about Labor and the Rudd government started to deteriorate with the slowly digested understanding that Rudd is simply not going to deliver on his promises. First and foremost, Rudd was elected to get rid of Work Choices and to act on climate change. He did the former, but then we had two years of talk-fests. These peaked when disappointingly low carbon emission reduction targets of 5% were set (even less, actually, given the more generous reference Labor chose in comparison to the way the rest of the world measures carbon reductions). Then Labor followed with a suggestion for an Emissions Trading System (ETS) that was obviously nothing more than a tool to make much fuss with and make some brokers very rich but had nothing to do with reducing emissions; it had a lot to do with handing billions to emitters. The Liberals wouldn’t even accept that, and that was it; Labor closed its climate change shop up. The public, however, didn’t; they reacted by abandoning Labor en masse. Some went to the Greens, others to the Liberals (where they came from earlier upon their disillusionment with John Howard).
What had happened there, then? Why did Labor turn back on its election promise to deal with climate change? In my opinion the answer is simple: It’s not that Kevin Rudd didn’t want to deal with climate change; it’s just that Kevin Rudd didn’t want to mess too much with big business by coming up with an emissions reduction scheme they wouldn't like. Say, a carbon tax and an emissions reduction target of 40%, as the science recommends (as per the government's own Garnaut review).
Big business came back to haunt Rudd and Labor in the next bit of straw on Labor’s back, the mining super tax. The recommendation to install it came from Treasury’s objective inputs, but the result was such a big thump to government from the mining companies that Rudd lost his position and Gillard quickly compromised 20 billion dollars to essentially keep three big companies quiet.
My point is simple: as the above cases of climate change and mining taxes demonstrate, the Australian political agenda is set by those with the money and not by the interests of the population. Usually, those with the biggest amounts of money are the biggest companies around; in a sad testament to the state of our democracy, big business is more equal than the rest of us.

Where Labor continued to err was in marginalizing its grassroots and wooing votes that are not your traditional Labor voter. Take, for example, Labor’s great Internet filter plans as well as its secretive plans to have the records of all Internet surfing activities maintained for lengthy periods. No one can understand the rational behind the latter, but the former popped up in order to support promises made to the Australian Christian Lobby. However, through Labor’s dogmatic insistence on pursuing these quests they manage to make an enemy of anyone with a tiny bit of civil libertarian tendencies in their veins (your truly included). They even managed to aggravate many of the older population, not your typical web surfers or early adopter, who are interested in researching euthanasia through the web.
In doing so, Labor lost a lot of its progressive faction, mostly to the Greens. On the other hand, I very much doubt the move earned them any votes from the Christian side. Given the deadlock between ALP (Australian Labor Party) and LNP (Liberal National Party) at the polls, I wonder whether someone at Labor’s headquarters is having second thoughts as to the wisdom of their actions.
Oh, and why exactly was Labor opposing gay marriages? Did they want to lose the seat of Melbourne that badly?

If all the above failed to convince you how very much alike Australian politics is to the scene from America then perhaps the election results map will do it. Looking at things in blue and red, it is obvious that Australia's is a divided society, with distinct blue (as in Liberal, the Aussie equivalent of the American Republicans) and red areas (as in Labor, the Democrats’ equivalent). If that doesn’t indicate too many Aussies are voting through their back pockets I don’t know what else can.
While despair for an idealistic democracy does strike me, I do take comfort in one major feature of these last elections. As we stand, three to five Australian men happen to be the most powerful people in the country: these are the Greens/independents that won their Lower House seats and who are going to determine which party is going to lead the country during the next three years. Through them, these five men are making the population of their five electorates significantly more powerful than the rest. I can only hope others are taking notes here, so that the next time they vote they don’t consider the elections a two dog race between the ALP and the LNP but rather a race where the underdog can have a strong bite. A potential rise in power of this now generally dormant dog might give rise to a culture of proper political debate in Australia.

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