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Opposite ends in poll scrabble wildly for Aussie middle ground

by Roger Pulvers

This is the winter of a discontented electorate in Australia. Less than a week before Aug. 21′s general election, the voters are deeply disgruntled and proving decidedly hard to please, while the main parties appear to be heading for a close finish.

On one hand there is the Labor Party and its leader Julia Gillard, the incumbent prime minister. Vying for her job is Tony Abbott, the leader of the Liberal Party, which, in coalition with the rural-based National Party, represents the conservative alternative to Gillard’s progressive social agenda.

Ahead of making a prediction about the result, first — the issues.

In fact the question is not, “What are the issues facing the Australian people?” but rather, “Who is more persuasive in defining those issues?”

Gillard is adamant: It’s the economy, boofhead (“someone inordinately slow on the uptake”). It was a Labor government, under her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, that navigated Australia through the global financial crisis with an applied expertise envied by other developed nations.

Under Rudd, the Australian stimulus package targeted low- and middle-income households, as opposed to the “Titanic” approach taken in the United States, which put the fat cats in the lifeboats and left the hoi polloi to fend for themselves in the icy waters of recession. Australia avoided recession altogether.

Opposition leader Abbott is, at this point in time, veering away from economic issues and striving to capture votes in the old-fashioned Aussie way. This involves drumming up fears of non-European refugees storming the land, and spooking big business — particularly multinationals in the natural resources sector — with claims about Labor’s “anti-business” policies.

The polemic of this election is stark and clear, with the main parties at opposite poles on every issue — even as both are now frantically moving sideways in a bid to occupy the center. The prime minister has toned down any radical-sounding rhetoric in order to woo those elements in the middle class who see themselves as upwardly mobile. These voters — despite their often working-class backgrounds — have vacillated over the past decade and a half, and many now identify ideologically with the interests of the haves, hoping this will elevate their status.

It is swing voters like the upward-aspirers found in western Sydney and in Queensland who have turned seats that went for Labor in the general election in November 2007 into marginal ones today. That election saw the ousting of the Liberal Party prime minister, John Howard, after 11 years in office. Howard has now come out of political retirement — having lost his seat in 2007 along with the election — to campaign for Abbott, who held three cabinet portfolios in his government.

The message from the Liberal Party- National Party coalition is clear: Go back to the old days when Australia was doing very well exporting masses of coal, iron ore and natural gas and the country was kept “safe” from asylum seekers.

Ironically, the one thing that Gillard and Abbott do have in common is that they were both born in Great Britain — she in Barry, Wales, and he in London.

Beyond that common ground, however, Gillard is an atheist and the first Australian prime minister to take an affirmation of office and not swear on a copy of the Bible; Abbott, an ardent Roman Catholic, is personally opposed to the right of women to an abortion. She is determined to take action on climate change, though what that will be is a tightly guarded Labor Party secret; he has called the arguments confirming climate change “absolute crap.”

Yet the real choices facing the electorate on Aug. 21 revolve around no less than national sovereignty itself.

This is an issue the nation has avoided ever since the federation of its then six British colonies to create (with British approval) the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. In short: Who owns Australia?

The nation’s prosperity was once said to ride on the back of a sheep — due to the lucrative wool exports that sustained rural Australia. For the past half century, however, prosperity has ridden in the cavernous bellies of the ships that transport coal, iron ore and liquefied natural gas to Japan, South Korea and China.

Being resource rich is an advantage at times of exponential growth in your customers’ economies. A slump in China today would have disastrous effects on Australia.

The real polemic is delineated there, in the very ground itself. Australians have traditionally preferred to have their economy controlled by foreign capitalists rather than risk it falling into the grasp of local socialists. That way, when things go badly, they can always blame someone else.

Indeed, Australia’s history since 1901 has been marked by the shirking of responsibility for foreign and domestic policies. Australians have followed both Britain and the United States into every war, basking in an aura of heroic self-righteousness. As for the country’s natural wealth, Australians are more than happy to let others mine it for them. They don’t see their resources as part of the land that every Australian should, by rights, at least control, if not own.

Consequently, when the Labor government recently proposed to initiate, from July 2012, a 40 percent tax on profits from non-renewable resources — pledging that money to social welfare and regional development — the mining companies launched a multi-million- dollar ad campaign, claiming that the government was the enemy of investment, development and prosperity.

The Liberal Party, meanwhile has vigorously opposed a tax on windfall profits.

Here is the main fault line in the polemic. Should Australians be content to live for today until the resources run out, markets collapse or the world turns to renewable sources of energy; or should all Australians benefit socially and economically from the resources boom that is currently being created by a very hot Chinese economy, while at the same time planning for a greener future?

It is all too reminiscent of what Rex Connor, a Labor government minister for minerals and energy, proposed in the early 1970s — namely, “let’s buy back the farm.” In other words, he was calling for profits from Australia’s spectacularly rich lode of natural resources to be put at the disposal of the public.

At that time, the Liberal Party and their partners, the Country Party (now renamed the National Party), clamored “Socialism!” in response to Connor’s call, and the issue was a decisive one in the following 1975 general election that saw Gough Whitlam, the Labor prime minister, thrown out of office.

Another issue lurking in the subsoil of Australian politics is that of whether or not the country should become a republic. Gillard is a dyed-in-the-wool republican; opposition leader Abbott, a zealous monarchist.

Once again, the issue, now postponed, is, “When will Australia become a truly independent nation rather than one that seeks to position itself under the tutelage of its two English-speaking big brothers, Britain and the United States?”

Until it does break away in both foreign and domestic policies, Australia will rightfully be regarded, particularly in Asia, as the Anglo-American deputy sheriff, brandishing its borrowed badge of authority.

I predict that the Labor Party will retain power on Aug. 21, though with a reduced, but comfortable, majority thanks to support from the Australian Greens, a party that is enjoying increasing popularity. But whether Gillard will take Australia out of its rent-a-country mentality is anyone’s guess.

Once you have captured the center and established yourself comfortably in it, is there any other course but to sit tight and wait to see what the rest of the world thinks is right before making a move?