The Australian people have spoken, and they said “meh”.
In case you missed it, there was a federal election in Australia on Saturday and it was an important one. Aussies love a good election and there are usually sausage sizzles and cake stalls down at the polling booths. With only 20 million people, Australians vote by hand and the counting is also done by hand with volunteer scrutineers from all parties overseeing the process. There are no hanging chads in an Australian election and Aussies usually know the results the very same night.
Not this time. For the first time since World War 2, Australia is in limbo and the only confirmed winners are the Greens.
Australians didn’t like what they saw on either side of the political fence. In the words of The Guardian: “A choice between one party that persists in throwing away its advantages and another that persists in ignoring critical issues is not much of a choice.”
The candidates and issues
The incumbent was Julia Gillard, Australia’s first ever female Prime Minister. Her party is the centre-left Australian Labor Party, which held the most seats in the Australian House of Representatives by a decent majority before last Saturday. The previous Prime Minister was Kevin Rudd from the same party, who won the 2007 election. The trouble is that his own party turned on him two months ago and Gillard took the leadership and became Prime Minister. She almost immediately called an election to legitimise her power.
As Prime Minister, Rudd belatedly signed Australia up to the Kyoto Protocol, tried hard to get a proper climate change deal in Copenhagen and tried twice but failed to get a carbon emissions trading scheme through parliament. He also wanted to introduce a special tax on super-profits in the mining industry. He wasn’t deep green, but he was certainly progressive.
You can imagine Gillard caused some excitement as the first female PM. She is also unmarried with a common-law husband, is child-free and is an atheist. But any gender advantage soon evaporated, as people resented the way she knifed the elected Prime Minister.
For environmentalists, Gillard was disappointingly weak. She dropped the mining tax under pressure from the mining industry and right-wing media commentators on talk-back radio and in the press. On climate change, she said that, if re-elected, she would convene an assembly of ordinary Australians to decide what to do. Quite what was meant by “ordinary Australians” was unclear. At any rate, Australia already has an assembly to help it decide on important issues – it’s called parliament.
The main opposition was Tony Abbott, leader of the conservative party that in Australia is confusingly called the Liberal Party. Abbott is the opposite of Gillard in his personal life. He once trained as a Catholic priest and is married with daughters whom he apparently advises to protect their “precious gift” of virginity. He is deeply socially conservative and has described himself as “not entirely comfortable” with gay people. Trivia: a fitness buff, he’s known as the “Budgie Smuggler” for wearing Speedo swim briefs on the beach.
Abbott doesn’t believe in human-caused climate change. He ran a negative, but effective, campaign and drummed up a lot of hysteria about illegal immigrants, known in Australia as “boat people” after the rickety boats they use to cross the Indian Ocean.
The election result
So… it seems that Australians decided to vote for “none of the above”. In Australia, voting is compulsory as it’s considered not just a civil right but also a civil responsibility. (Though what you do with the ballot paper is your own business.)
A record number of people voting for independents and minor parties. The Australian Greens saw a huge swing toward them, picking up over 13% of the vote. They won a seat in the Lower House in a general election for the first time ever – the seat of Melbourne in, er, Melbourne. And in the Senate it looks like they’ve increased their numbers from five to nine and will hold the balance of power in their own right. Greens leader Senator Bob Brown, shown below, is calling it a “greenslide”.
While Gillard is still caretaker PM, we still don’t know who will be the Prime Minister of Australia by the end of the week. Neither Abbott’s Liberal-National Coalition nor Gillard’s Labor Party have the 76 seats they need to govern in their own right. In fact, it looks like they might wind up with exactly 73 seats each, making the choice even more difficult.
Both Gillard and Abbott need the support of the Green and independent members of parliament to form government. The Green MP for Melbourne has said he won’t support Abbott but the independents, who may or may not vote together, are waiting for counting to be completed.
There are echoes of the UK election earlier this year, when both the Conservative and Labour parties failed to win an out-right majority. The Liberal Democrats held the balance of power and eventually went into coalition with the Conservatives. However, this is somewhat different – a minority government that operates with support of independents is not the same as a formal coalition of two parties. And the four MPs not from the major parties are all quite different from one another.
Whoever does manage to scrounge together a majority in the House and form a government will still need the cooperation of the Greens in the Senate to get their agenda through. The quid pro quo for that might be more meaningful action on environmental issues, such as climate change and water management.
Follow the Australian election on Twitter by looking up the hashtag #ausvotes.