A postcard from… Australia

The coalition continues to hold relatively fast, despite the predicted fall out from June’s vote on the Jeremy Hunt affair. Down Under however, a more dubious coalition is not looking so chipper, and the Lib Dems would be wise to note the similarities, and differences, from the Australian experience.

Much has been said about the pros and cons of political coalitions. In Australia, the centre-right Liberal and rural-based National Party have been in coalition since 1922. Both parties hold similar conservative values and have historically maintained an effective relationship. The centre-left Labor Party has received Green preferences since the formation of the environmental party in 1992, but until the last election in 2010, the Greens were only a minor player with little weight to influence major policy.

This is an important difference, because while there are some overlapping ideologies between Labor and the Greens, the vast majority are wide apart, or worse, at logger heads. Labor stands for jobs for the working man and woman; the Greens stand for environmental conservation. Put a Forestry Unionist into a small room with an environmentalist and you’ll see what I mean.

Bearing this in mind, come the 2010 election, and Australia saw its first hung parliament since 1940. The Labor Party managed to secure government by the narrowest of margins, slipping under the sheets with three independents but more relevantly the one Greens MP. To obtain what votes it did required the pulling out of all stops to overcome an effective warning by the conservatives that a Labor government would mean a grossly unpopular carbon tax, prompting the now infamous declaration by Prime Minister Julia Gillard that “there will be no carbon tax under the government I lead”.

With the start of the new fiscal year now upon us (in a month some commentators relentless refer to as “Ju-liar”) a Greens-imposed carbon emissions tax is already beginning to bite. The Australian public are smarting from not just a new controversial tax, but from a government who expressly denied it would impose it. While Labor has had Greens preferences for over two decades, the current entente has come at a terrible price. Working class families are adjusting their weekly shopping to accommodate what was once regarded as extremist (certainly eco-terrorist) policy. The stalwarts of the Labor Party are shell-shocked with disbelief, feeling cheated and abandoned by their once great party.

Political manoeuvring and even untruths are not uncommon, but bald-faced lying is never likely to be popular. Why people lie is a topic of much philosophical and academic discussion, but how political parties manage changes of position can make or break it at the next election.

I make the point above conscious that I am sailing close to the wind by referring to pre-election promises and post-election policy. Before I hit any raw nerves I think that what’s instructive for the Lib Dems here is to recognise the significant, in fact fundamental, difference between the nature of the Labor/Greens alliance, and the Conservative/Lib Dems coalition. Labor aligned itself with a far more extreme, radical party than the Conservatives.

In Australia’s 150 seat House of Representatives (the equivalent of the House of Commons), the Greens obtained one seat. I’m no statistician, but for argument let’s say that that one seat represents about 0.6% of parliament; or put another way, a tiny fraction of the constituency. By virtue of circumstance, out of all proportion, a party with one MP has dictated the most controversial tax in Australia’s history. In comparison, the Lib Dems won 57 seats (23% of the vote) and the Conservatives won 307 (47%). Conservative policies are favoured by almost half the voting public—that is a far cry from less than 1% in Australia.

When Fancis Bacon said “It is as hard and severe a thing to be a true politician as to be truly moral” he was no doubt referring to situations similar to what Labor and the Lib Dems have found themselves in. I can only imagine that The News of The World scandal has revealed enough lies in recent times to sicken the British public, and to be accused of lying about tuition fees assigns a knowingness, a conscious motivation that plainly wasn’t there. Was there a change of stance? Certainly. Was it a malicious untruth? Almost certainly not. Is the new position policy that is favoured by more than 0.6%? Absolutely.

* The author is from Melourne, Australia and, while not a member of the Liberal Democrats, maintains an interest in the party from the other side of the world.

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  • Tony Dawson 12th Jul '12 - 7:29pm

    “the Lib Dems won 57 seats (23% of the vote) and the Conservatives won 307 (47%).”

    er……. try 36.05 per cent of the vote for the Tories. They got 47 per cent of the seats! so the statement:

    “Conservative policies are favoured by almost half the voting public” is a little off beam.

  • “Working class families are adjusting their weekly shopping to accommodate what was once regarded as extremist (certainly eco-terrorist) policy. The stalwarts of the Labor Party are shell-shocked with disbelief…”

    Er, so, some prices have risen a bit, because of a new tax aimed at reducing carbon emissions…?

    Perhaps we could cure global warming by banning overheated political rhetoric?

  • Elliot Bidgood 13th Jul '12 - 3:06am

    Although I’m aware the carbon tax was divisive issue in the ALP and was part of what destroyed Rudd’s premiership, it was a key Labour issue until it was dropped in 2010, some I presume there’s more to it than just the Greens MP favouring it. Tuition fees, by contrast, had long been a flagship policy of the Lib Dems, and even the Conservatives “opposed” tuition fees in 2003 for political reasons. The size of the reversals aren’t really comparable.

  • Several things:

    1. The Greens also hold the balance of power in the Australian Senate. It’s not just dependence on one Green MP in the House of Representatives which props up Labor and its agenda.

    2. One thing that isn’t clear from this piece is the precariousness of Labor’s position: they have been wiped out in Queensland and New South Wales state elections recently. In Queensland alone, ALP went from 51 seats to 7. Not down by 7 – they reduced from 51 seats to 7. If the national government falls, and I suggest it will at some point, it is likely to lose.

    3. It also isn’t clear that the Liberal / National Coalition is probably to the Right of the Tories.

    I suggest that this scenario is quite different from what we’re experiencing in the UK and thus not comparable. It’s a pity the centrist Australian Democrats aren’t getting more traction.

  • Alex Macfie 13th Jul '12 - 1:36pm

    Shame that our sister party the Australian Democrats seems to have imploded.

  • Old Codger Chris 13th Jul '12 - 5:30pm

    Looked at from afar, it seems to me that Australia is a very successful country despite its politicians with their so-frequent elections, compulsory voting and electoral systems which make FPTP appear logical and democratic.

    But perhaps I will be corrected by someone who is better informed.

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