Australian Election : They’re A Weird Mob

Watching on (in horror) as our Australian cousins hold an election
by Gordon Campbell

Kevin Rudd or Tony Abbott? Jeez, what sort of choice is that – and yet even then, Australia seems about to take the worse alternative and pick Tony Abbott as its next Prime Minister. One of the comforting myths we like to entertain about Australians is that their leaders are all bat-eared troglodytes, and the only reason they’re richer than we are is because they’ve got mineral resources and we don’t – well, not unless we’re willing to dig up a few national parks to get at them. According to this view, the Lucky Country owes most of its luck to Mother Nature, and not because of any failings of political policy on our side of the Tasman. We hold onto this illusion despite the fact their successful minerals sector still comprises only 10% of their exports. Logically, there must be a bit more to it.

In fact, the main reason for the wealth/income/jobs gap between our two countries has to do with our failings, rather than their luck. For nearly 30 years, New Zealand has followed the neo-liberal orthodoxy, been cheered for it by the banks and rating agencies, and failed. Right from the outset. In contrast to the hamfisted way Roger Douglas opened up the New Zealand economy in the 1980s, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating took a more intelligent and nuanced approach that not only caused less social damage – with Hawke’s accord with trade unions being a prime reason – but caused less economic havoc as well, such that Australia’s record on economic growth and unemployment have been consistently superior. (See this recent story for some of the evidence.)

In fact, New Zealand rode out the Global Financial Crisis on the back of the large stimulus packages adopted in China and Australia alike. So much so that the Key government could afford to skimp on our own GFC stimulus package. Without that backstop, our ideological preference for austerity meassures and a quick return to budget surplus would have plunged us headlong into the sort of crises evident from sich policies in Europe. The role of Australia as a safety valve for the inability of successive New Zealand governments to foster job growth in sufficient numbers is also worth a mention. Without Australia, our unemployment stats would almost certainly be at sky high European levels.

So… maybe New Zealanders should bear that background in mind as they contemplate the Australian election on September 7th. Whatever the faults of Rudd and Abbott – and the political culture that bred them – we haven’t earned the right to look down our noses at Australia with any sense of superiority. True, the policies on asylum seekers of both the major parties in Australia are an abomination (see related story in this issue) but even then…. Australia currently takes in 20,000 refugees a year, while New Zealand nominally takes in only 750 and often struggles to even meet that quota.

While we can ( and should) decry their detention of boat people and their families, the New Zealand government this year passed a law enabling similar detention of boat arrivals, if and when any such boats ever make it to our shores. Judging by the Australian experience, 90% of the people on board are likely to be genuine refugees fleeing from persecution, and deserving of protection under the commitments New Zealand voluntarily made when we signed the Refugee Convention. We should be doing better than the Australians when it comes to asylum seekers, not trying to emulate them.

But just on that bat-eared troglodyte front again for a moment…the most stellar media incident in the entire campaign would have to be this great Channel 10 doorstop interveiw with Jaymes Diaz, the Liberals candidate for the seat of Greenway. The carnage begins at around 3.16 on this clip, when Diaz really, really can’t remember his own party’s six point policy on asylum seekers, and there’s no place for him to hide from the inexorable Channel 10 guy once he smells blood. For the rest of the campaign, Diaz was virtually invisible. He is expected to win Greenway.

Even from this distance, the virulence of the anti-Rudd stance taken by some elements in the Murdoch media – which publicly threw much of its resources, front pages, editorial line and reportage behind Abbott weeks ago – has been pretty astonishing.”Throw This Mob Out” was the Daily Telegraph’s screaming headline on the day the election date was announced, and the bias has not let up. .On August 27 in one of many instances, the Telegraph ran a story about Labor’s mooted $37 billion National Broadband Network headlined “Galaxy Poll Reveals Business Executives Have Little Faith in NBN.” Yet in the story, the poll results showed that a majority of the 400 business executives canvassed had said the NBN would make a significant difference to their businesses. In its reporting on this discrepancy, the Crikey website pointed out that the Galaxy poll had been paid for by Servcorp, a multinational that together with its subsidiaries and CEO, has donated a total of over one million dollars to the Coalition in election campaigns since 1998. No Servcorp donations whatsoever to Labor during that period have been detected.

The role of the polls has been particularly controversial. In Australia, voting is compulsory. This hands significant power to the pollsters – since swing or uncommitted voters who want to go with the winner have all the incentive in the world to go for the team out in front, thereby turning the polls into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s where the robopolls have come in. In this election, the automated robo-polling has been showing extraordinarily huge 8-10% swings to the Coalition in some crucial seats in Queensland – the state that has been at the heart of Rudd re-election strategy – at a time when traditonal polling was showing only a 2% margin between the parties. In noting this discrepancy, the Sydney Morning Herald reported in these sceptical terms:

If you believe the opinion polls, there must be two elections going on. One is the Federal election, where the established pollsters agree that the Coalition has established a small but growing lead, averaging 52-48 on their latest polls. ( Now at 54-46 on first preferences by the start of the final week in the Newspoll poll] That’s a swing of 2 per cent. [But]On Thursday, a Guardian Lonergan poll reported that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stands to lose his own seat of Griffith in a 10.5 per cent swing against Labor. If you haven’t heard of Lonergan, it’s because they are brand new; their accuracy is untested. But Lonergan is on a roll. Last week it stunned us by reporting that Labor’s other big name in Queensland, Peter Beattie, would lose Forde in a swing of 8.5 per cent to the Coalition. And it told us Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury stands to lose his western Sydney seat of Lindsay in a swing of 11 per cent.

Uh-huh. Lonergan’s own national poll reports only a 2 per cent swing against Labor. Yet in the three seats it polled individually, it found an average swing of 10 per cent. That’s huge, far bigger than we have seen in any Federal election since 1943. Its Rudd poll came out as The Australian’s Newspoll reported a swing of 2 per cent to Labor in Queensland. Is there a swing to Labor in the other 28 seats in Queensland, but a landslide against it where Rudd and Beattie are standing? Maybe not.

Shonky polling that creates the sense of a foregone conclusion in the home stretch of a campaign is significant. The trend towards Abbott was being trumpeted by the Murdoch papers a week after the campaign began, and has spilled over into September. Yet as late as 21 August, when an Abbott victory was already being predicted, this Crikey poll summary showed a state by state breakdown with Rudd and Labor with a tiny but growing lead, once second preferences were tabulated. The crucial state of Queensland was deadlocked. Here’s their chart to prove it :

Whether it was ignited by shonky polls or not, the sense that Abbott is a shoo-in has now become the universal sentiment – and the post mortems on the Rudd campaign have already begun. Rudd’s main failure on the campaign trail has been the lack of willingness to run on Labor’s record, and his (suicidal?) insistence on fighting the election on Abbott’s terms – mainly by trying to scare the public about the likelihood that an Abbott government will cut public services, just as the ruling conservative state government in Queensland has done. As many commentators have noted, Rudd has run his campaign as if he is the leader of the Opposition – and Abbott has responded in kind, by acting as if the Howard government was still in power and he has been anointed to carry on its good work.

In the last week of the campaign, Rudd swung back to the ground where he should have been all along – as the leader of the party that steered the Australia successfully through the Global Financial Crisis and as the guarantor of jobs and prosperity during the difficult times ahead. Only after that message had been safely entrenched could the secondary scare tactics against the Coalition’s intentions have carried any credible weight. But not only did Rudd undersell Labor’s own story ; even his attack lines on Abbott would often wander off into speculation about building a bullet train link between Sydney and Melbourne or shifting a major naval base from Sydney to Brisbane. Too little, too late was heard of the campaign envisaged by Julia Gillard earlier this year – back when local jobs, education funding, care for the disabled and Labor’s track record of economic management were going to be her government’s main pitches for re-election. .

Unlike New Zealand, Australia has a two tier parliamentary system (a House of Representatives and a Senate ) and a system of state government to boot. In the polls, Tony Abbott and the Coalition have a clear and probably decisive edge when it comes to control of the House. But in the Senate, the contest is far closer, mainly because the Australian political system has bloomed this year into a strange and exotic profusion of micro-parties.

In order to list them, the ballot paper will be a metre long, with 45 columns on the NSW ballot, and 40 columns on the Victoria one. To cope, the Australian Electoral Commission has reportedly reduced font sizes to 6.5 or 7 in NSW, Victoria and Queensland in order to fit in all the names. On polling day, voters will be offered the use of magnifying sheets to read them. All up, the Electoral Commission reports a record 529 candidates have nominated for the Senate. They include the No Carbon Tax Climate Sceptics’ Party, the Smokers Rights’ Party and the Stop Coal Seam Gas Party which is dead against that kind of mining in water catchment areas on the Illawarra. In the Australia Capital Territory, the Animal Justice Party has first place on the ballot paper, thereby benefitting, as one local newspaper has noted, from the so-called “donkey vote” – whereby once you’ve filled in the order of your real preferences, you conserve mental energy by filling in the rest of the teeming list of candidates in the same order that they appear on the ballot paper. The donkey vote has been a factor before in Australian elections:

Before 1984, candidates were listed in alphabetical order, which led to a profusion of Aaronses and Abbotts contesting elections. A notable example was the 1937 Senate election, in which the Labor candidate group in New South Wales consisted of Amour, Ashley, Armstrong and Arthur—all of whom were elected.

The Rise Up Australia Party is standing in Canberra, as well as the Clive Palmer United Party – a billionaire’s vanity project that is promising pensioners a $150 a week boost to their pensions, “on the grounds that they’re paid less than asylum seekers.” Bob Katter’s Australian Party, the Stable Population Party, The Bullet Train for Australia Party, the Sex Party, The Pirate Party, The Drug Law Reform Party and Philip Nitschke for the Voluntary Euthanasia Party are also standing in Canberra, and nationwide. The proliferation of micro-parties (and the complex ticket sharing and allocation deals that go on between them) make the likely power balance in the Senate impossible to predict. The consensus is that the Senate will be a much tighter contest. Currently, the Greens hold the balance of power there.

Certainly, the potential for smaller micro-parties to hold the balance of power was the reason why Julian Assange entered his Wikileaks Party in the Senate race. However, the Wikileaks Party has since imploded, over a ridiculous policy calculus on preference trade-offs, whereby Assange and his crew ended up placing the right wing Shooters Party – and in some regions, a neo-Nazi Party and the Liberals – on their list ahead of natural allies like the Greens. This was even the case in a tight race where Greens MP Scott Ludlam, Assange’s staunchest defender in the Australian Parliament, is fighting for political survival in Western Australia. Thanks a bunch, Assange.

For many New Zealanders, the voting system is not an easy thing to get one’s head around. The 150 House of Representatives races are waged on a straight single member preference system – where losing votes are re-allocated in the order stated by the voter. (This is one reason why voters have to rank every and all candidates in the order that they prefer, or else their entire ballot will be declared invalid.) The system of preferential voting was concocted in 1918 by a conservative federal government aghast that vote splitting between conservative parties in rural seats was letting Laboir in through the middle. Ranking meant that preferences could be expressed, without exposing conservative rule to risk, overall. Genius!

The Senate races however seek a degree of proportionality in the form of Single Transferable Vote contests with a fair degree of ticket sharing and so called group voting ( I’ll spare you the mysterious nuances of “above the line” and “below the line” voting, but here’s an intro.)

Here’s how simple it gets (sarcasm) if you happen – for argument’s sake – to be the Liberals candidate Zed Seselja, and are seeking one of two Senate seats in the Australian Capital Territory. Keep in mind for starters, that the quota for automatic election here is 33.3% of the primary votes cast. In the past two elections Labor has polled around 40%, giving it a roughly 7 per cent surplus to be re-distributed via preferences. It will only get tricky if the Liberals fall below the 33.3 % threshold, and Seselja becomes reliant on the re-distribution of the micro-party preferences to get him over the line. So how might this pan out on voting day ? I’ll let Australian analyst Anthony Green of the ABC do his best to try and explain:

The Stable Population Party has lodged three tickets, two with preferences for the Greens, one for the Liberals. The Labor vote distributed is equal to the percentage beyond the filled quota. So the calculus of the ACT Senate seats is that if the Liberal Party polls 33.3%, Seselja wins the second seat without the need for preferences.

Right. Got that. And this next bit is easy enough, too.

If the Liberal Party plus Animal Justice, plus Rise Up Australia, plus one third of the Stable Population Party vote, is greater than 33.3%, then similarly, Seselja will win the second ACT Senate seat on preferences. If neither of those conditions are met, then we start looking at all the below the line preference votes and the race between the Greens Simon Sheikh and Seselja gets interesting.

If you say so. And its interesting because… the role of numbered preferences and the upflow of the ticket vote will then need to be considered.

On a technical note, what matters is the total of ‘1’ votes for Seselja including the ticket votes, rather than the total of the two Liberal candidates. The second Liberal would be excluded if Seselja is less than 33.3%, but the preferences would flow overwhelmingly up the ticket to him. A victory by Simon Sheikh would make it much more likely that the Greens would retain the balance of power in the Senate. That might make you wonder why the Animal Justice Party has directed preferences against the Greens, given Animal Justice’s major campaign focus is bringing an end to live animal exports.

Indeed. And the reason why the Animal Justice Party is doing this ? Because in the past, the Greens have been mean to kangaroos :

The Australian Capital Territory Legislative Assembly Member ( and Green) Shane Rattenbury, who is the teritory’s Minister for Territory and Municipal Services, apparently authorised the cull of about 1450 kangaroos last month to protect rare grasslands from overgrazing.

So there you have it. Tony Abbott as Prime Minister, a Coalition majority in the House of Representatives…and with the balance of power in the Senate quite possibly decided by how a splinter party feels about the fate of a bunch of ravenous kangaroos. As I say, they’re a bit of a weird mob.