In less than two weeks’ time, on Saturday 20th May the Australian electorate goes to the polls to select a new government. If the opinion polls are correct, it should be a victory for the Labor Party which last held power in 2013. There are however, a number of uncertainties in the polls. The first is the rise of independent candidates, mainly women, standing in government held seats. Again, if the polls are correct, a number of them are likely to be elected. Whether there will be enough to deny the Labor Party a majority is one of the great uncertainties of this election.
There is no doubt that the Prime Minister Scott Morrison is profoundly unpopular. His reputation has not been enhanced by his capacity for telling lies, some even contradicting previous lies, and all without the least amount of shame. Opposition to the Prime Minister is particularly strong among women voters, and they constitute a majority of the voting population.
Although the Labor Party has enjoyed a consistent majority over the government of an average of six percentage points for at least the past several months, there are still reservations about its leader Anthony Albanese across the board. Mr Albanese can genuinely point to a generally hostile media to explain why a number of voters are still unsure as to what he stands for.
The animosity of the media is well known. Australia is one of the least well-served countries in the western world for the range of media opinion to which the public is exposed. This is due in no small part to the incredible concentration of ownership of the mainstream media, with one man, Rupert Murdoch, accounting for nearly 70% of the total reading public’s choice. Most of the 30% balance is owned by one other company, recently bought by one of the major commercial television channels. It is a concentration of ownership unmatched anywhere else in the western democracies.
Another reason for hesitation in the public mind, and a major factor behind the incredible support for the so-called “Teal” independents (derived from their colour of choice), is that in many important areas the Labor Party is almost indistinguishable from the Liberal – National coalition parties. This was never truer than in foreign policy.
To understand this remarkable uniformity in foreign policy opinion in the major parties one has to go back to the Whitlam Labor government that was in power from 1972–75. Whitlam was a remarkable man who envisaged an Australia that made its own independent choices in foreign policy. Part of this was Whitlam recognising the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China. Another was withdrawing Australia from its involvement in the Vietnam war.
The really important decision that prompted the coup that was mounted against his government was the intention to close the United States spy base at Pine Gap in the Northern Territory. This base was (and is) a crucial component of the United States spying network set up to oppose China.
The day before Whitlam was to announce its closure to the Australian parliament, the Governor General John Kerr dismissed the government. It was an unprecedented exercise of the Governor General’s power. We now know that the sacking of the Whitlam government was done at the request of the Americans who were alarmed at both the independence of Australian foreign policy being pursued by the Whitlam government, and specifically the closure of its centrally important spy base at Pine Gap in the Northern Territory.
That effectively marked the end of an independent Australian foreign policy. The four Labor Prime Ministers who have since held office have all been marked by their willing compliance with United States foreign policy, including involvement in two major wars, against Iraq and Afghanistan. Australian troops are still in Iraq to this day and have simply ignored a 2021 Iraqi demand that they leave. This is of course at the behest of the United States government which similarly maintains an unwelcome presence in that country.
The latest manifestation of Australian subservience to United States foreign policy is the sending of an aircraft to assist the Ukrainian government in its fight with the Russians. It would be difficult to nominate a country whose interests are more remote from those of Australia than the Ukraine. Yet the deployment of the Australian air force plane was met with complete acquiescence by the Labor Party.
While there is little doubt that a Labor government would be a measurable improvement on the present regime whose corruption and incompetence have become legendary, it is this continued subservience to the United States that has given much impetus to the “Teal” independents running in the election.
The Australian electoral system is manifestly unfair, and it will be difficult for the “Teal” independents to gain sufficient votes to actually win seats as opposed to merely showing a good result and perhaps permitting the Labor Party to accrue the benefit of their leading the opposition to the government.
That would leave a lot of frustrated voters who will fail to see their votes reflected in seats actually won. The present system certainly favours the government and Labor parties and there is little support in their ranks for implementing a fairer and more equitable system, such as is found in the overwhelming majority of western democracies.
It may be that the results of the election, by being so manifestly unfair, will provide a crucial momentum for change that will benefit future elections. It would be unwise however, to hold one’s breath waiting for change. The Australian government is at heart profoundly conservative, irrespective of which major party holds power. Radical change, even when democratic, just makes them nervous.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based former Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.