Australia held a general election last Saturday, 21 May. The governing Liberal National party coalition was heavily defeated. It will be replaced by the Labor government which at the time of writing did not hold a majority of the seats in Parliament. In fact, the victorious Labor Party managed to win less than one third of the popular vote.
The real winners in this election were the small Green Party, which increased the number of seats it holds in the Lower House from 1 to 3, with a strong possibility of achieving a fourth seat. They will be joined on the cross bench by a record number of independents who cut a swathe through the government held seats, ejecting, inter alia, the deputy leader of the Liberal Party and outgoing treasurer, Josh Frydenberg.
The leader of the party and outgoing prime minister Scott Morrison has resigned as leader. The Liberal Party is yet to hold an election to choose a replacement, but the leading candidate to succeed Morrison as leader of the Liberal Party is the outgoing Defence Minister Peter Dutton. Dutton has a very low level of popularity in the country as a whole. He represents the right wing of the Liberal Party. His election as leader will signal the fact that the Liberal Party has learned nothing from its defeat. That defeat represented a clear rejection by the voting public of the right-wing policies which characterised that government.
For example, it had to be dragged kicking and screaming to a modest position on reducing carbon emissions. Even their modest target of a 50% reduction in emissions by 2050 was not universally accepted within the party. Taking real action on climate change and the challenges it poses was one of the major policy issues of the successful independent candidates who increased both their share of the vote and radically increased the number of seats they held in the Lower House. It is highly likely that they will hold the balance of power, together with the Green Party, in the incoming House of Representatives.
The incoming Labor government ran a very cautious campaign. Their strongest policy seems to be that they were not the government and therefore offered a better choice than the deeply unpopular prime minister (especially with women voters) and offered a choice on that basis. It is certainly true that the Labor Party offered a vastly better option for women voters, both in terms of its policy options, and also in the number of high-quality female candidates on offer to the electorate. It is significant in this context that the majority of the successful independent candidates were also women.
In terms of foreign policy however, the two major parties are almost indistinguishable. The new prime minister Antony Albanese will leave the country on Monday with his foreign minister the Malaysian born ethnic Chinese Penny Wong. They are to attend the so-called Quad meeting in Japan where they will be meeting the prime ministers of Japan and India, as well as the president of the United States Joe Biden.
This grouping of four nations was set up to respond to the challenge of an increasingly assertive China on the world stage. The United States will undoubtedly be pushing at the meeting for a stronger response to the rise of China which the United States perceives as its major competitor for world dominance.
It is in many respects a curious amalgam of nations. For all four countries, China is the largest trading partner and to mount a military challenge to such a country is at the very least an odd policy option. India has other reasons not to pursue an anti-China policy. Both countries for example are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a body that promotes defence cooperation among its many members, as well as promoting a strengthening degree of economic co-operation.
The role of India is especially interesting in this unlikely quartet of nations. Apart from being a member of the SCO India also has a long extensive relationship with Russia going back decades. India refused to join the largely western group of nations in condemning Russia for its intervention in Ukraine. It shared that distaste with the vast majority of the world’s nations. As much as the United States likes to pretend that it is the embodiment of the “rules based international order”, the blunt fact is that the majority of the world’s nations do not perceive themselves as loyal followers of this grouping and much prefer the concept of an international system of law that is not dictated to by a single nation that is desperate to maintain its rapidly fading hegemony.
Antony Albanese, the incoming prime minister has also made public comments expressing support for the United States. This is perhaps the most disturbing element in the entire Labor policy framework. Ever since the United States engineered overthrow of the reformist Whitlam Labor government in 1975, the Labor Party has been very reluctant to pursue a foreign policy that departed to any significant degree from United States policy options.
This has included support for United States foreign policy aggression in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. Australia ignored the demand by the Iraqi government that its troops should leave the country that it had invaded in 2002 on the wholly false pretext that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.
Albanese has publicly expressed support for the United States and has described its president Joe Biden as a “friend”. That does not augur well for a foreign policy based on acting in Australia’s best interests. Despite her Chinese ethnicity, the new foreign minister Penny Wong is also a sceptic as to Australia’s future good relationship with China.
Given that China is the market for 40% of Australia’s total export trade, is a major beneficiary of Chinese investment in the country, and is home to more than 1 million citizens of Chinese ethnicity, such a blind adherence to United States foreign policy objections is to say the very least a curiously self-defeating policy.
Wong, for example, described the recent decision by the Solomon Islands government to forge closer ties with the People’s Republic of China as Australia’s greatest foreign policy failure since the end of World War II, 77 years ago. Given that the Solomons is an independent country located 2000 km from Australia, with no evidence of any military threat to Australia, it is to say the least a curious statement.
Given the public statements of both Albanese and Wong it is highly unlikely that there will be any significant improvement in Australia’s foreign policy options under the new government. This is perhaps the most disappointing feature of the election, despite my sharing the relief and pleasure at the demise of the previous government.
James O’Neill, an Australian-based former Barrister at Law, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.