4 things to know about Australia’s contentious election

Australians head to the polls Saturday to vote in the country’s national election, and it’s shaping up to be a tight race.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government is facing a close contest with the social-democratic Australian Labor Party, led by Bill Shorten. Shorten is a former union leader who previously led his party to a narrow loss in 2016, but has remained in place since then.

Morrison has been the prime minister since August of last year, after his party’s parliamentary caucus voted to oust the previous leader, Malcolm Turnbull. Labor has been ahead in every national poll since the second half of 2017, but the home stretch of this campaign has seen the race significantly tighten.

The contest’s final days are also ending on a somber note, with the recent death of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke at age 89. Hawke, who served in the role from 1983 to 1991, presided over Australia’s economic deregulation in the 1980s, combining policies of free trade and global capital flows with progressive ideals such as universal health care, environmentalism, and women’s equality.

Here are four things to know about Australia’s contentious election ahead of Saturday’s vote.

1) Australia’s political challenges are remarkably similar to America’s

For most Americans who probably aren’t well versed in Australia’s political system, there are some features that might seem a bit odd.

For example, the major conservative party is called the Liberal Party (they’re also part of a larger coalition, but we’ll get into that more later). And while Australians generally use British spelling for words like “labour,” the major progressive force in Australian politics is named the Labor Party, using the American spelling.

So just remember: Labor = progressive, Liberal = conservative.

Australia has a federal political system, with six states and two territories, which have smaller populations. (The Australian Capital Territory is host to the nation’s capital city, Canberra.)

But there are a lot of other things about this faraway country that will sound quite familiar: The nation was founded by British colonists who considered Australia an extension of the British Empire, but it eventually went its own way from the mother country. Unlike the US, though, this happened through a slow process of political evolution during the 20th century, not a war of independence. In fact, Queen Elizabeth II is still the official head of state, and her face is on the dollar coin and $5 AUD bill.

The struggles of First Nations people — the original inhabitants of Australia — are also a big part of the national story: Conquered by the British and subjected to pervasive discrimination for 200 years, they were not even full citizens of the country until a 1967 referendum included them in the census population.

Even today, they continue to suffer from economic disadvantage due to that legacy of exclusion and social mistreatment. Their communities now seek to have an official constitutional role in the policies that affect them, through an elected chamber with real legal power — a matter of serious contention.

And in recent decades, Australia, like America, has struggled to adjust to the developments of multiculturalism, large-scale immigration, and how to adapt their resource-extraction and agricultural sectors to the challenges of climate change and environmental conservation.

2) Climate change has been a major issue for a long time — and there’s still no lasting political solution

Debates over climate and energy policy have dominated Australian politics for the past 10 years. The mining sector makes up a majority of the country’s exports in goods, which also leaves the country vulnerable to fluctuations in global commodity prices.

The Labor government of the early 2010s botched its response to the growing challenges of climate change. Namely, it enacted a controversial carbon tax — despite the fact that then-Prime Minister Julia Gillard had promised during the prior election not to enact a carbon tax. The conservative response from the Liberal Party leadership was to hold Tea Party-style rallies, which included various signs and chants referring to Gillard in vulgar and misogynistic ways.

In strict policy terms, the tax was a success: Emissions dropped significantly during the two years that the carbon tax was in effect, and the country continued to enjoy economic growth.

But the Liberals won the 2013 election by a convincing margin, and repealed the tax in 2014. The climate issue has not gone away, however, and has now become the Liberals’ own political headache. Conservatives’ policies offer only a patchwork of solutions, ranging from the expansion of the country’s hydroelectric power generation, to a “Direct Action” plan of credits and grants to businesses for projects that reduce emissions. (Critics have identified “integrity issues” with how this program has actually been carried out.)

The country’s current prime minister, Scott Morrison, has taken a hardline anti-environmentalist, pro-traditional industry stance — warning in this campaign of “green tape” costing jobs, as well as higher taxes for both individuals and businesses under Labor’s proposals. In 2017, when he was still a cabinet minister, he railed against environmentalism by bringing an actual lump of coal to the floor of Parliament, touting its virtues for the economy and accusing his opponents of “coal-o-phobia.”

Labor, on the other hand, has positioned itself as a pro-environmentalist party, and is running on proposals to develop a new, clean-energy economy and to develop Australia’s resources and domestic industry toward battery technology and other new opportunities.

And to contrast himself against Morrison, Labor leader Bill Shorten has promised to “not bring lumps of coal to Parliament for a laugh, while temperatures soar and bushfires rage, and flood and drought batter our land.”

Public opinion shows growing support for finding tangible ways to address climate change: 61 percent of the voting-age population now believe that action should be taken on the issue, even if it’s expensive.

3) Australia’s electoral system gives everyone a say — and demands that they say it

Australia has a variety of features in its electoral system — developed gradually over the past 100 years — that American advocates of voting and election reform could only dream of.

First, the country uses ranked-choice voting (or RCV, also known as instant-runoff voting) to elect members of their House of Representatives, the chamber that determines which party will govern the country. Instead of voting for one candidate, voters rank each person on the ballot with a “1” for their first choice, then “2” for the second choice, and so on to the last person.

If no candidate in a district has more than 50 percent of the “1” votes, then lower-ranking candidates are eliminated — and each of the voters’ next choices is distributed. A winner is declared once somebody gets to an outright majority.

Because of the way RCV works, the Liberal Party operates together with a smaller conservative organization, the National Party, whose support comes from rural areas. For nearly the past 100 years, conservative governments have actually been known as the “Coalition,” made up of the Liberal Party and the National Party.

RCV also means that there are two different tracks for calculating the overall popular vote. When all the votes are counted, election watchers will be paying attention to both the “primary vote” for Labor against Liberal or National candidates on the first round of counting in each district, and then the “two-party preferred vote” between the Coalition and Labor, when all the voters for minor parties have had their ballots redistributed further.

For example, the 2016 election had a primary vote figure of 42 percent for the Coalition versus 35 percent for Labor, and a final two-party preferred national popular vote of 50.4 percent Coalition to 49.6 percent Labor.

The House of Representatives districts themselves are also drawn by a nonpartisan, bureaucratic process — out of the direct reach of the ruling politicians themselves — which means the issue of gerrymandering that plagues the American electoral system is not as big of a concern in Australia.

Australians also elect an upper house of Parliament, their Senate, via proportional representation, with 12 seats from each of the six states — usually half of them up at each election, including this one — plus two each from the territories. Because of this, lots of different candidates can all run and make their pitches to voters.

There are a total of 1,514 candidates nationwide currently running for the 151 seats in the House of Representatives and 40 seats in the Senate. Many of them have no chance of winning, but they do have an opportunity to raise issues that could force the major parties to respond, thanks to the RCV system.

And voting in Australia isn’t just a civil right; it’s a civic duty. There’s a token fine of $20 AUD (around $14 USD) for people who fail to show up and cast a ballot. As a result, turnout levels can exceed 90 percent.

But this can also have the effect of setting up reliable, predictable blocs of people who always vote for one party or the other. Thus, elections become a close contest for those few swing voters in the middle. (Some have argued that such a system could have made the election of somebody like Donald Trump an impossibility.)

Because of this entire system, Australian politics enjoys the benefits of both a stable, two-party competition, as well as the added pluralism that comes from having many smaller parties. Those smaller parties can exercise influence by winning seats in the Senate, putting them in a position to cast decisive votes on legislation, so that the major parties will have to work with them and negotiate the details of what gets done.

During campaigns, the major parties have to court those small parties for an endorsement to their voters to give their second-choice vote rankings to one side or the other, in the races for swing seats.

The cooperation that the major parties have to pursue with smaller parties has become more and more of an issue that the two parties actually use against each other. For instance, Labor has assailed the Coalition for working with two alt-right parties — the anti-immigration One Nation party, and the United Australia Party of mining billionaire Clive Palmer (whose super-original slogan is “Make Australia Great.”)

Meanwhile, the Coalition has responded by attacking Labor for working with the environmentalist Australian Greens party, casting the latter’s environmental policies as “a far bigger threat to the Australian economy” than somebody like the scandal-plagued businessman Clive Palmer.

4) There have been a lot of prime ministers lately. Voters are hoping that stability can return.

Australia has attained a reputation in recent years for cycling through a lot of leaders, with 5 different people serving as prime minister over the past 10 years. In fact, the 2007 election — in which longtime Liberal PM John Howard lost the prime ministership and his own seat in Parliament — was the last time that a governing party went into an election with the same leader it’d had in the previous one.

Labor leader Kevin Rudd led the party to victory in 2007, only for the party caucus to dump him in 2010 for Julia Gillard. Then, with Labor seriously trailing in the polls, Rudd came back to oust Gillard in 2013, but still lost to the Coalition led by Tony Abbott.

But the instability turned out to be contagious: Abbott proved to be an unpopular prime minister, governing from the right with a series of severe budget cuts that violated his own campaign promises. So the Liberal Party dumped him in 2015 for the more socially progressive Malcolm Turnbull.

After Turnbull narrowly won the 2016 election, he went on to trail Labor in poll after poll, and was himself thrown out by the Liberals in 2018 and succeeded by Morrison. (Morrison’s own victory was a narrow one against a more right-wing rival.)

Both parties know that voters are sick of this revolving door, and they have both amended their own internal rules, requiring a supermajority threshold within a party’s parliamentary ranks in order to fire the leader. But it remains to be seen whether these rules can truly hold firm in the future if the parties’ ranks are determined to throw somebody overboard.

The first polls will close on the east coast of the country at 6 pm local time on Saturday — which works out to 4 am Eastern time in the United States.

After the election on Saturday, whichever party is victorious will also have to prepare to negotiate with the newly elected Senate, which will have the power to make or break the government’s policies.

It’s still unclear if an industrialized, democratic country can harness the political will and popular support to embrace a new environmental agenda — but this election may help provide an answer.


Clarification: An earlier version of this story referenced Queen Elizabeth II’s appearance on the $1 AUD bill. That note has been discontinued, but she appears on the $5 AUD bill and coins.

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