Down Under and Upside Down: The Eccentricities of Australian Politics

September 5, 2013

Australia’s federal election to determine the members of Parliament will take place this Saturday, September 7th. In this article, American Katherine Thompson, who moved to Australia (prior to DOMA’s being declared unconstitutional, about which she’s written extensively for us), describes what it’s like to learn Australian politics from the perspective of a United States-born-and-raised citizen.

Australian politics has been happening all around me since I moved here, but until recently it felt like something too distant, dense and complicated to even start to understand. I’d encounter it in Youtube videos posted by non-Australians, hype about asylum seekers on the news, bizarre stories fit for The Daily Show, like when the Prime Minister’s partner told football players to get prostate exams from small Asian female doctors. And then waking up on June 26th to find that overnight, Kevin Rudd had replaced Julia Gillard as Prime Minister was a bit of a shock—how do you just replace the leader of your country without a vote? (I didn’t dwell on it at the time, because it was also the day that DOMA was overturned, and inexplicable turns of Australian politics fell low on the Facebook news feed…er…I mean, totem pole.)

But with the upcoming Federal election getting top billing all around me now, I’ve been thinking a lot about my adoptive country’s politics, and grappling with the difficulty of living in a country where I am profoundly affected by the government’s policies, but, until I become a citizen, unable to vote on them.  I’m eager to throw my support behind same-sex marriage, preserving/augmenting the carbon tax, completing the National Broadband Network, and shaping a more compassionate policy toward asylum seekers—but I’m also grateful that I don’t have to vote, because neither major party appeals and the vote-allocation system for minor party voting (more on that later) seems absurdly complex and leads back to the major parties in the end. Still, I’m gnawed by the question: how would I vote, if I could?

In Australia, voting is compulsory. You get fined if you don’t do it. But then, there are a lot of things about the Australian government that seem “bigger”—in the big/small government sense—than in America: a higher tax rate, strict gun control, national health care, a preponderance of speed cameras. Enforcement is big here; there’s something distinctly foreign to me about seeing every car on the road slow down to 40 kph (25 mph) in a school zone, seeing fishermen obediently measure their catch and throw it back if it’s too small, or seeing a playground full of schoolchildren all wearing wide-brimmed hats (and uniforms, of course). Australians never had a revolution against Britain (indeed, the last time Australians voted on “becoming a republic” and separating from Britain, in 1999, the move was resoundingly defeated), and never instituted a Bill of Rights elevating—and protecting—the individual in the same way America did. The end result is the government having wider recourse to do things like outlaw guns, institute a national healthcare scheme (and the taxation to fund it), and require citizens to vote. But after looking into what it takes to be an informed Australian voter, I’m convinced that there is no area other than doing one’s taxes in which the government attempts to make an entire nation do something so complicated.

So, the following is my an attempt to uncomplicate things, even just a little bit, for those utterly unfamiliar with Australian electoral proceedings.

The Constitution, Prime Ministership, and Parliament

So back to my earlier question—how is the Prime Minister determined, and how did that overnight switcheroo work?  The Prime Minister as an individual is not on the ticket, but rather is the head of whichever party receives the parliamentary majority. This means that it’s very hard to have the prime minister be of a party that doesn’t have the legislative majority (avoiding some of the stalemates so rampant in U.S. politics) but also means that the majority party can choose, at any time, to replace the current prime minister with another from their ranks—so the person leading the party when you voted for them may not remain in office until the next election. I admit to finding this a bit unsettling—maybe it’s the American in me that has more faith in an individual than in a party as a whole—and I find myself trying to imagine just voting for the “Democrats” rather than for Obama himself, or what if Obama could just be changed out for any other Democrat anywhere along the way?  (I also, just for fun, tried to imagine Michelle Obama making that gaffe about small Asian females, and I could not.)

Australia’s Constitution is not a document in its own right but is nestled within an Act of British Parliament from the year 1900, extolling the virtues of God and the British monarchy. The office of Prime Minister is never mentioned in the Constitution, and exists now through “custom” and serves “at the pleasure of the Governor-General” who is, in turn, appointed by the Queen. This freaks me out a bit, as a probable future-Australian. It seems really risky to have your head of government, and the rules surrounding that person including the breadth of their power—not established in writing somewhere. Like, say, in your Constitution. Another bizarre detail is that there are no term limits for a Prime Minister and it’s up to the party in charge to set the date for the next election! (Australians everywhere have been complaining about the 8 months o campaigning they’ve endured this year, the longest ever—I find it hard to be sympathetic.) Representatives come up for re-election every three years and Senators every 6, and their election must happen before their terms expire, but also the Governor-General (the one appointed by the Queen) can “dissolve” the parliament early if he/she wants to, and cause the election to occur earlier. If the same party maintains the parliamentary majority, it’s feasible for the same person to remain Prime Minister for many years, like Robert Menzies, who held the office for more than 18 years—or to serve for so short a time that someone who went on a short overseas vacation might never know he was prime minister, like Frank Forde, who was PM for only one week in 1945 (Oh, and Prime Minister is abbreviated “PM” and Member of Parliament is abbreviated “MP”, probably the two most-used acronyms in Australian politics—Dog help the dyslexics!). If your eyes are starting to cross and you are feeling as confused as when someone tries to explain to you the rules of cricket, I would rate your level of confusion as perfectly normal. I don’t have much hope to offer you—it gets worse from here.

The Major Parties

The two major parties are the Labor Party and the Liberal Party. Guess which one is more liberal? Labor. And wait, don’t they use British spellings? Why is it “Labor” and not “Labour”? Turns out they changed it to the American spelling in 1912 to align themselves with the American labor movement but to keep the party name distinct from that of the Australian labour movement. (Whaaaa?) In all other contexts than the name “Labor Party,” “labour” is spelled with the “u” in Australian English.

The Minor Parties

Labor and Liberal are certainly different, but, like the major American political parties, both are pretty centrist. So for voters who lean further toward the left or right, there are, as my dad would have said, “more minor parties than you can shake a stick at.” And, I mean, I could shake a stick at a LOT of parties. In a way, here’s where it gets interesting, because with a complex preferential voting system, you can vote for a minor party candidate AND choose where your vote will go if that candidate doesn’t win. It’s pretty ingenious, and I find myself imagining the what-ifs of how this might have played out if it were the rule in American politics—how many of us would have voted for the Green Party if we hadn’t felt like we were “throwing our vote away”? (Not to mention, what would American elections look like if voting were compulsory?)

But there’s a major problem with the Australian system, which is that registering a party is not very difficult—you need 500 signatures and $500—and so hundreds of parties have been created to address niche issues and groups. It is damn entertaining reading to just peruse the Wikipedia page listing all the Australian political parties. You’ll find the Wikileaks Party, which is trying to get Julian Assange elected to the Senate, the Pirate Party, which wants to do away with copyright and freely exchange media and information, the Motoring Enthusiast Party, the Bullet Train for Australia Party, the Help End Marijuana Prohibition (HEMP) Party, the Shooters and Fishers Party, the Smokers’ Rights Party, and everybody’s favorite, the Australian Sex Party, whose platform is actually pretty awesome.

Preferential Voting

So, yeah, it’s great to have choices—but having this many means that in New South Wales, if I were voting, I would have to rank 110 candidates for senate. Yes—write in the numbers 1-110 next to each candidate, and if I miss one, my vote doesn’t count. So since that seems like a shit-ton of work, most people vote “above the line,” which means ranking their number one choice and then going with that party’s pre-selected ranking. It’s kind of like voting a straight party ticket in the US in the sense that it’s the easy way out—but it’s also nothing like it, because you’re kind of voting for dozens of parties instead of just one. Being a truly informed voter means you have researched at least 50 parties and over a hundred candidates AND not just chosen your favorite but ranked them all in order of preference. It’s enough to make you want to watch cricket!

So—how would I vote if I could? And would I go “above the line” or below? I’m not sure. I love the idea of being able to vote left of center without worrying that it’s, in practice, a vote for the far-right. I’m guessing that Australians would find the year 2000 concept of Nader-trading as bizarre as I find their preferential ballot, and with good reason. And in order to NOT enable the Liberals to gain the majority, my rankings would probably lead, at some point, to the Labor Party, and then I would be complicit in their policy toward settling asylum-seekers in Papua New Guinea instead of in Australia, in what seems to me a violation of Australia’s obligations as a signatory to the U.N. Refugee Convention. Under a Labor government, I could get fat and happy in my officially recognized same-sex marriage while surfing super-fast internet, as long as I don’t think too hard about the fates of those who were willing to risk their lives and leave their homes in hopes of a better life in Australia.

I suppose, everywhere, politics are messy and imperfect, because people are messy and imperfect, and people coexisting in multicultural and democratic societies is kind of a miracle. Since I can’t vote on Saturday, I’ll cross my fingers and hope that a majority of Australia’s 14 million voters rank the biggest jerks last.