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Explaining Politics: Australia

Explaining Politics: Australia

2018 was a typically turbulent year for politics down under with a leadership switch within the ruling party see the nation’s leadership change almost overnight, but how exactly does politics work down under?

Despite being one of the world’s largest nations, Australia is rarely considered in the conversation amongst the world’s largest economies; partly due to being tucked away, miles away from its cultural peers, partly because of having a population smaller than that of Taiwan or Madagascar.

However, Australia is a vitally important member of the global community, being an active member of the G12, as one of the worlds largest economies, therefore understanding its confusing and unique politics is vitally important and relentlessly entertaining.

Political Makeup of Australia

Much like the United States, Australia is made up of a collection of states and territories, ruled together under a Federal Government, with the Prime Minister heading the government.

Unlike the US, however (where the executive is separate from the legislature), the Australian system is based on the Westminster model, drawing its executive from whichever party gains the majority in the legislative branch – which comprises of a House of Representatives and a Senate.

The House of Representatives acts in the same way as the UK House of Commons, representing individual constituencies, whilst the Senate is there to represent the various states and territories of the nation.

Perhaps the most unique part of the Australian system is the frequency of its elections – roughly every three years – one of the shortest turnarounds in the democratic world. This regularity of elections has been cited by several scholars as the reason for Australia’s turbulent governance, with no Prime Minister managing to face two consecutive elections since Kevin Rudd took the helm in 2007.

Political parties of Australia

The turbulence in leadership has largely stemmed from internal fights within the major parties; the Labor Party (drawn from the American spelling for marketing purposes, despite Australia using the British spelling of Labour) and the Liberal Party.

The Labor party, as the name would suggest, prides itself on representing the Australian working class and minorities. Founded in 1901 – the year Australia was federated as a nation – the Labor party is Australia’s oldest political party and has its roots in the various labour movements that sprung up throughout colonial Australia.

The Liberal party – the other major player in federal politics – is much younger, having only been founded in its current incarnation in 1944, although its roots lie much earlier. The Liberal party, Australia’s major centre-right party, have been in power since 2013 and are currently led by Scott Morrison, the nation’s third PM in 5 years.

Australia is a predominantly a two-party system, however, there are several smaller parties who are still influential, particularly in state and local precincts. The National Party of Australia (formerly known as the Country Party) are the other major centre-right party. Closely aligned with the Liberals, the party predominantly represents the rural parts of the nation and the thriving farming community.

The Green Party are also growing in significance, but akin to much of the world, there is a significant growth in right-wing populism. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party (aptly named after its leader) has offered a controversial brand of populism which has seen Pauline Hanson walk into the nation’s parliament wearing a Burka.

The States and Territories

Australia is made up of six states:

  • New South Wales
  • Queensland
  • South Australia
  • Tasmania
  • Western Australia
  • Victoria

And three internal territories:

  • Northern Territory
  • Australian Capital Territory
  • Jervis Bay Territory

As well as numerous offshore territories.

The States of Australia are considered full members of the federation, having full representation and voting rights within the national government. However, the territories have different arrangements, often having no say in the governance of the nation.

The Northern Territory, which contains major areas such as Darwin and Alice Springs, and a population of around 250,000 have very little ability to influence the national direction, with just two Senators (states have twelve) and extremely little ability to influence the national agenda.

Territories are also not covered by the constitution, therefore the citizens of territories can be discriminated against as they do not have any of the protections guaranteed by the constitution.

The Australian Capital Territory contains Canberra, which has been the nation's capital since 1911, after being selected as a compromise between the nation's two major cities; Melbourne and Sydney which were both competing to be the nation's major city and capital.

Each state and territory has massive jurisdiction over its internal government, with everything from energy policy to driving tests falling to the state governments.

Brief History of Australian politics

As a young nation, Australia has had relatively few Prime Ministers, with just 29 men and one woman serving the position.

However, recent years have seen a huge swathe of different leaders. Since 2007 Australia has had five PM’s: Kevin Rudd (2007-10 and 2013), Julia Gillard (2010-2013), Tony Abbott (2013-2015) Malcolm Turnbull (2015-18) and Scott Morrison (2018-present).

This recent turbulence has seen no Prime Minister face two consecutive elections since before Kevin Rudd took office in 2007. This turbulence has been caused by internal party fighting which has resulted in successive leadership spills; the Aussie term for a change in leadership.

The most recent of these occurred back in August when Liberal Party leader Malcolm Turnbull was ousted by a right-wing faction within the party, with Peter Dutton forcing him out to fulfil his own ambitions. The ensuing leadership election (which Turnbull was not allowed to contest) saw Morrison prevail as a compromise candidate given Dutton’s right-wing positions condemning him as unelectable according to the Australian media.

However, despite Morrison’s greater electability, he lags significantly behind Labor in the polls, meaning that when Australia next cast ballots in 2019, the nation can probably expect its sixth leader in twelve years.

But Australia has not always been so turbulent, with several Prime Ministers serving for more than a decade. John Howard served for 11 years between 1996 and 2007, whilst Robert Menzies, perhaps the nation’s most famous ever leader, lasted for 17 years between 1949 and 1966.

However, Australia has also been littered with scandals that are perhaps unbelievable outside of the nation. The most infamous of which saw Robert Menzies successor, Harold Holt, disappear whilst in office. The nation’s largest-ever political scandal saw the Prime Minister disappear whilst swimming off the Mornington Peninsula (near Melbourne) in 1967. Perhaps the strangest part about the disappearance is the way the nation chose to immortalise the likely drowned leader – naming a swimming pool after him in Melbourne.

Australia’s dark secret

Perhaps the most unique and certainly the most shocking part of Australia’s politics is the way it deals with the indigenous population. For the first centuries of Australia’s settlement (before it was federated in 1901), the Aboriginal people were actively massacred, both literally and approximately. Genocide, starvation and disease saw swathes of the indigenous population killed during settlement, a dark mark that still impacts the nation today.

Until as recently as the 1970s Australia actively engaged in the White Australia Policy, which saw active discrimination against any none-whites, particularly the indigenous people.

In 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd made a national apology which promised a change for the indigenous peoples who were still being discriminated against, however, in 2018, many indigenous people are more likely to go to prison than graduate from high school.

Even though today only 2-3% of the population is indigenous, around 25% of the prison population is from the aboriginal community.

Even today, Australia’s politics are blighted with how to deal with such a horrifically marginalised community and the ways to rectify the wrongs of this dark stain on their past.

Australia today

Australia today grapples with many of the issues of the modern world. With an economy increasingly reliant on Asia, Australia faces a wave of nationalism that has swept much of the world in recent years.

This year has seen the government gripped by yet another leadership spill, with another leadership change on the horizon when the nation goes to the polls again next year.

Whatever happens down under, if history is anything to go by then it should be another extremely interesting year for politics. For anyone fascinated in the political shenanigans of the western world, there is no better place to immerse yourself than Oz. 

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