I’ve been asked a few times in the last few days by friends overseas, “OK, what the **** just happened in Australia?”
It has been a bit of a tumultuous week. There was this guy who gets paid lots of money and has a guaranteed pension for life who got deposed by a really rich guy who also gets paid lots of money and will get a guaranteed pension for life if he happens to hang around long enough (but by rights based on how rich he is probably doesn’t really need the guaranteed pension for life).
But to understand all this, we need to step back and explain the Australian democratic process.
First, unlike most other democracies, Australia has compulsory voting. In Australia if you’re on the electoral roll and you don’t vote in an election, you’re eligible for a fine. This is seen as a good way of forcing people to participate in the democratic process, and many Australians believe that anyone who votes “informal” (e.g., deliberately makes their vote invalid) cedes any right to complain about elected officials or government policy. People who cast informal votes do not subscribe to this theory and will often be the most vociferous.
(I am not one of those people. I carefully vote correctly each time and speak vociferously about bad government policy.)
The next thing you need to understand is that there’s one major party in Australia, one semi-major party in Australia, one bottom-feeder has-been party in Australia, one up-and-coming party in Australia, one dead party in Australia, lots of marginal/fringe parties in Australia and lots of independents.
If you think that’s confusing, the names of those parties respectively are (in order of above):
- The Australian Labor Party
- The Liberal Party
- The National Party
- The Greens
- The Democrats
- and the rest
To further confuse things, the Australian Labor Party use the American Spelling of Labor even though the British Labour party uses the British spelling of Labour and everywhere else outside of the “Australian Labor Party” in Australia, Australia uses the British spelling of Labour.
To further confuse things, the Liberal Party is, despite the name might suggest to an outsider, the conservative party in Australia. Its founder, Sir Robert Menzies, was distinctly determined to ensure the party was named Liberals because he wanted it to be a party about “liberal” policies – small government, free enterprise, and promotion of wealth. However, over the last 20 years the Liberal party has lurched so far to the Right that it now has a number of people whom, if they were based in the United States, would either be members of the Tea Party or married to Kim Davis. (The Liberal Party is not to be confused with the Democratic Liberal party (one of the fringe parties) which seems to oddly cling to both names in a way oddly reminiscent of how North Korea refers to itself as the Democratic Republic of Korea.)
The National Party was founded on the notion of being the party for farmers, but over the last 20 years has seemed to have developed a greater focus on landed gentry and business operations in rural Australia. This has seen many people who were previously members of the National Party who actually do believe in supporting farmers and rural communities even if that’s at the expense of the landed gentry and businesses in the rural communities to exit the party and either become independents or members on parties named after themselves. The former resulted in some stunning successes, the latter resulted in some funning stucksessing.
For most of their existence, neither the Liberal Party nor the National party had ever been able to form government in their own right compared to the number of seats won by the Labor Party in a Federal election. So they’d get together in a Coalition (which in recent times with a strongly conservative bent had often been likened to a Noalition) to form government. (Even when the Liberal party didn’t need the National party any more to form power they’d still form power with the National party because they’re that determined to stick with tradition.) Strangely, despite their seeming love of Coalition governments, they get get snippy if the Labor party forms government with the help of independents.
I know, I’m taking a bit, but it’s worthwhile.
The Greens had previously been a fringe party, until many Australians realised that it is actually impossible to count all your money while holding your breath (unless you happened to be one of the really poor people in the country). The Greens were founded by a man who worked hard at stopping the Labor party from building a big nasty dam in a place of great environmental importance. They gave a damn about not having a dam, and have since convinced up to 15% of the Australian population and rising that it’s actually not improper to give a damn.
The Democrats had been founded slightly less recently than the Greens but certainly sometime after the Labor, National and Liberal parties. They had been founded on the premise of “keeping the bastards honest” (that was a semi-official slogan). They remained a power in politics until one day one leader declared “**** it, let’s not keep the bastards honest and see what happens”. Their party imploded quite spectacularly over the last 10+ years, and the Greens filled the vacuum.
We have a plethora of fringe parties right across the political spectrum. Some have been tied to howling bigots, some have been tied to religious groups, some have been tied to guns (unlike the NRA they can’t just buy politicians so they have to go through the tedious process in Australia of getting elected), and sometimes they end up tied to a bed, covered in honey and tickled with a wet stick of celery while being spanked by a Dominatrix named Esme.
Australia doesn’t have a president: instead, we have a Governor General. The Governor General fulfils the function of Queen Elizabeth II without the pomp or delightful hats or the Prince Phillip appendage.
The Governor General is largely a ceremonial role in Australia. Technically they’re our head of state, but whenever any event requires a head of state anywhere in the world to attend the Prime Minister will attend instead, unless it’s some job that might lose votes for the Prime Minister, in which case the Governor General will be packed off without a moment’s hesitation. Once, a long time ago, the Governor General actually sacked a sitting government at the behest of the opposition party, and this made many Australians angry and many of them remain angry to this day. Oddly enough, the two men in charge of the two sitting parties ended up getting over that acrimony and spoke at lengths over the last 15 years or more about the vitriolic, bitter and cruel direction multiple Australian governments have taken. This does not get as much media attention as it should.
Also strangely for Australia, despite having reasonably regular elections (Federally, every 3 years or so, usually every 4 years at the State level and no-one really knows when at a local level, they just spring up by surprise and trigger sausage sizzles everywhere), Australia has actually never voted in a single Federal government. (Usually never a state government either.) Instead, Australians vote governments out. This seems to result in the typical attitude of most Australians towards governments being something along the lines of (paraphrasing):
You’re shit, but I’ll put up with you until you irritate me too much, then I’ll switch to the other idiots.
Much of the attitude of Australia towards political overlords can be summed up with the following:
(Watch until you see the old guy.)
So, to recap, our major parties either can’t spell or have misleading names. You might say our political system is the elected equivalent of a platypus.
You might think Australian politics are odd, but they’ve worked hard to redefine odd over the last 8 years.
In 2007 the sitting Coalition government got voted out and replaced by the Australian Labor Party. In fact, the Coalition government got voted out so much that the Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard, lost his own seat in the election. The Labor party was led by Kevin Rudd (Prime Minister) and Julia Gillard (Deputy Prime Minister). Together, with a few others, they actually saved Australia from the Global Financial Crisis. Yes, that’s right: while the rest of the modern world figuratively burnt to the ground, Australia prospered. The Liberal party thought this was a very bad idea and roundly criticised the process.
In 2010 in response to seeming crippling indecision in the government which everyone in the government could see but no-one outside of the government could see, Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister. Sometime around this time, Malcolm Turnbull, the new Prime Minister of Australia who was then leader of the Liberal party in opposition was deposed by Tony Abbott, the just now ex-Prime Minister of Australia. Malcolm was replaced as leader of the Liberal party for believing in things like Social Equality, High Speed Internet and Climate Change. (Current evidence would suggest his belief in these things now may be mostly optional.) Tony Abbott, as a former trainee Catholic priest, was seen by the by-now largely conservative elements of the Liberal party as being just the Right man for the job of leading their party.
This is also where Australia differs from places like the United States. We elect parties, not leaders. The leaders are elected by the parties.
So Julia Gillard replaced Kevin Rudd, made some promises leading up to the next federal election, then as a result of a hung parliament post-election made a coalition government with various independents and had to break some of those promises. The Liberal party under the leadership of Tony Abbott went on a ruthless period of negative attacks on the Labor government seemingly assisted by certain individuals within the Labor party who thought that it was unseemly to have replaced a sitting prime minister. The Liberal party also roundly believed it was highly inappropriate to replace a sitting prime minister, especially one they thought they might have had a good chance of beating in the election.
The next three years in Australian politics were somewhat horrid. If you’re wondering how horrid, check out this picture of the recently ex-Prime Minister of Australia standing in front of a rally in Canberra (our artificial national capital):
To the opinion of many Australians, Tony Abbott’s attacks on Julia Gillard while she was the leader of the country seemed to be centred on two key things:
- She had the audacity to form a government with people he wouldn’t form a government with and
- She was a woman
Now, whether this was the actual reason Tony Abbott went on the attack is not really something I can say. I can’t see into the mind of Tony Abbott (and I’d rather not even if I could). However, speaking for herself, Julia Gillard had quite a few things to say about Tony Abbott’s reasons:
I know it’s 14 minutes long, but you really should watch that put down by Julia Gillard of Tony Abbott. She had endured relentless negativity and some truly horrible things said about her and one day finally snapped (and rightfully so).
After an amazingly busy period of passing lots of legislation but seemingly unable to communicate this successfully (not helped by a right-wing print media in Australia determined to make the Labor government look terrible), and endless leaks to the press from within the Labor party, the Labor party was on the nose with the voters and the party panicked to re-install Kevin Rudd as Prime Minister.
Kevin Rudd then led the Labor party to defeat in the next election because frankly, a large number of Australians were sick of the entire sordid saga, and installed the Liberal/National Coalition as the government – led by Tony Abbott.
Less than 24 hours before the election Tony Abbott bravely made a long list of promises about every service his government wouldn’t cut and every tax his government wouldn’t introduce. Promptly upon election, Tony Abbott’s government started breaking all of those promises.
Then began almost two years of breathtakingly inadequate and divisive government from the Coalition. So bad was their government that it was generally accepted that fecal matter in a bowl of ice cream would be more electable. This involved many odd decisions including giving a Knighthood to Prince Phillip, the husband of Queen Elizabeth II. This continued to the point where in February 2015 no-one challenged Tony Abbott for the leadership of the Liberal party and removing the Cabinet who were bound to vote for him, he almost lost.
Tony subsequently declared “good government starts now”, but promptly pugilistically proceeded to behave as per normal.
Finally just this week, Malcolm Turnbull who had on many times declared he’d never re-challenge for the leadership of the Liberal party challenged for the leadership of the Liberal party and regained control of the Liberal party. In doing so, he became the fifth Prime Minister of Australia in five years.
Meanwhile, Tony Abbott who had spent the almost two years of his prime ministership waiting for Australians to enthusiastically talk about him found the vast majority of Australians enthusiastically talking about him for 24 hours and discovered there was truth to that age-old adage:
Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.
Australians meanwhile, in the sprit of voting governments out rather than voting governments in weren’t so much cheering Malcolm Turnbull taking over the Liberal party as they were cheering Tony Abbott ignominiously losing his position.
And that’s what happened this week. (With a little history.)