The Australian Election: A Hollow Victory?

Although my knowledge of Australia’s politics is limited, they always interest me. Not only is the country similar to Canada in many ways, but it also had among the most successful labour movements and Labor Parties in the English-speaking world. (The party changed its name from “Labour” to “Labor” in 1912, when it seemed that Australia would adopt American spelling.)

Public policy went off the rails in the 1980s and early 1990s, when the Labor governments of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating introduced massive privatization and deregulation. Since then, John Howard’s Liberal government has combined free-market economics with conservative social policy. (Howard’s son and I both survived the notorious 2001 World Universities Debating Championships.)

While today’s Labor victory is welcome news, there are serious questions about how progressive the new government will be. Yesterday’s Globe and Mail included the following commentary from the right-wing Hudson Institute:

. . . most political signs point to a victory for Labor Leader Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former diplomat and a pro-American moderate in the mould of Tony Blair. He and his party have enjoyed a lead of about 10 per cent in the polls for most of 2007.

If Mr. Rudd is victorious, however, it will be a victory for continuity almost as much as for change. Australia’s consistent course of economic deregulation and free trade actually began two decades ago under Paul Keating’s Labor government.

. . .

There was already little to separate Mr. Howard from Mr. Rudd on economic policy. And Labor’s pledge to reduce Australia’s military presence in Iraq is so gradual it sounds like a pledge to remain.

Jim has made similar points regarding Labor’s stand on so-called “free trade” agreements.

Rudd’s statements today have been full of bumf about putting aside “old conflicts” and governing for all Australians. I suppose that those are the sorts of things people say after being elected, but they do not inspire much confidence.

I note that Rudd’s economic platform includes tax cuts. Although he considers himself fiscally conservative, his election pledge is only to “keep the Budget in surplus on average over the economic cycle.” This commitment allows the government far more flexibility than the Canadian expectation of no deficits, ever, under any circumstances. Indeed, one could pursue a strongly counter-cyclical fiscal policy and still end up with a surplus on average.

Prior to the election, Howard had tried to significantly rollback collective bargaining through WorkChoices. Rudd has promised to undo most of this program, but not to restore Australia’s former system of centralized industrial awards. He will also sign the Kyoto Protocol.

Rudd is undoubtedly better (or less bad) than Howard, but seems unlikely to implement much of a social democratic agenda. I welcome comments from people who know more about Australian politics.

UPDATE (Nov. 25): The Sydney Morning Herald, which also reported the “AC/DC economics” story, dubbed the election result a Ruddslide. Hilarious!


  • The Liberal party down there is not exactly a Liberal party, and the Labor party is center left, not as left as the NDP

  • Neither party is too extreme. Australia has a strong economy but howard got hammered because he changed the industrial relations laws.

  • I don’t want to be a party-pooper about the prospects for progressive change under Rudd too soon. All my good friends down there are in heaven, watching Howard take his well-deserved exit.

    But I tend to think Rudd will actually make Tony Blair look good. I heard him speak in person once when I was in Australia: he is utterly ruthlessly focused on electoral success, and it is clear that just about any principled issue that got in the way of that overarching goal would be jettisoned quickly.

    A bad example: his rubber-stamping of the Howard government’s military invasion of aboriginal communities (allegedly to stop “child abuse”) a few months ago, a scheme Howard developed to try to create another hot-button “wedge” between Labor and working class votes. These schemes don’t work, however, when Labor simply endorses every racist scheme you come up with.

    There are some very positive aspects to the outcome, however, in addition to getting Howard out of there. Top in my view has been the success of the independent labour movement campaign against the Work Choices laws. These included effective TV ads, big national protests (including one-day work stoppages kind of like Ontario’s old Days of Action), and grass-roots educational and community activities. This campaign was conducted in the name of the unions, and succeeded in really undermining public support for Howard’s IR agenda as being biased and undermining economic prospects for average workers.

    It emphasized for me the importance of the movement having the capacity to carry out its own campaigns. As the election drew closer, however, the movement folded its work more and more into the Labor party’s election campaign. I think this could undermine the movement’s ability to hold Labor to account now that it is in government.

    For now, however, I am happy to pop champagne along with my good friends down under. It helps us here in Canada, too: Howard was Harper’s clear ideologicial mentor. Now that he is gone (and George W. is not far behind), Harper is looking more and more like the international outcast he is!

  • I agree with Jim to some extent. The key lesson from the Blair era is about winning the battle over why there was a change of government. Blair was successful in convincing the media that UK Labour won because of New Labour rather than a rejection of Thatcher and her successors. This allowed him to reshape the Labour party and continue most of the Tories policies.

    There is a large fight on in Oz now about why the election was won. With Rudd and his followers attributing it to his ‘new leadership’ and his economic conservatism (aka a safe pair of hands). If this is successful we will see most of Howard’s policies continue. However, the labour movement and their allies are contesting this narrative

    Unfortunately, some people are exagerating their part for their own advantage

    The othern interesting fact is that the Your Rights at Work Campaign will continue in an attempt to exert grassroots pressure on the Labor Party to deliver. Time will tell…

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