Monday, October 11, 2004

More election news and views 

Apologies for light blogging recently - not that "Good news from Iraq, Part 12" is particularly light - but even though the election is over, there are still some loose ends to be tied, including a nail-biting wait to see whether a friend of mine, Ross Vasta, has managed to unseat Labor's Con Sciacca in the seat of Bonner, in Brisbane's south-eastern suburbs.

Here's my earlier thoughts about the election; below some more reflections:

Was it, or was it not a referendum on Iraq? Many of my readers in the United States have remarked on a very mooted media coverage of John Howard's victory, cynically noting that had the Prime Minister lost, the Americans would have heard a lot more about it. As Tim Blair wrote, "the New York Times, having earlier decided that 'War Plays a Role in Elections in Australia', now believes that Iraq remained in the background during the campaign."

This seems to be a classical case of "heads I win, tails you lose"; if Howard had lost the election it would have been a referendum on Iraq; but since he won, the election was obviously about other issues. This is quite reminiscent of the media spin of the European Parliament election results a few months ago - it seems that the war in Iraq simply cannot be shown as anything other than an electoral liability.

Since I myself wrote that "[t]his election has largely been fought over domestic issues: the economic management, interest rates, health and education spending. My impression all along was that Iraq and terrorism were very much secondary issues, except for the rabid activists and the commentariat who were maintaining the rage while the average person has already moved on," let me just explain myself a bit more, lest I be accused of falling for the mainstream media spin.

Sections of the media and the punditry, together with the rabid left (mostly associated with the Greens) had tried to make Iraq the issue of the campaign. For that small but vocal section of the Australian electorate the election was always going to be the referendum on Iraq - hence the unprecedented attempt to attack John Howard in his own seat of Bennelong. Neither the government nor the Labor opposition would however much oblige, preferring to campaign largely on domestic "bread and butter" issues. This is not to say that Iraq and the war on terror were absent from the campaign altogether: the voters were from the start given a clear choice on these issues. According to Labor, the war in Iraq was wrong and it made us more of a terrorist target. Hence we should pull out our troops by Christmas and concentrate on fighting the war on terror in our region, in cooperation with our Asian neighbors. According to Liberals, the war in Iraq was right and our troops should stay until their mission is accomplished. As for the war on terror, we shall fight it wherever we can, in Indonesia by all means, but in the Middle East too, if necessary.

Voters were quite aware of this choice, and to the extent that the people had voted for the complete policy package, the Liberal foreign policy option has clearly proven to be the preferred one. From that point of view, the pro-war position was victorious on Saturday. But it's also clear that the issue of whom to trust to manage Australia's booming A$800 billion economy had also played on voters' minds, particularly in marginal seats, which are experiencing large housing growth and are therefore more receptive to concerns about the interest rates.

(For those confused about Australia's electoral system I recommend the new Austra-American blog The Raw Prawn, and particularly the post about compulsory voting and marginal seats.)

If the issue of Iraq did not seem to have been on the forefront of the Australian election campaign, it's because by contrast with the US presidential campaign it wasn't there to anywhere near the same degree. But the reasons it didn't need to be as prominent is that the voters have already had three years in which to acquaint themselves with the Liberal and the Labor positions.

The Senate: The Americans are used to either the Democrats or the Republicans controlling the Senate, whether or not the same party also at the same time controls the House of Representatives and the White House. By contrast, in Australia it's very rare for either the Liberal/National coalition or the Labor Party to have majority in the Senate. This is largely thanks to the proportional representation system of voting for the upper house, which results in both the major political forces in Australian politics being consigned to minority positions, with the balance of power being held by minor parties and independents. As you can imagine, this makes it for a very frustrating legislative process - the Liberal Party's program is always at the mercy of political forces which are politically to the left of the Labor Party.

But all that might change soon, thanks to a stunning performance by the Liberals in the Senate elections - the performance in many ways more memorable and consequential than in the House of Representatives poll. For the first time in a generation, since the late 1970s, the Liberal/National coalition might achieve the absolute majority in the Senate, or at worst it will be able to form majority with possible support of the Family First senator from Victoria (I mentioned Family First in my earlier election post). How that will play out legislatively is anyone's guess. It's difficult to see where Family First, which is associated with the Assemblies of God, stands on various specific policy issues; all that's certain is their commitment to assess every proposal through the prism of the impact on Australian families. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the evangelical Christians who form the backbone of the party are not strangers to entrepreneurial spirit and don't apologise for material success. It seems reasonably certain that, at the very least, Family First might prove more amenable to the government's legislative program than the previous holders of the balance of power, the left-wing Democrats and independent Senators.


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