Sunday, October 10, 2004

Victory, sweet victory 

Note: Please keep coming back and checking this post, as I'll be adding and updating throughout the day.

Back again. Thanks for your patience - even bloggers need to celebrate once in a while and then sleep. And thanks for all the comments and well wishes under the previous post - all much appreciated. Here are the promised random thoughts and reflections on what happened yesterday:

The result: On Friday, I was obscure but I was right when I wrote that "the result tomorrow might surprise many." The common wisdom ranged from a narrow Labor victory to a narrow Liberal victory. The polling, combined with anecdotal evidence gathered from politicians and organizers on the ground I spoke to, suggested to me that the government might actually achieve a swing towards it and gain seats.

This is what in fact happened. The latest figures from the Australian Electoral Commission indicate a two-party preferred (i.e. after allocating preferences from minor parties) swing towards the government of 1.64%, to put the Liberal/National coalition at 52.47% of the vote. This translates into at least two extra seats, with several still too close to call (as the swing varied across the country, the government is likely to lose some seats to Labor, but it will some others - and more of them - from Labor). The percentages will see some minor changes over the next few days as results are recounted and postal and pre-poll votes added to the total, but there will not be major changes.

Perhaps most significant, the government is looking at the prospect of either controlling the Senate outright or with a help of one of the minor party Senators. This is a very rare occurrence in Australian political history, and would allow the government to finally pass much of its agenda that has been blocked in the upper house by an unholy coalition of the Labor Party, the Democrats, the Greens and the independents.

The international implications: Would have been much greater had the Howard government lost. We can all imagine how the media would portray it as a major political defeat for Bush, the end of the Coalition of the Willing, and a portent of things to come in America in November. So Howard saved Bush a good few days of bad press. The media will now have to run with something else; I'm sure they will find something; they always do.

That's, of course, from a purely cynical electioneering point of view. From a general point of view, this is good news for the "forces of liberation" and a huge slap in the face of both the domestic and international left. It breaks the "Madrid hex" and shows that backing the US in the war on terror and the war in Iraq is not a political suicide. The first Gulf War of '90-91 was said to have gotten rid of the Vietnam syndrome and helped America regain the confidence in the use of force. The Howard victory last night certainly looks like burying the Spanish syndrome for good. This should cheer Bush, as well as Blair.

Australia and Iraq: No Latham = no withdrawing of Australian troops by Christmas. The terrorists did not succeed in doing to Australia what they had done to Spain, when at the start of the campaign an al Qaeda affiliate exploded a bomb outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta. So, on October 9, the terrorists most certainly have not won.

For all the attempts by the anti-war left to make this election a referendum on Iraq, the war was not a big issue during the campaign. Sure, it did pop up here and there, as it inevitably would, during the televised debate between Howard and Latham, as well as on other occasions (for example, in the last week, when in the aftermath of the release of the Iraq Survey Group report, Latham called on the Prime Minister to apologize to the Australian people for misleading them into going to war). But - and this is a big "but" - Iraq did not feature in any of the TV advertising, or printed electoral material by either of the Liberals or the Labor Party.

Last night, when declaring victory, Howard did not mention Iraq by name, but he did have this to say: "Let us remember this very same day, the people of Afghanistan have had an election that has been possible by the reason of the fact a number of countries, including Australia, were prepared to take a stand for democracy and take a stand against terrorism."

This 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.

Be that as it may, it still is a vindication of all that Howard has done on the international scene since September 11. The people have spoken. I'm tired but happy tired.

Chrenk's day out: In contrast to the United States where - American readers please correct me if I'm wrong - no electioneering activity is allowed around polling booths (as polling stations are called Down Under), in Australia the election day involves the most significant mobilisation of volunteers in the whole campaign. Workers representing all candidates contesting particular seat (electoral district) are allowed to stand outside the entrances to polling booths and had out "how to vote cards" - pieces of paper whose ostensible purpose is to instruct voters on how our party/candidate recommends they allocate their preferences when they vote (in Australia we have a compulsory preferential voting system) - but the main idea is to use the last opportunity to sway that 10% of chronically undecided voters who only make up their minds when they enter a polling booth by putting a nice picture of the candidate in front of their face. All this makes the election day a real circus, with the areas around polling booths (fences, footpaths) decorated with party signs and banners, and throngs of party supporters assaulting the incoming voters with the how-to-vote cards. Add to that the fact that voting is compulsory in Australia, hence many people who come in through the gauntlet don't really want to be there to start with, and you're usually in for a great day.

Yesterday was my fourth federal election (in addition to four state elections, four local government elections and one referendum). Me and my friend Al spent our day at a medium-sized polling booth in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, at Wavell Heights State School. We arrived just after 6am to set up our paraphernalia. Labor people were already there. Unfortunately when the Electoral Commission officials turned up an hour later they informed us that they have decided to change the venue of the polling station to another building, on the other side of the school grounds, so we had to move all our stuff and set up in the new place. The old people - and there were plenty here in one of the older parts of one of the older (demographically speaking) electorates in Brisbane - were extremely grateful to the Commission for the opportunity to exercise, as they now had to walk four times further from their cars to the booth. And believe me, they communicated their appreciation to the electoral officials.

Some 1,800 voters came in through the door during the day, most of them before midday (the voting takes place between 8am and 6pm), then in dribs and drabs during the rest of the day. The work of a volunteer on the election day is hardly exciting, particularly if you get to stand out there for the full 10 hours. Generally, the Labor people are a decent company; partly because there is a bit of a "conspiracy of thieves" between all of us who are crazy about politics and the rest of the population who for most part aren't; and partly on purely pragmatic grounds: if you are spending the whole day working next to somebody, you might as well be nice to them and make it easier for everyone to survive until 6 o'clock.

No, it's usually the voters who get all heated up and get into arguments with party workers. But even on that front, yesterday was pretty quiet, with exception of one "alternative" looking woman who abused Al - on the way in and on the way out - on account of the Prime Minister being a "war criminal" and a "parasite." As Al, who had problems keeping a straight face during the tirade, commented later, the woman had so many pentagrams around her neck, that even Satan must call her "madam". The woman's parting remark was "I'll be dancing and cheering so hard tonight, when that bastard [the Prime Minister] goes down." I think I can speak for both Al and myself when I say that our hearts bleed at her disappointment. Time to put away those dancing shoes for another three years, at least.

In the end, we did not win that particular polling booth and we did not win that seat - I have a sad tendency to campaign in hard-core Labor areas - but any local disappointment was cured by the overall national result.

Latham's campaign: For all the talk about Latham running a great campaign and proving himself to be a credible alternative to John Howard, Labor Party under his leadership went backwards, both in terms of the total vote across Australia, as well as in terms of seats held. Just as there is no such thing as intrinsic value and things are only worth as much as somebody is willing to pay for them, so there is no such thing as a good campaign that in the end doesn't sway voters. In the end, the only spin that Labor people on last night's TV election panel had left, was that the result was not as bad as it would have been had Latham not become the leader of the party a few months ago. Today, the common wisdom is that Latham has established himself as a front-runner for the 2007 election. I predict in the days to come we'll be overwhelmed by the pundits making parallels between this and the 1993 election, when the Liberal Party unexpectedly failed the win against the long-term incumbent Labor Party, only to cruise to a landslide victory three years later in 1996. I guess Labor and their media cheerleaders will have to have something to keep them going for the next three years.

The rise of the "Christian right": Australia, being a lot more secular a society than the United States, has never before experienced the phenomenon of Christian Right. There have always been conservative Christian elements in Australian politics, both inside the Liberal and the National Parties as well as outside (the Christian Democratic Party), but religion has not played a significant role in mainstream politics for quite some time now, and minor religious parties have rarely registered on the political radar.

This election saw a debut of the Family First party, which is strongly associated with the Assemblies of God. The growth of evangelical Christian churches in Australia is one of the most under-reported socio-religious (and no doubt in future, political) phenomenon in contemporary Australia. The Family First volunteers who were handing out how to vote cards on my booth this Saturday represent the new face of conservative Christianity Down Under: they're young, educated, professional, and successful.

In the end, Family First did not score a big result, achieving 2% of the national vote. But that still gives them the second best showing for a minor party in Australia, after the Greens, but ahead of the Democrats (not that long ago the major minor party) and One Nation (also a once-great popular protest movement).

It will be interesting to watch where Family First goes from here. Religion, particularly of a socially conservative variety, is like a red rag to Australian media, and some Family First candidates did not do much credit to their party by calling lesbians witches that should be burned at the stake, and identifying "Satan's strongholds" in the neighborhood as "brothels, gambling places, bottleshops, mosque, temples -- Freemasons/Buddhist/Hindu etc, witchcraft." But Family First has got the resources and demographics on their side. Interestingly, in the past evangelical Christians would try to exert political influence by joining the Liberal Party en masse (believe me, it's quite easy to stack out a political party); today they decided to try to make it on their own.

Watch this space.

Australia's right blogosphere reactions
: See the selection in my weekly "Around the world in 31 blogs round-up".


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