Changes Ahead?

The Australian federal election is just a few days away. Two things you ought to know right off the bat--voting is compulsory here and it occurs on a Saturday.

Besides those obvious differences, however, there are other things about this Aussie election that I am quite intrigued about, from my standpoint as a lifelong consumer of American politics. First, there really is no discussion of "social" hot button issues here, such as abortion, school prayer, evolution, stem cell research, or flag burning. Instead, the candidates talk about the economy, interest rates, long-term energy plans, aboriginal issues, and what Australia's role should be in accommodating UN refugees. Based on what I have seen in the past four months, I think this year's election is really a referendum on John Howard's industrial relations laws. When Howard's party took control of all levels of government in 2004, he enacted several workplace changes that undermined the power of union contracts and collective bargaining (replacing them with the euphemistic "WorkChoices"). Kevin Rudd, the leader of the opposition, has vowed to roll back these changes if his party, Labor, wins the election. In turn, Howard's Liberal party has been running ads suggesting that the days of strikes and powerful union bosses will return to ruin Australia if Labor wins. On top of this, the federal reserve has raised interest rates six times in recent months.

The politics of climate change are also quite prominent. Both parties acknowledge that climate change poses a real challenge, but the Liberals don't seem to be especially worried about it. Keep in mind that Howard's government in Australia and Bush's in the United States are the two notable exceptions to the 172 parties that have signed the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gases. Both Labor and the Liberals support the export of Australia's vast stores of uranium (and coal) to other countries, but only the Liberals want to build more nuclear plans here.

The most astonishing thing about the Australian election is the lack of concern about what is perhaps the most volatile issue in contemporary American politics. I have watched several hours of speeches and interviews involving John Howard and Kevin Rudd this week, and nothing was ever said about Iraq, Afghanistan, or "The War on Terror." For the record, Rudd has vowed to pull out the 2000 or so Aussie troops in Iraq next year, whereas Howard has said he will maintain his commitment to the Coalition Forces. But, as I have said, this issue hardly gets a mention.

If Howard is indeed voted out this weekend, I am interested to see how the American media will cover the story. I have a feeling that someone will try to make the attribution that he was voted out because of his support of the 2003 Invasion of Iraq, even though he was re-elected in 2004. But, you read it here first. Despite shepherding one of the best economies in Australia's history--or maybe because of it--John Howard will lose this election because the people felt comfortable enough to try something else.