Australia Elections May Usher in Change

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Labor Party leader Bill Shorten meets with locals at the Saint John Bar in Launceston, Australia, on May 13, 2019. (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

SYDNEY – For 28 years, Australia has enjoyed an unbroken run of economic growth, a feat that no other wealthy nation can claim. Thanks to an economy buoyed by a wealth in commodities, the country avoided the Great Recession a decade ago.

Yet economic prosperity hasn’t translated into political stability, thanks to infighting that has dogged the two major political parties in recent years. Such turbulence may extend after this weekend, when national elections appear likely to put Labor Party leader and former trade union official Bill Shorten on track to be the fifth new head of government in just six years.

A center-left Shorten government will seek to broaden relations with major trading partner China, while upholding Australia’s long-standing security alliance with the United States. Shorten also has pledged to be proactive on climate change, setting an aspirational renewable energy target of 50% by 2030 and zero net carbon emissions by 2050.

The three main opinion polls – Newspoll, Ipsos and Morgan – show Shorten is slightly ahead of incumbent Prime Minister Scott Morrison, leader of the conservative Liberal-National coalition government, by 2 to 4 percentage points.

With a 2% margin of error in the polls, Morrison may still win, but bookmakers see no such possibility. The online betting agency Sportsbet has a Labor victory at virtually unbackable odds of $1.15, meaning a $1 bet would win just 15 cents. In contrast, a Liberal-National coalition victory is a long shot at $5.25, meaning a $1 bet would win $4.25. Still, the Brexit result in the United Kingdom and Donald Trump‘s presidential victory in the U.S. in 2016 show that the polls can be wrong.

Voting is compulsory for Australian citizens aged 18 and over, so about 16.4 million people are eligible. They will vote for a full 151 seats in the House of Representatives, and for 40 of the 76 Senate (upper house) seats.

The election boils down to a contest between the Labor and Liberal leaders on economic management and vision. Shorten offers an expansive agenda of higher wages, better health and education services and spending on climate change, all funded by changes to the tax system. Morrison wants voters to support the status quo, with a focus on job growth and a promise of budget surpluses ahead. He argues it is too risky to have Labor in charge of the economy.

Balancing the Interests of China, the U.S. and Other Nations

International interest in the election focuses on any potential differences in the foreign policies of Morrison and Shorten. China is the big issue because of its regional influence, its dominant position as a buyer of Australian energy, iron ore, food and services such as education and tourism, and its interest in the substantial Chinese community in Australia.

Chinese investment in Australia has fallen away sharply in the past year, reflecting bilateral tensions over the South China Sea and Chinese influence in the South Pacific region, Australia’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, accusations that China hacked into the IT systems of the Australian parliament, and the exclusion of Chinese equipment supplier Huawei from Australia’s new 5G phone system.

Morrison and Shorten are both strong supporters of the U.S. alliance but recognize China’s importance as Australia’s biggest trade partner and the potential impact a China-U.S. trade war would have on Australia’s economic health. Morrison is virtually unknown overseas, having been prime minister only since August 2018. He had brief meetings with Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November at the summit of leading rich and developing countries in Argentina.

James Curran, professor of modern history at the University of Sydney, says that the diplomacy challenge for Australia in the region is increasingly difficult. Whoever wins office on Saturday will need to keep pushing a message to Washington that the path to U.S. strategic relevance in Asia “lies not in recycling Cold War dogma, but in raising the bar for its own performance in the region,” he says.

Shorten calls the U.S. “our greatest ally” and says Australia’s interests “are always best served when the United States is engaged in our region.” But he also notes that Australia should regard China as more than “just a threat” and Labor would not look at China through the “strategic prism of a worst-case scenario.”

Minor Parties May Play Major Role

Other major campaign issues include border security and terrorism, how best to handle the influx of refugees arriving from Asia and the Middle East, building better ties with Indonesia and India, and maintaining the important business and security relationships with Southeast Asia and North Asia.

The role of the independent minor parties could be crucial in some marginal seats, and this is where the Greens and billionaire businessman Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party may yet emerge as 2019 election kingmakers.

Palmer, a polarizing Trump-like figure whose slogan is “Make Australia Great,” is spending about A$40 million on election ads, taking full-page advertisements in newspapers, blanketing television screens with his election messages and employing a staff of young meme-writers on Twitter to appeal to younger voters.

Palmer has claimed that his party will win government on May 18, when the opinion polls show him gaining at most 15% in the states where he is most popular. Palmer claims his team is taking votes from Labor and Liberal candidates, but the biggest casualty of the Palmer spending spree may be Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party. Some die-hard supporters cling to her brand of anti-immigration rhetoric, but internal party scandals and Palmer’s rise are likely to see Hanson’s influence wane.

The long-established Australian Greens do well in metropolitan areas, but have lost favor in rural and regional parts of the country, where drought, floods, bushfires and hard economic times make their anti-coal agenda less welcome. Green voters’ preferences traditionally flow to Labor, which could be the difference in seats where Liberal and Labor candidates are neck and neck.

Challenger Vows to Improve the Lives of the Indigenous

One of Australia’s most pressing domestic issues is improving the living conditions of indigenous First Australians, who suffer in employment, housing, health and life expectancy, education, lower social standing and over-representation in prison. Despite a large budget and a bureaucracy focused on indigenous affairs, their living conditions are still well behind most other Australians.

Shorten has said during the election campaign that improving the health of First Australians is “critical to our journey towards reconciliation.” He has committed to giving them a voice that is “entrenched in the Constitution.”

Shorten also has promised a first-term plebiscite, or national vote, to gauge public support for moving to a republic (Australia still has ties to the British monarchy, with a governor-general as head of state, representing Queen Elizabeth II).

If there is strong support for a republic, Shorten has said he will call a referendum, which would require both a majority of Australians and a majority of the states and territories to make any change. Morrison’s position is that there is no overwhelming public appetite for change.

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