The delights of Australian politics

May 16, 2012 • Blogs, Summer 2012 Blog • Views: 938

By Madeleine Barrow:

As an Australian international student, I’ve been following the soap opera that is Australian politics during my stint in the US. But coming back to Melbourne has given me insight that was difficult to glean from a distance –Australians are very, very fed up with their government.

The story goes something like this: in 2010, Julia Gillard (then deputy Prime Minister of Australia) challenged Kevin Rudd (then Prime Minister) for the leadership of the Labor Party. Factions within the Labor Party dissatisfied with Rudd’s low approval ratings advised Gillard to challenge him for the leadership. Rudd resigned the next morning, paving the way for Australia to have its first female Prime Minister. Gillard’s approval ratings were initially high, but plummeted when the Australian public began to question her integrity due to the manner in which she gained the party leadership. In addition, Australians asked themselves whether Gillard was genuine: Gillard would routinely present different facets of her personality, and say “this is the real Julia.” As a consequence, the 2010 election resulted in a hung parliament, with Gillard forming a minority government with the support of independents.  Kevin Rudd, her erstwhile opponent, took office as Foreign Minister.

Kevin Rudd, a key player in the ongoing drama facing the Labor Party (Flickr Creative Commons).

Gillard’s approval ratings continue to fall, with recent polls by Nielson indicating that only 35% of Australians are satisfied with her performance. And in February this year, the Australian press speculated that Kevin Rudd would challenge Gillard for the leadership. Rudd resigned from his post as Foreign Minister whilst in Washington DC in February, claiming that he could not serve a Prime Minister who had little faith in him. Gillard opened the leadership within the Labor Party for election, and Rudd accepted the challenge. Bile spilled out from both camps, with Gillard supporters suggesting that Rudd had sabotaged the 2010 election, and Rudd calling on Australians to contact their local MPs to support him. Although polls indicated that a clear majority of Australians preferred Rudd as Prime Minister, Gillard won the support of her fellow MPs, and retained the leadership.

The Labor Party continues to be plagued by controversy. In the past few weeks, the Speaker in the House of Representatives – Peter Slipper – was charged for sexual harassment. Slipper resigned from position of speaker, but retained his position in parliament. In addition, Craig Thomson, a representative for the Labor Party, was caught misusing union funds to pay for personal escorts. Gillard eventually suspended Thomson from the party, weakening the Labor Party’s grip on the government.

Australians have lost faith in their government: questions have arisen over Gillard’s handling of both controversies, and the corruption and animosity in the government has been the focus of the press. But the government has another problem: if Slipper were to resign and if the independents were to reconsider their political alignment, a hung parliament would occur, prompting a federal election, which Labor would certainly lose. This would hand the Prime Ministership over to Tony Abbott, who, despite having approval ratings far higher than Gillard, is perceived by many Australians as being too socially conservative.

But even the Liberal Party – the opposition – is facing problems. Rumours have surfaced that Peter Costello, the former deputy Prime Minister during the Howard administration, will try to make a political comeback. Costello has denied such claims, but such speculation has sparked a public feud between him and his former friend, Michael Kroger.

Australians are fortunate to have a government which has allowed the country to be one of the only developing nations to move through the GFC without a major recession. But in the eyes of Australians, the problems with the government are not related to international or domestic policy. Australians want transparency with their government; Australians want a government which is accountable and honest. And if things continue as they are going now, the next election should deliver a landslide victory to the Liberal Party, as well as a warning to future governments that public perception and political cohesion is as important as the policies themselves.

Madeleine Barrow ’15 is in Jonathan Edwards College.  Contact her at madeleine.barrow@yale.edu.

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