SYDNEY — On the eve of voting ,Australia’s July 2 national elections look set to produce a hung parliament, with a raft of smaller parties and independents set to win seats.
A final pre-election poll by Fairfax, an Australian media company, and Ipsos, a research company, showed the governing Liberal Party-led coalition in a dead heat with the opposition Australian Labor Party. The survey suggests that Labor has eaten into a slight lead for the coalition headed by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull shown in polls published just a few days ago.
The governing coalition has 90 seats out of the 150 in the lower house of parliament, with Labor on 55, meaning it needs to increase its representation by 21 seats if it is to get back into government alone.
15.6 million people are eligible to vote in an election for both the upper and lower houses of parliament, with polling day coming after an unusually long two-month campaign. During the campaign, Turnbull, a millionaire former investment banker, and Bill Shorten, the Labor leader and Turnbull’s rival to lead Australia’s next government, have sparred over the health service, social spending, tax policy and foreign investment.
Much of the rhetoric has been on familiar center-right versus center-left lines. Prime Minister Turnbull sought to brand his center-right coalition as a better manager of the country’s economy, which, despite falling Chinese demand for natural resources, grew 3.1% in the year to April 2016, more than most Western countries.
Turnbull claimed that Labor would jeopardize prospects for growth and criticized its spending plans as excessive and uncosted –the latter allegation echoed back at the government by the opposition.
“We have the Labor Party promising higher debt, higher deficits, higher taxes,” Turnbull said at a final pre-vote press conference in Sydney on July 1. “Labor wages the most anti-business campaign in a generation.”
Shorten, a former trade union leader, said the coalition was governing on behalf of big business. He has compared Prime Minister Turnbull to British counterpart David Cameron, not only for their ideological similarities, but for what Shorten claims is the Australian prime minister’s inability to control the factions within his coalition. Cameron announced his resignation last week in the wake of the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union, in a referendum he called to challenge so-called “Eurosceptics” in his Conservative Party.
“We know the Liberal Party is not united,” Shorten said on June 29, while fending off suggestions that a defeat in the election would see rivals in Labor challenge his own leadership. “Mr Turnbull says give me another chance, I will unite the nation. It’s ironic because of the tensions in the Liberal Party but more importantly than that, the issues which affect working class and middle class people in Australia will not be solved by Mr Turnbull,” Shorten said.
Shorten has tried to use the issue of same-sex marriage to highlight divisions in the ruling coalition, saying his first act, if elected, would be to table legislation in parliament on the matter. The governing coalition prefers to hold a national plebiscite, which would likely have less of a chance of passing than a parliamentary vote.
“The decision on Saturday is not about gay marriage,” said Turnbull, speaking in Canberra on June 30. “It is [about] a strong stable coalition government.”
On the streets of Sydney, opinion was divided about Turnbull’s short premiership — he has been in office less than a year — and about his prospects of retaining office after July 2.
Standing in front of a gauntlet of canvassers representing seven of the parties contesting the election, Cherry Huang, an investment consultant, said that Turnbull “had made the economy strong” and that she expected the governing coalition to win the election.
One of the canvassers, asking that his name not be used, disagreed, saying he would vote for the Australian Greens and that the country needed a change of government, describing the incumbent administration as “too right wing.”
Rise of the minnows
Turnbull has repeatedly warned voters against an array of small, personality-driven parties and independent candidates who, according to opinion polls, could be set to win between 20% and 30% of the vote. Such an outcome could help the ALP get back in office, likely in coalition — particularly if the Australian Greens do well.
“This is not a time to make a protest vote,” Turnbull said on July 1, warning that a high vote for smaller parties could result in Shorten “leading a chaotic alliance of Greens and independents” in government.
The rise of smaller, local and issue-based parties — often fronted by outspoken politicians such as Nick Xenophon, a self-described pragmatist, and Pauline Hanson, a nationalist — suggests that Australians are growing weary of the Punch-and-Judy attack and counter-attack dynamic between the two main parties, and of their penchant for frequent leadership changes.
“The prime minister in particular is worried about minor parties and independents winning seats, maybe no more than half a dozen, and pushing the final vote into a minority government or hung parliament situation,” said John Warhurst, emeritus professor of politics at Australian National University. “If you had a very high Green vote that would be good for the Labor Party,” he added.
Australia has had six prime ministers since 2007, a rate of attrition that is in part due to a political system that allows a successful contender for ruling party leadership to assume the prime minister’s job without an election.
The last election, held in 2013, saw the current coalition defeat the then Labor government, with Tony Abbott taking over as prime minister. Abbott was subsequently ousted by Turnbull in an internal party coup in 2015, resulting in Turnbull taking over the prime minister’s job. During the Labor Party’s previous period in office, rivalries between Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard saw the party leadership change hands, and with it, the running of the world’s 12th biggest economy.
Lucky country, unlucky voters
A recent study by the University of Canberra and the Museum of Australian Democracy showed citizens’ satisfaction with democracy declining, despite Australia’s strong economic growth over the past decade and beyond.
“The level of democratic satisfaction has decreased steadily across each government from 85.6% in 2007 (Howard), to 71.5% in 2010 (Rudd), 71.7% in 2013 (Abbott) and 42% in March 2016 under Malcolm Turnbull,” the report stated.
Australia is the only OECD member state to have had continuous economic growth over the past 25 years, under both Liberal Party and Labor Party governments.
“Australians live in a successful, stable, even lucky country, you shouldn’t expect to see these findings,” said Max Halupka, who co-authored the report. “There is a growing divide between the expectations of citizens and how democracy works,” he said. “Many, especially younger voters, see politicians from the main parties as clones of each other, overly scripted.”
The study suggested that while older Australians were likely to trust political leaders, younger voters were less likely to do so, presenting a potentially historic opportunity for smaller parties. “In particular, mainstream political parties are clearly failing to engage with young Australian citizens in ways that are likely to attract attention and ultimately support,” the report said.
By June 30, almost 2.5 million people had taken part in the early voting system set up for people unable to vote on July 2. One of those early voters, David Le, a 34-year-old banker, said that “in a time when the country is stable but the main political parties are not, people are going to look for alternatives.”
“In common with much of the rest of the western world, there is a general skepticism about the ethics and morality of politics, and in Australia in particular the frequent deposing of prime ministers,” said John Warhurst.
“What we are seeing in the opinion polls is increased votes for the minor parties, but often that’s used to cast a protest,” Albanese told the Nikkei Asian Review.
But Albanese, the shadow minister for infrastructure, transport, cities and tourism, conceded that possible gains for smaller parties remained “one of the great unknowns” of the July 2 election. He would not be drawn on whether a strong showing for the Greens and other independents could help Labor form a coalition. “We’re aiming to govern in our own right, 76 seats, that’s the aim.”
Asked if he thought smaller parties would fare as well as opinion polls suggest, Turnbull said: “Tomorrow the Australian people will tell us emphatically and decisively.”