August 21 would be the first Australian general election in the past two decades which I will be watching from a distance. In 1992, months after I first arrived in Australia, I witnessed the then Treasurer, Paul Keating being elected as the mid-term Prime Minister by the Labour Party parliamentary caucus after he successfully challenged Bob Hawke who had been the Prime Minister for the previous decade.
Little did I realize then that a similar rivalry between the prime minister and the treasurer would plague the next Liberal government throughout its 11 years term. If this was not enough, a rivalry between the leader and his deputy hit the next Labour government right up to the 2010 general elections. This real or perceived intra-party quarrels and leadership struggles were to become a media-built up distraction at every future general election only to be overtaken by more relevant issues as the polling day approaches.
With some clever strategies of tax cuts and some big picture pronouncements, the Labour Party, under the stewardship of Paul Keating surprised the public and pollsters alike by managing to win the 1993 general election which was dubbed "the election which the Liberals just couldn't lose". From the residence of my daughter/son-in-law in Keating's own electorate of Banks on the night of that election day, I watched the predominantly immigrant community of Bankstown celebrate Keating's "sweetest victory of all".
|Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard
This first ever Australian election I witnessed immensely appealed to me because, although it is constituency based, the Australian system provides the choice for voters to cast their preferences to all contenders and the winner will be announced only once a leading candidate acquires enough preferences to pass 50 per cent plus one votes polled. This system prevents a candidate from being elected with only about 30-40 per cent votes cast with rest of the 60-70 per cent of votes dispersed amongst other candidates as happened in Sri Lanka a number of instances before 1977. If Sri Lanka had adopted a similar system after 1977, today's farcical "manapa" system could have been averted).
Come 1996 and the Australian electoral landscape had changed. The Labour, under Keating had reneged on most of the promises and the voters in the middle had become tired of its 13-year-long incumbency.
The Liberal Party resurrected the once-sidelined John Howard to the leadership and won the election convincingly and ushered in a conservative agenda which dominated the Australian socioeconomic polity for the next 11 years. Innately backward-looking, Howard allowed some hitherto dormant reactionary forces to emerge and conduct a public debate on what the Australian social policy, particularly the policy on population composition should become. When the debate got out-of-hand, with the emergence of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, Howard neutralised those voices by absorbing some of their opinions into his own agenda.
Although Labour, under Kim Beazley, polled a majority of popular votes nationally, it failed to garner the majority of wins in constituencies required to form a government. Almost unnoticed at this election, two future prime ministers, Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, entered the parliament from outer suburbs constituencies of Brisbane and Melbourne.
When the run-up to the 2001 general election started, Labour, still under the leadership of Beazley, well known for his humane and compassionate qualities, was riding a wave of popularity with opinion polls predicting a victory. But when a Norwegian ship, Tampa, rescued some 400-odd largely Afghan and Iraqi asylum seekers from sinking boats and headed towards Australian waters, the pre-election rhetoric narrowed down to the single issue of border protection and asylum-seeker policy. There were a few Sri Lankans also in the ship.
The commiserative outlook of Labour under Beazley turned out to be the party's own undoing when the government decided not to let Tampa into Australian maritime territory and Labour did not support the government's move. Howard hurriedly dissolved Parliament and called a late September general election announcing that he would decide who should come to settle in Australia and the circumstances under which they come. With the 9/11 attacks, the anti-immigration resolved only hardened and this helped the Liberals to win a third term in what came to be known as the Tampa election.
When 2004 general election was announced, Labour, with its untested but exciting new leader, Mark Latham had a head-start. But when the polling day approached, Liberals, with the aid of a clever advertising campaign, undermined the leadership credentials of Latham and the electorate became suspicious of his aggressive campaign style resulting in a record fourth-term victory for the existing government.
Almost three months after the Labour election defeat, when Mark Latham, still convalescing after a bout of a pancreatic illness, failed to appear to make a public response to the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami devastation, the Labour Party, tried to revive its hopes again with Beazley as the leader but when it became clear that he did not have what it takes to defeat formidable John Howard, in December 2006 it opted for Kevin Rudd, a diplomat turned politician with liberal Christian convictions as its leader with Julia Gillard, an unwed former trade union lawyer with no religious convictions, as the deputy leader.
For the first time in ten years, this appeared to be an acceptable combination which offered a credible alternative to the tired Liberal government. The "Kevin 07"campaign, spearheaded by the union-sponsored media blitz against the Liberal government's "work choices" legislation, saw Labour winning 88 seats as against 59 of Liberal-National coalition. Its victory even unseated the fourth-term prime minister, Howard, from his Sydney constituency of Bennelong.
Upon being elected as the Prime Minister, Rudd swiftly moved to make a grand gesture of reconciliation by making a public apology on behalf of people and the government of Australia for the past injustices to indigenous Australians. Almost all Australians welcomed this long overdue gesture. The new Government replaced the "work choices" legislation with worker-friendly "fair work" legislation. Rudd also ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which Howard adamantly refused to do throughout his 11 years in office.
By the time the new Labour government got into the real business of governing, the effects of the global financial crisis was beginning to be felt and the government's response of releasing a stimulus package went well with the public.
By mid-2009, on other side of the fence, a progressive idealist, Malcolm Turnbull had become the Liberal leader. However, in December, he was replaced by an ultra-conservative, climate change sceptic, Tony Abbot.
In the first three months of this year, the popularity of the Labour Government started to wane with allegations that showpiece stimulus package projects such as home insulation and building school-halls schemes had become wasteful adventures and that the government had wasted the budget surpluses.
The Liberal Party started accusing the government of being responsible for the massive increase in boat arrivals because it abandoned the policy of issuing only-temporary protection visas to refugees and it closed down the asylum seekers processing centre in Nauru - a centre set up by the Liberal government in the wake of Tampa crisis.
The Labour government argued that it was not the government policy but the worsening conditions of the source countries such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka that caused the increase in boat arrivals.
Two other factors that led to the Labour's undoing were its controversial population policy and its decision to increase tax on the mining industry.
By June this year, opinion polls were showing a further slump in Labour's fortunes. Taken aback, Labour Party caucus, in an unprecedented move, removed a first-term prime minister and on June 25 installed Julia Gillard as prime minister to take the party into the next election.
Although the Australian public, Labour supporters, Liberal supporters and the undecided alike, did not appreciate the ruthless manner in which once highly popular PM was removed, the opinion polls conducted soon after the leadership spill suggested that Gillard has recouped some of the lost popularity.
On July 5, Gillard took everyone by surprise by announcing a plan to set-up an off-shore processing centre for boat people in East Timor. This, initially seemed to be an acceptable solution to both sides of the divide on the asylum issue but, as time passed, it was revealed that this is just a cynical move to put the issue aside until the election was over.
It was also revealed that she did not even consult the East Timor government before announcing the decision.
On July 25, Gillard dissolved Parliament and decided to seek a fresh mandate to "move forward". She claimed that her government had prevented a recession, moved closer to the policies of the former Howard regime on border protection issues and would be setting up a public forum to formulate a policy on climate change.
Barring a landslide, the Australian general elections are usually fought and won or lost in the marginal seats. Of the 150 seats, about a hundred are considered to be blue ribbon wealthy Liberal, hardened working-class Labour or country-side National Party seats. The remaining seats become usually up for grabs and the political parties usually spend most of their energies and resources into these seats which are usually won on preferences.
The 2010 general elections which should have been a referendum on a climate change is likely to become a contest on mundane issues or, if more and more boats are spotted on the horizon, deteriorate into another election on border protection credentials with one party trying to outdo the other on being tougher on asylum seekers.
When, in October last year, arrivals of boats filled with Sri Lankans reached a crisis point, Foreign Minister Stephan Smith visited Sri Lanka and issued a communiqué stating: "Australia and Sri Lanka have jointly committed enhanced cooperation against the criminal organisers of the people smuggling trade, encourage regional cooperation on the matter, undertake public information to alert Sri Lankan citizens to the dangers of maritime people smuggling". Yet, boats continue to arrive and the debate about "Sri Lankan refugees" is likely to escalate before the elections and likely to continue after that also.
It is still not too late for the Sri Lankan Government to reach out to the Australian Government to establish a cooperative approach to tackle this issue. The Sri Lankan authorities might do well to explain to their Australian counterparts that the country has just returned to normalcy after eliminating a ruthless terrorist group and that Sri Lanka is a functioning democracy where no person is discriminated on ethnic, religious or political grounds.
Whoever becomes the Prime Minister of Australia on August 21, I hope President Mahinda Rajapaksa, while congratulating the newly elected PM, will assure him or her that there is no need to approach third countries to seek a solution for an issue between two liberal democracies with long standing diplomatic relations. He may also suggest that any Sri Lankans unlawfully entering Australia could be returned to Sri Lanka and they could be transparently relocated under a programme of resettlement coordinated by Sri Lankan and Australian authorities. Under the present circumstances the Australian authorities would certainly welcome such an approach from Sri Lanka.
The writer served as a one-time Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai and was Press Secretary to President J.R. Jayewardene.