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Australian Election Special

The Diplomat speaks with John Warhurst, deputy chair of the Australian Republic Movement, about Australia’s election campaign.

Looking at the two main candidates, starting with Tony Abbott. What impact do you think his religious beliefs would have on a Coalition government if he were elected prime minister?

Well he is of course an observant Catholic and has been known in the past for strong views on social policy questions—he’s very much opposed to abortion, for instance, and he takes quite a conservative stance on related issues like embryonic stem cell research. But I take him at his word when he says that should he win he’ll lead an orthodox Liberal government, that is, Liberal with a capital ‘L’. I really don’t believe there are many issues on which his religious beliefs will have a major impact.

There’s been some debate as to whether his views may have an impact on economic policy, the suggestion being that as a Catholic he’s not as committed to free enterprise. Catholicism, in Australia at least, has been identified over the years with the Labor Party, and with a more collectivist approach to economic intervention, rather than the sort of Protestant approach. But you’d have to look pretty hard to make an argument for that in contemporary Australian politics, it’s clutching at straws really.

That said, Abbott has made a lot of his religious beliefs and he’s not afraid to lead with his chin on that, so he’s made a bit of a problem for himself in some regards. But overall, on the social conservatism, he’s not much more socially conservative in fact than Kevin Rudd was, and he has similar views to former Prime Minister John Howard. It makes an interesting contrast with Julia Gillard though, who has been quite open about her atheism, and declared that she was not a religious believer.

Speaking of Julia Gillard, how do you rate her performance as prime minister so far?

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Well, it hasn’t been quite as impressive as many people thought it would be, though it has been a short period of time. She did begin very well, but there are three issues she argued she had to resolve before taking the country into an election. One was the mining tax, and she’s partially, although not fully, resolved that issue and reached an agreement with the three biggest mining companies and refashioned that tax.

The second was asylum seekers and refugees, and Australia’s policy towards border security. She really has fumbled that issue. She’s looked around for various offshore processing solutions. Her intention is to stall the debate on asylum seekers and refugees through her conservative approach, and she’s angered many supporters of asylum seekers for that reason. The East Timor processing centre is still very much up in the air, so she hasn’t been successful there.

And on the third issue, the question of climate change, she unconvincingly I think has said that, agreeing with Kevin Rudd, that Labor isn’t going to move forward. She’s now argued that she’ll put together a Citizens’ Assembly and other forms of public consultation, and said the only way we’ll move forward on climate change action is if there’s consensus in the community, which is pretty unlikely. On each of the three issues, she’s tried to take them off the election agenda, as they are potentially damaging for Labor. As an individual and a person she’s been campaigning very well, but she hasn’t been successful so far in addressing some of those policy issues, which she’s said were very important.

Just touching on that point, she seems to have moved to the centre on several issues, and as you said has come under fire for doing so. Is this an election strategy that will change once the campaign is over, and should she win, or do you think it’s sincere?

Well, she comes from Labor’s left faction and that’s why she’s disappointed many of those on the left of the Labor Party. So many people would like to see her after the election is over strike out in more progressive directions. It would of course be hypocritical to do that I think and inconsistent. But I think the experience in Australia is that politicians taking stands at election time don’t tend to change very much after it if they’re successful because they’re always looking forward to the next election, and their political strategies are defined in that way.

But all of these issues are extremely difficult ones, and finding a solution that’s satisfactory to a large number of Australians is quite difficult. On the mining tax issue there was a barrage of very strong campaigns from the mining industry that threatened to sink Labor, and which effectively unseated Rudd. So Labor probably had to do something about that. I think that on the other issues, such as asylum seekers and refugees and climate change, many in the community were hoping for a more courageous position.

It’s happening on the other side of politics too. Tony Abbott is also racing towards the centre, on industrial relations policy for example, which is very near to his heart. He’s promised there’ll be no changes over the next three years, but no one believes that deep down that’s his personal position. He’s really just saying ‘Well we can’t sell that to the electorate so we’re not going to bother to try’.

There has been plenty of speculation since the election was called about the impact the Greens could have on this campaign and their influence over the next government. What is the situation exactly, and how do you expect it to play out?

The Greens have been doing very well in the public opinion polls, polling as high 15 or 16 percent. I think the election is set up for the Greens to do quite well, partly because they offer a real choice on a number of issues, including many of the ones we’ve been talking about. And even though they represent a minority of the community I’d be most surprised if they didn’t improve their position to perhaps a vote of 12 percent or maybe even higher.

Under the Australian system it’s unlikely they’ll win any lower house seats, but they’ll almost certainly increase their number of senators. In the new Senate, which takes office from next July, it’s almost certain they’ll hold the balance of power and therefore potentially will move the centre of gravity under a Labor government—if that turns out to be the result of the election—to the left.

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They’ve already signed a preference deal under the Australian preferential system with the Labor Party. I don’t think that necessarily means that there’s likely to be any immediate agreement on policy, but that’s what the Greens will be pushing for. They’ll be pushing for action on climate change, a more compassionate and open border security policy and a number of other policies. You would have to expect that on some of them at least they’ll be successful. It’s hard to say with precision exactly which ones, but it will be in the government’s interest, if it’s a Labor government, to move towards the Greens on at least some issues. So I think the Greens will continue to grow in Australian politics.

Who are the swing or key voters in this election that the parties will be focusing their energy on? Who are the voters that will decide the election?

That’s a pretty complex question. The way we look at it here is that the 20-odd marginal seats, the closest seats, will often be in suburban outer areas of metropolitan Sydney, Melbourne, and to some extent Brisbane. Queensland will be a very important state in terms of regional variation. There are six or seven of the seats that the Liberals and Nationals need to win in Queensland. There are a lot of safe seats for Liberals and Labor, but there only needs to be a swing of about 2.5 percent to the Coalition and the result will be very close.

There are some categories of voters. The mining tax debate I think has led to the possibility that there’ll be several rural and regional seats where the mining industry is strong and if mining workers, who are traditional Labor Party voters, swing to the Coalition then the government will be in trouble.

In outer Sydney, the whole issue of asylum seekers and refugees is apparently really striking a chord. It’s an issue that worries these voters. And Gillard has been attempting to meet their concerns, not just with a pretty conservative policy on asylum seekers and border security, but also in advancing a sustainable population policy. She’s been playing down any moves towards a so-called ‘Big Australia’.

This could turn out to be one of the biggest debates over the next three weeks of the campaign, because business as a whole is very critical of this approach, arguing that the relatively high immigration intake is crucial to the economy. But at the same time, it may be reassuring to those people who are suffering in the bigger Australian cities from lack of services, lack of infrastructure and transport. They might be reassured by this sort of talk from Gillard.

On the republic issue, and Australia becoming a republic. You are currently Deputy Chair of the Australian Republic Movement?

That’s right. But there won’t be any move over the next three years on this, almost certainly. Gillard, in line with a pretty cautious approach to a number of issues, has taken the republic issue off the agenda for the next three years. Interestingly enough her approach has been similar to her approach on climate change action—that is, throwing it back to the community and saying ‘I want consensus in the community, and I want more evidence of activism in the community’.

Australians are still republicans, according to public opinion polls, by about 60 to 40. But Tony Abbott is a monarchist and is opposed to a republic. Labor has a republican platform and Gillard still talks about a republic being inevitable and the movement being inexorable towards a republic, but she’s made it clear that she won’t be rushing to a constitutional referendum, if she’s successful, over the next three years.

Why aren’t politicians moving on this issue, given the considerable support among Australians for a republic?

I think it’s the fact that among the 40 percent who are opposed there’s a smaller minority who are really strongly opposed to the change. So I think there’s a feeling that it’s still electorally risky to move forward on the issue. There’s no particular logic in it.

I think there’s also a feeling that having lost a constitutional referendum on this in 1999 they want to be absolutely sure it’s successful next time. They’re looking for even greater support than 60 percent in the community to make sure that that is the case because the referendum mathematics are quite difficult to achieve. You need a double majority, not just a majority nationally, but a majority in four of the six states as well.

So that explains to some extent the conservatism. And it’s a conservatism on constitutional matters which is more general at the moment. We haven’t had a successful constitutional referendum since 1977, and we haven’t had a referendum at all, on any topic, since 1999. So I think the political leaders are far too timid on constitutional issues.

I think the feeling again that politics ought to be about ‘bread and butter’ issues is sort of playing to this lowest common denominator a bit, as well as worries about how people in outer suburban Australia and rural regional Australia will react to these sorts of constitutional issues and national identity being raised.

Why is it important for Australia to be a republic?

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Well two main reasons. One is I think that it’s absolutely ludicrous not to. It’s not a question of just any monarchy. The issue is that the Australian monarchy is essentially the tail end of the British Empire as far as we’re concerned. It’s a national identity question above all.

Monarchism as a belief system is dying in the general community. What we’re left with is a constitutional structure which is in a sense empty and reflects a past historical situation. It’s not that the practical benefits would be immediate or very large, but I think it’s an issue of national identity. It’s also a question of democracy.

A weakness of the republican movement is the feeling that it’s not urgent, it’s going to happen, and other issues are of higher immediate priority. There’s understandably a certain amount of affection for Queen Elizabeth. Most Australians have grown up with her, and certainly public opinion polls show that Charles is markedly less popular and less supported. There’s a little bit of a movement towards feeling that the appropriate time to change might be on the death or retirement of the Queen. That too is illogical in a way, holding national institutions to ransom to the Queen.

A third reason is that I think there’s a practical role for an Australian head of state. I think that those involved in trade and foreign affairs would say that a clearer identity with a President instead of a Governor General as the Queen’s personal representative would have practical payoffs.

Just to come back to something you mentioned earlier. As you said, Julia Gillard has announced her intention to create a Citizens’ Assembly to forge a national consensus on climate change. Do you think this sort of thing could be successful in involving the public in the policymaking process in a meaningful way?

I think there’s a place for citizens’ assemblies. But I think the worry is that it was used as a way of putting the issue on the shelf for too long, and it’s a passive way of approaching political leadership in these circumstances. Sure, there’s a need to involve the wider community and one of the problems of the Rudd government was that it wasn’t very good at communicating and explaining what the whole issue was about.

And once the scientific debate on climate change began to be portrayed as contested, then the argument that the Opposition uses—that it’s just another big tax and that Australia shouldn’t do anything until the rest of the world moves—has a certain appeal to many Australians. If it’s going to be something which raises the cost of living and no one else seems to be doing anything then it’s quite easy for the Opposition to run a very negative campaign.

So citizens’ assemblies are fine, but not in a vacuum. I think if the Government gave a strong statement as to where it wanted to go then it’s something that could be debated and taken up in various forms of community consultation.

I think this is part of an issue that’s running through Australian politics more broadly, and maybe in other countries as well, which is that politics is too top-down and political leaders are isolated, making people sceptical about politics. So anything political leaders can do to show that they’re communicating will hold a certain appeal.

We have things like ‘community cabinets’ for instance. The Rudd Government was fond of getting out of Canberra and holding cabinet meetings all around the country. That’s just one example, but there are many others in response to this sort of public disengagement with the process and scepticism about politics, the feeling that politicians are self-interested and out of touch. So all these sorts of things have a certain appeal, but they don’t help to make decisions and I think ultimately it will come back on the government.

Perhaps related to this, is there more scope in Australian politics for devolving power to more local and even individual levels? Do you see potential for this, or will we see a further centralisation and concentration of power at the federal level?

We’re a federal system so of course we do have a certain level of devolved constitutional framework, although the state premiers are always complaining about the dominance of the federal government, being in control of finance, that they don’t have enough freedom to move.

But there are so many contradictions. I do think there is some scope for greater power for local governments and greater devolution to local areas, but at the same time there are contradictions running through a lot of these debates. There’s also a strong public move in Australia for eliminating regional disparities and having everything coordinated and made uniform. People want the education curriculum to be uniform and regulation of all sorts to be uniform.

So on one side, people are arguing for best practice to be applied right across the country in a fairly uniform way, and on the other they’re bemoaning the fact that there’s not enough local and regional initiative and freedom. So we’re a bit schizophrenic about these sorts of issues in Australia.

But there will be a continuing pressure to, at least in a cosmetic way, involve the public much more than has been the case and politicians who give the impression of being high-handed or out of touch are very quickly brought to heel by the Australian political process.

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Interview was conducted by Jenghiz von Streng