The victory by hard-nosed conservative Tony Abbott and his Liberal party in Australia’s national election on Saturday may not have lessons for America. But the center-right victory and ouster of the Labor party–it’s the liberal party–makes comparisons between what happened in Australia and American elections worth considering. Here are a few of them:
Loser. From the moment Abbott became opposition leader in the Australian House in 2009, he was stamped with the “can’t win” label by a big chunk of the media, liberals, and even members of his own party. He was just too conservative to become prime minister. He’d drag his party down. To make matters worse, he’s anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, and led the successful effort in 1999 to preserve the monarchy and reject Australia’s becoming a republic.
In this regard, he reminded me of Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s and right up to the 1980 election. Reagan was too conservative. He’d drag Republicans down. He opposed abortion. It would be 1964 all over again, another GOP debacle.
As it turned out, voters in both countries strongly preferred the full-throated conservatism of Abbott and Reagan to the woozy liberalism of their opponents. They dragged their parties up. Abbott’s handling of social issues was especially adept. He didn’t stress those issues, but when asked his position he stated it frankly without hedging.
Gaffes. The Australian press is as obsessed with gaffes as the American media, maybe more so. But they can’t tell the difference between a gaffe and political incorrectness. When Abbott said gay marriage is a fad, he was said to have committed a gaffe. How could he say such a thing? But he had merely infuriated the easily aroused arbiters of political correctness, nothing more. I suspect he didn’t lose a single vote with that comment.
My favorite (supposed) gaffe was Abbott’s perfectly harmless comment at a campaign rally that a female Liberal party candidate, Fiona Scott, had “sex appeal.” The sophisticates blew a gasket. But Scott didn’t mind, and voters didn’t either. They elected Scott by a solid margin, ousting a Labor incumbent.
Bucking the tide. During Labor’s first three-year term from 2007 to 2010, Australia was hit by an environmental frenzy. Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd declared climate change a “great moral challenge.” Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull and other moderates bought into Rudd’s cap-and-trade plan to curb carbon emissions. Abbott didn’t.
Then things changed. “What changed the political climate was climate change,” Tom Switzer, editor of the Australian Spectator, wrote in the Wall Street Journal. The Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 failed and the anti-carbon crusade faltered. Abbott, a global warming skeptic, attacked Rudd’s plan as harmful to the economy without aiding the environment. Rudd’s popularity tanked.
Abbott also challenged Turnbull for Liberal leadership and won by a single vote. But Labor formed a minority government after the 2010 election and the "Abbott can’t win" notion got traction. It continued until Saturday, when Abbott won.
Immigration. Australians are more alarmed by illegal immigrants than Americans are. Once Labor hardened its position as the election neared this summer, both parties were in agreement that no “boat people” should be allowed on Australian turf. On the other hand, Australian accepts more legal immigrants per capita than the U.S. does.
Right-wing shift. When conservatives win in Australia, that country doesn’t move as far to the right as it does here if Republicans triumph. Abbott is not a small government conservative. He unveiled a lavish parental leave program that would give mothers as much as $75,000 over six months. He would raise business taxes to pay for it. American conservatives wouldn’t have given this plan the time of day.
I spent three weeks in Australia (except for a side trip to New Zealand) before the election. Two aspects were especially appealing. Elections are shorter and everyone votes. It has the effect of putting electoral politics in the proper place. Here, the media is already focusing on the 2016 election. In Australia, 2016 is eons away.