The Australian Election – Asylum, Education and Carbon

Warwick Labour member Charlie Hindhaugh, on an exchange year at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, writes about the forthcoming Australian federal election.

Yesterday the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd went to the Governor-General to ask to dissolve parliament for a general election. The date: September 7. With just over a month to go it looks like this will be one of the closest elections Australia has seen in decades, with the possibility of another hung parliament.

Several main issues are likely to dominate the election battleground over the next month. They range from domestic issues such as the carbon trading scheme introduced by then Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, to the reforms to schools and education policy.

In foreign policy by far the largest and most controversial issue is that of asylum seekers, or ‘boat people’ as they have been come to be known. In the last few weeks Kevin Rudd dropped a policy bombshell with the announcement that any asylum seeker arriving by boat to Australia would not be granted asylum here, but would be re-settled in Papua New Guinea.

The Papua New Guinea (PNG) solution is an election gamble for Rudd. It’s popular with older or more conservative voters and the populist media, but has struck a diversionary line with the younger or more progressive supporters of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

Rudd is considered to be more popular with younger voters than his predecessor Julia Gillard or the opposition leader Tony Abbot, but the PNG solution is seeing his popularity with younger and more liberal supporters on the decline. Crucially the Greens are capitalising on the anger and dissatisfaction the PNG solution has produced, with many voters switching allegiance over to the Greens. For Labor this will be a trade-off, while they may potentially lose seats to the Greens, they may win back more from the Liberal/National opposition.

Rudd’s PNG solution is a clearly populist policy to win back support to the ALP. What’s unfortunate is that it’s a policy blind of the actual asylum statistics, costs, or moral problems. The numbers of asylum seekers have been vastly exaggerated by the media in a similar way to the supposed torrent of ‘benefit scroungers’ in the UK. Rather than attempt to win the argument with voters that the problem is smaller than people realise, Rudd has disappointingly given in to conservative pressure.

Education is likely to be another hot topic in the election. Gillard vowed to implement a series of policies known as the Gonski reforms that changed the way the federal government funds schools. Interestingly in comparison to the UK, the federal government funds both state run and private schools.

The proposed reforms would change the funding of private schools to a model based on socio-economic need. By calling the federal election at this point, Rudd has guillotined many of the education negations with the States as the Federal parliament is now unable to pass legislation, with the state of Victoria only just getting the reforms through at the last moment.

A further controversial policy is the Australian carbon trading scheme, or ‘Carbon Tax’ as its been dubbed by many. Introduced by Gillard with pressure from the Greens, who held significant sway over the minority Labor government. The scheme has been vilified by the right as an expensive failure. The Coalition is likely to capitalise on voters who are dissatisfied by the scheme, but with the change Labor leadership to Rudd, the opposition can no longer make the personal attacks at Gillard for introducing the scheme despite pledging not to.

The 43rd Australian Parliament has been remarkably resilient. Gillard managed to lead a minority Labor government against the odds, and against a relentless and aggressive campaign by the Liberal party against her government. Two points will be interesting to watch develop over the coming month: firstly, how Labor defends its legacy and what points it plays up, and secondly what points, personal or political, the the opposition chooses to attack Labor on.

You can follow Charlie on Twitter @_Lapsang

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