I have been slightly surprised by the lack of interest in the Australian federal election — and not just because Australia is arguably America’s closest ally, having fought alongside the U.S. in every war of the 20th century. No, my surprise rests on the fact that the election has been utterly gripping from before the start to after the finish.
The story starts nine months ago, when Tony Abbott became leader of the conservative Liberal party to a chorus of derision from Labour opponents and mainstream-media pundits. Type “Tony Abbot” and “unelectable” into Google, and you will get 19,800 assents from the computer. Abbott was seen as too conservative, too dogmatic, and too hot-headed for the modern liberal Australia allegedly being shaped by Labour prime minister Kevin Rudd. This judgment proved to be a serious mistake.
Two months ago, Rudd was dispatched from office by an internal Labour coup because party bosses were convinced that Abbott would beat him in an election. (One was due in October.) Rudd was replaced by his deputy, the popular Julia Gillard, who became the first woman prime minister of Oz and at once surged ahead in the opinion polls. When that early lead began to wobble after policy mistakes, Gillard declared an immediate election to maximize her “honeymoon” prospect of gliding to victory.
Fat chance. The formal election campaign was even more of a roller coaster than the previous seven months had been. Leaks began to emerge from — well, everyone believes it was from the camp of Kevin Rudd — revealing how Gillard had voted against various popular measures in the cabinet (whose discussions and votes are private). For a week, Labour was convulsed by internal squabbles that failed to end even when Gillard and Rudd forged a cold and suspicious peace.
Abbott, meanwhile, ran a disciplined campaign focusing on the government’s faults but avoiding direct attacks on Gillard. He took the lead in opinion polls. But Gillard fought back well in mid-campaign and forced a reluctant Abbott (who himself was now playing it too safe) to hold a second debate (just as she had been forced into a first one). Debating honors were roughly even, but overall, the debates helped Abbott to look prime ministerial. When he overtook Gillard again in the final days of the campaign, Labour and its media supporters launched a desperate attack on him as a male chauvinist unacceptable to female voters. (Abbott is pro-life.) Its impact was dented, however, by the fact that Abbott was usually accompanied by his wife and three dazzling daughters who, as one commentator said, radiated love and respect for their father.
Polls on the eve of the election predicted a dead heat.
That’s almost what the voters delivered through the complicated mechanism of Australia’s Alternative Vote system. Abbott’s conservative coalition easily won the primary-vote total with 44 percent to Labour’s 38 percent. When the second-preference votes of those who had voted for smaller parties were distributed, however, Labour caught up for a photo finish. Though final figures will not be available for another week, Labour leads the Coalition by 50.50 to 49.50 percent in the “two-party-preferred” national vote, while the Coalition leads Labour by 73 to 72 in parliamentary seats — with 76 being the number needed for a majority. Most political observers don’t expect the seats total to change by more than one seat either way. (The national vote may vary slightly more, since 2 million votes remain to be counted.) So the net effect is that the next government will be determined by a handful of independents and Greens. They are demanding fairly major changes in how Australia is governed in return for their support. So whether Gillard or Abbott heads the next government may not be known for another ten days. The roller coaster continues on its clattering way.