Editorial: Democracy in Australia
May 31, 2016 | Colin Rubenstein
With this year’s long election campaign in full swing, many Australians are doubtless tiring of the often wearying daily grind of policy announcements, campaign public appearances, photo-opportunities, mutual mud-slinging, and over-analysed play-by-play journalism. Yet it is worth remembering the many blessings of Australia’s democracy.
First, Australians can at least be grateful we do not have to endure the year-and-a-half-plus contests that US Presidential campaigns have become. Moreover, we do not currently have a major problem (although there are some disturbing elements in some smaller parties and individuals at the fringes) with the sort of crude, self-contradictory, irresponsible, often offensive, isolationist populism represented by the rise of Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump and, in a different way, by surprisingly popular Democrat candidate Bernie Sanders.
Nor is this problem confined to the US. Ugly populist movements have also achieved significant electoral gains in numerous European democracies – France’s Front National, the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the Sweden Democrats, Germany’s AfD, Hungary’s Jobbik and Greece’s Golden Dawn.
Australia has its extremist or irresponsible populist groups – Pauline Hanson, the Australian Liberty Alliance, the Palmer United Party (PUP) in the last election – and worryingly, some old and new fringe populist individuals and parties may make it into parliament in this double dissolution election, as the PUP did in 2013. While none is likely to attract the sort of support that the Front National or the FPÖ have been notching up, nor play a formal role in government, some may nonetheless get too close to the levers of power.
And while it’s easy and fashionable to be cynical about Australian politics, the two aspirants to be Australia’s next Prime Minister and form government, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, are actually impressive individuals – both experienced and accomplished, highly intelligent and excellent communicators, generally thoroughly on top of policy issues, and both committed to the core principles of Australian democracy and its diverse society. Whatever you think of the merits of either man’s policy or leadership, a realistic assessment comparing our situation to that of many other democracies can only lead to the conclusion that Australian democracy, and the choices we have in this election, give us much cause for gratitude.
Despite the undoubted passion over the issues which divide them, one should keep in mind the many shared values, unspoken areas of consensus, and bipartisan cooperation which unite Australia’s two major parties.
It is particularly heartening to see that these commonalties are very much apparent in their answers to the 13 questions on policy areas of special interest to the Australian Jewish community which, as part of a long-standing AIR tradition, are the centrepiece of this edition.
While, predictably, both parties attack and denounce the policies and record of the other in various areas, what is most apparent is the overwhelming bipartisanship in numerous respects.
Particularly notable is the consensus on enhancing Australia’s long-standing, close and broad bilateral relationship with Israel, and particularly the benefits to be derived from cooperation and exchange on innovation, hi-tech, agriculture and other areas. Furthermore, not only did both parties agree on the need to lend support to promoting a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace outcome, but more importantly, made it clear they understand that the only way to progress that goal is through direct, bilateral negotiations between the parties. And both agree that the antisemitic boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is not only destructive to peace hopes, but beyond the pale morally.
Similarly, the constructive commitments of both parties to Australian multiculturalism are sincere and thoughtful – while readers can evaluate the specifics of their respective plans to enhance its benefits and address concerns.
Also, AIJAC welcomes the fact that past disagreements about Section 18C of Racial Discrimination Act no longer divide the major parties. Despite much furore over this issue in recent years, and much misrepresentation of what 18C has meant in practice, there is now a bipartisan consensus that carefully formulated and finessed legislation to limit the most blatant and destructive forms of racial vilification and incitement are appropriate in our multicultural society, in the interests of promoting communal harmony and cohesion without having further limited our bedrock commitment to freedom of speech.
Furthermore, the Jewish community can be pleased that both parties, as part of their broader plans, are pledging to maintain and even extend support for the community’s well-justified special needs with regard to communal security and education funding arrangements.
Revealingly, extensive answers from both parties are centred on the issue of terrorism, which both rightfully take extremely seriously – and address with considerable concern and perceptiveness. The differences are real, but more about nuance than fundamental substance.
Other areas where marginal but important differences can be detected in the answers (and record in government) include UN voting, how to deal with continuing Iranian bad behaviour in the wake of the, in our view, highly problematic nuclear deal, and the obligations and performance of the ABC and SBS. It is somewhat disappointing that neither party seems prepared to look at restoring something akin to the Independent Complaints Review Panel that once existed for the ABC, and are prepared to let both networks essentially police themselves – something they are demonstrably performing inadequately in recent times.
Summing up, what their responses indicate is that both Jewish and non-Jewish Australians can feel satisfied that they are being offered a choice between two reasoned, professional and responsible policy and governmental alternatives.
However, as in other comparable countries, the challenges from emerging once-fringe populist parties raises the possibility that they could hold the post-election balance of power – given the double dissolution poll, and despite the changes to Senate voting rules. This reality casts a shadow on the prospect that either of the main, responsible parties will hold a clear majority in the lower house and adequate leverage in the Senate to have the opportunity to provide the stable and effective government Australia sorely needs and deserves.