Australia: Mad As Hell And Not Gonna Take It?

Sydney Opera House.jpg

The result of Australia’s recent Federal election remains unclear, as the count has continued — as of this writing — for days. What is clear is that the major parties suffered a rebuff. One in four Australians voted for an alternative to the traditional mainstream parties, a historic record. Even if incumbent Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull can win enough seats to control the lower house (nearly tossing out a first term Prime Minister is another first for this election), the Senate is well beyond reach of a majority. As psephologists — those who study elections — digest the details, it is looking increasingly as if the losses can be related to a suburban and regional community disgruntled with the attitudes and indulgences of inner urban elites.

The values of these elites, including the Prime Minister, seem increasingly at odds with the wider community in everything from economic opportunity to housing, transit, access to education, cost of living concerns, immigration policy, the environment, and more. That divergence made itself felt with a tectonic shift in the latest ballot result.

First, a crash course in Australian politics. Australia operates a Westminster style democracy. Every person aged 18 and over is required to vote (yes, it’s compulsory). They vote for geographic representatives in the lower house (the House of Representatives), and also for State representatives in the upper house, the Senate — a house of review. Each lower house seat represents approximately 150,000 people. Some electoral districts, given our sparse population density in rural and remote areas, can be larger than Texas in area. Most, however are metropolitan, given that 80 percent of Australians live in just five major cities. Each State elects 12 Senators, plus two for each Territory — being the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. There are 150 Members of the House of Representative and there are 78 Senators.

Voting is by a preferential system. Imagine a lower house seat with five candidates representing various political parties. Voters are required to number their ballots in order of preference, and to number each box. The candidate with the least votes is eliminated, but the second preference flows to the candidate numbered next on a given ballot. This process continues until only two candidates remain, the one with the most votes being declared the winner. The same happens in the Senate for each State. Because the Senate typically attracts a wide field of candidates and parties (we even had a Pirate Party this time), the Senate Ballot paper can be over three feet wide. Fortunately, voters only need to number their top six choices of party ‘above the line’ for the Senate. Suckers for punishment can number every single box.

The main political parties in Australia are the Labor Party (akin to the Democrats); the Liberal Party (akin to Republicans); the National Party (mainly rural conservatives); and The Greens (left wing environmentalists). The party that wins a majority of seats in the House of Representatives forms the government. There is usually a range of smaller fringe parties that record little support, but in this election, One Nation (resembling the Tea Party movement), The Nick Xenophon Party (a populist party), various Christian groups and others combined to achieve 5 seats in the lower house and around 11 in the Senate. Forming a majority in the lower house is now looking difficult, and there is no chance of a majority in the upper house.

It is unlike the American system in that there is no Presidential vote, although our politics have become Presidential in campaign style. Our Prime Minister (from the conservative Liberal Party, although many in the party dispute his conservatism), is elected by the party's Members of Parliament only. In other words, the only people who actually get to vote for our current (for the time being) Prime Minister are the voters of Wentworth, his electorate. The rest of the country votes locally for their own candidates. PMs rely on the support of their party room. This is how we manage to have Prime Ministers who can be tossed out not by popular vote, but by party room vote. It makes life interesting, especially in recent years, when we seem to be averaging a new PM each year without the need for an election. The PM forms a Cabinet of their own choosing, drawn from elected party members. This cabinet includes members of both upper and lower houses, but the PM is drawn from the lower house.

So what happened? In a word: rebellion. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a graduate of Oxford University and a former barrister, is independently wealthy, living in a multimillion dollar Sydney harbour-side home. Having millionaire leaders might be familiar to Americans, but for Australians it’s unusual. His wife is Lucy Turnbull, a former Lord Mayor of Sydney (which represents only the downtown and immediately adjacent areas), and a prominent urbanist, who also chairs the Greater Sydney Commission. Together, they proudly champion the agenda of the inner urban elites: light rail projects, mass transit projects, increasing urban density, ‘knowledge workers’ as the future of industry, and so on. In the election campaign, Labor Opposition Leader Bill Shorten was happy to be pictured in his campaign bus, actively touring disadvantaged outer-urban and regional areas, while Turnbull was happy to be pictured riding in a Sydney train.

One of Turnbull’s first acts as Prime Minister, after unseating his conservative predecessor Tony Abbott in a party room coup, was to form a ‘Cities Ministry’ which later released a Smart Cities Plan, much to the adulation of the elites who claimed that without a dedicated Minister for Cities, Australia’s future prosperity was in jeopardy. “Great cities attract, retain and develop increasingly mobile talent and organisations, encouraging them to innovate, create jobs and support growth,” the PM said. The statement was received with wide applause from fawning urban industry groups, media, academics, planners, and left leaning think tanks.

This wasn’t a focus of the election campaign, but it does perhaps provide an insight into how the politics of a mainstream party and incumbent government, still in its first term, diverged from mainstream Australia. Australia may be among the world’s most highly urbanised nations, but our urbanism is largely suburban by nature. The concerns of suburban and regional electorates focus on cost of living pressures, low wage growth, unaffordable housing, evaporating job opportunities and the casualization of work towards contract positions. For these voters, the importance of inner city light rail projects designed to improve commuting opportunities for a minority of high income, inner-urban dwellers just doesn’t rate on the scale of essential public policy investment. Analysis of the voting patterns of the latest election show that some of the greatest swings against the government came from those middle and outer urban electorates, along with disadvantaged regional communities.

Neither can the Labor opposition take much comfort from the result. The swing resulted in only a small pickup for them— insufficient to win government — and failed to win enough support from their traditional base, which abandoned the mainstream left for alternative minor parties. Both Liberals and Labor had fallen for the politically correct, left leaning, inner urban policy kool-aid that has increasingly come to represent orthodox establishment views.

In the same way that the UK ‘Brexit’ Leave vote was supported by communities that did not share in the benefits enjoyed by inner-London elites, many Australians also cast a vote of rebellion, turning their backs on the advice and views of the many inner-urban experts who have talked down to them for years.

For many, the recent Australian election resembled an opportunity to re-enact the speech of Howard Beale (played by an Australian, Peter Finch) in the film Network: “Things have got to change. But first, you've gotta get mad!... You've got to say, 'I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!'”

Ross Elliott has more than twenty years experience in property and public policy. His past roles have included stints in urban economics, national and state roles with the Property Council, and in destination marketing. He has written extensively on a range of public policy issues centering around urban issues, and continues to maintain his recreational interest in public policy through ongoing contributions such as this or via his monthly blog, The Pulse.

Flickr photo by Pedro Szekely: cloudy skies over the Sydney Opera House.