By Laksiri Fernando –
Although the federal elections took place on 21 May, Saturday, the people had the opportunity to cast their postal votes before. Even during the election day, the Electoral Commission allowed people to vote by telephone. In Australia along with 20 other countries voting is compulsory. Apart from the ‘right to vote’ these countries recognize voting as a ‘citizen’s duty.’ In New Zealand, registration is compulsory, but not necessarily the voting.
Australia is also a federal country. Therefore, regular elections are held both for the states and for the federal government. What was held in May was for the federal government. With six states and two self-governing territories, most of the day-to-day public affairs are conducted by these states with regular elections and stable constitutions. There are clear separation of powers and functions. However, when it comes to economic affairs, international relations, and overall policies of the country, the federal government has the final say most of the time conducted in conjunction with the states and territories.
Australian Parliament is bicameral, with the Hose of Representatives and the Senate unlike Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s Senate was arbitrarily abolished in 1971. Australia’s House of Representatives is smaller than Sri Lanka’s parliament, with only 151 members. But the size of the country and the population are bigger than Sri Lanka. Australia is an operational democracy with elections being held peacefully and calmly unlike Sri Lanka. There has been no incident of election violence recorded during the campaign period or thereafter.
Australia’s number of active political parties are only a handful. In the case of Sri Lanka, the active number is three times bigger. Perhaps these facts and figures show that Australia is a stable democratic country while Sri Lanka has considerable instability. Elections are held not in five years but three years. The voters have a reasonable regular say.
There has been a continuous trend in Australian elections where voter preferences moving away from traditional political parties towards third parties or independents. This was visible even at the last elections in 2019. Nevertheless, as a leading political party Labor has been able to muster a clear majority of 76 seats. It might be in the Senate that the Labor may have to depend on the ‘cross bench.’ Given the political culture in Australia, this might not be a major obstacle for the new government.
Since 1987, the Australian National University has been conducting election surveys (Australian Election Study – AES) and following was what they mentioned in the last 2019 report. “Many indicators point to citizen detachment from major political parties, including record low political partisanship, rising voter instability and voter distrust in government.”
The election was held after two years of devastating Covid pandemic affecting economic activities, cost of living, industries, and particularly small and medium scale businesses. There were nearly 9 million cases of Covid and a thousand of deaths. Healthcare or Medicare was naturally a key issue at the election. Australia has been encountering devastating floods and bushfires, one after the other, especially in remote agricultural areas. This is one reason why the global warming and climate change became a central concern of many voters. Renewable energy is considered the promising solution.
Labor won the elections almost after 10 years. Between 2007 and 2013, there were two Labor governments, first majority and then a minority government. Since 2013, the Liberal National alliance was running the federal government. At the last elections in 2019, although predictions were indicating Labor win, Liberals with Nationals obtained 77 seats to run a majority government under Scott Morison’s Prime Minister position.
The above comparison of results shows the Liberal defeat, for several reasons, while Nationals retaining their 16 seats. The Labor gained from 68 seats to at least 76 seats under the leadership of Anthony Albanese who has emerged from an ordinary family to lead the Labor party. He was brought up by her single mother who was living in public housing and receiving disability pension.
The Labor party is the oldest political party in Australia founded in 1901. Its roots go back to 1891 when the labor movement founded branches in different colonies, now states. It is considered the oldest Labor or social democratic party in the world with membership in the Socialist International. From the beginning the party preferred to spell the name without a ‘u’ in the name. It is considered a center-left party.
At the elections there is clear trend of voters moving away from main two parties, Labor, and the Liberals. In 1950s it was counted that 90% of the voters rotating around the two main parties. However, at this election the number has come down to 60%. Primary votes for the Liberals (National included) have come down from 35.3% to 29.1%. Labor primary votes has come down from 31.9% to 30.5%.
Where have they gone? The Greens have been the main beneficiaries of voters moving away form the main two parties with a primary vote of nearly 15%. In certain electorates, there had been a preference for women candidates whether Independent or party. From 3 seats at the last election, the Independents have gained 10 seats this time.
At the last elections, one of the main concerns of voters has been global warming and climate change. It might be a reason for the voters to select Labor against Liberals although in certain issues even the Labor was behind their expectations. The new House of Representatives has several other new features. Among the elected, women have a prominent place. Indigenous communities also have gained a prominent place with other minorities also getting elected. Multiculturalism is reflected in the new House of Representatives.
Australia’s electoral system is preferential voting both for the House of Representatives and the Senate. Two ballot papers are given to the voters for this purpose. If there are 5 candidates for a particular constituency/seat, voters are supposed to mark 1 to 5 in a preferential basis. When leading candidates fail to obtain more than 50%, then the preferences are counted to decide the winner. This is more or less the same for the Senate where the Greens and the Independents have a better representation. The final counting for the Senate might take another two weeks.
The new Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, has already been well into his new administration. After taking oaths as the PM, and forming a temporary cabinet, he left for the QUAD leaders meeting in Tokyo on 24 May where he met with Joe Biden (US), Narendra Modi (India) and Fumio Kishida (Japan) for discussions. One obligation fell on Australia was to look after the Pacific. Immediately after this meeting, the Foreign Minister Penny Wong went to Fiji. This is just before the Chinese Foreign Minister’s visit to the region who has in fact failed to put into effect a common agreement with the Pacific nations.
Another instant promise delivered was to release the Nadesalingam family or popularly called ‘Biloela family.’ Under the previous government they were kept in community detention, first in Christmas Island and then Perth. Husband (Nades) and wife (Priya) had come to Australia from Sri Lanka as asylum seekers. They have met here and got married. They have two daughters. As they were very close and working hard in Biloela, a remote community in Queensland, people there were quite unequivocal in fighting for their cause. Now they are back in Biloela on bridging visas until their cases are cleared in the courts.
There are other promises given by the Labor that might take time to fulfil. A full Cabinet will be formed soon. One area which should be emphasized is the Labor’s commitment to Uluru statement. Based on the principles of subsidiarity, it declares among other matters: “Ensuring that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, including survivors of the Stolen Generations and their descendants, lead in developing and implementing policy that affects their lives by resourcing flexible and appropriate Indigenous decision-making structures.” Labor’s commitment to indigenous affairs, aged care, childcare, healthcare, disability communities and people’s wages is firm and enduring.