Down Under in Australia, our spring is their fall and our tomorrow is their today.
The question now is whether their recent election is our yesterday or our tomorrow — or both. For the past six years, Australia has been governed by the Liberal Party, although that’s another thing that’s upside down Down Under, as well. What Australians call the Liberal Party is really their conservative party; their actual liberals are the Labor Party. To avoid confusion, we’ll simply refer to the Liberal Party as conservatives.
Going into last week’s elections, it was widely expected that voters would turn out the conservatives and return the Labor Party to power. The six-year conservative administration had been a turbulent one plagued by internecine warfare. Twice, the party had changed prime ministers, which meant that the current one, Scott Morrison, had never led his party in a national election. The party had also alienated many women. Several female legislators had quit the party, including a popular former foreign minister who complained about the “scourge of cultural and gender bias, bullying, and intimidation” in the government.
Polls all pointed to a Labor victory. For three years, they’d shown Labor would win. Political analysts called it an “unlosable” election for the Labor Party. And yet . . . Labor did lose. Morrison called it a “miracle.” Analysts called it a “shock.” In American terms, this was equivalent to Harry Truman’s upset of Thomas Dewey back in 1948 — or perhaps Donald Trump’s election in 2016.
One reason the conservatives won the Australian election is that they ran unexpectedly well in places “with demographics that closely resemble America’s Rust Belt,” according to Business Insider. In years past, those blue-collar regions in Australia instinctively voted for Labor just as America’s industrial heartland once instinctively voted Democratic. However, just as Trump won from Pennsylvania through Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin in 2016, Morrison won Australia’s equivalent of those seats in his election.
The question is whether the Australian election is a lagging indicator that is simply catching up to America’s 2016 election or a predictor of what might happen here in 2020.
Of course, it’s possible that the Australian election has no bearing on American politics. However, the similarities are uncanny — so much so that Democrats in the U.S. ought to be worried and Republicans ought to be overjoyed. For instance: Australia’s Morrison has strong support among that country’s conservative Christians, which mirrors Trump’s bedrock support among American evangelicals. Morrison’s two signature issues are a hard-line posture on immigration and an unabashed support for fossil fuels. Sound familiar?
Of the two, the debate over the latter is particularly instructive. If there’s any country that ought to be receptive to a solution to climate change, it ought to be Australia. Each summer (their summer, not ours) brings yet another heat wave that sets record temperatures. In January, the metropolis of Adelaide sweltered under 116 degrees (the historical average high for January there is 82). The temperature in the towns of Marble Bar and Port Augusta hit 120 degrees. In some places, roads literally melted. Power grids failed as Australians cranked up their air conditioning. Labor Party leader Bill Shorten asked: “How hot does it have to get before the current government does something on climate change?”
Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal —accounting for nearly 37 percent of the world’s exports. (The United States is fourth at 9 percent). In some ways, Australia is a South Pacific version of the Appalachian coalfields — just with an iconic opera house. The conservative coalition had ousted the previous prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, partly because he was viewed as insufficiently supportive of coal. That’s not a problem with Morrison, who once appeared in parliament brandishing a lump of coal and declaring “don’t be afraid.”
One of the issues in this election was whether to allow the Indian conglomerate Adani to open a new coal mine in the state of Queensland. Many called the national election a “climate election.” If so, Australian voters cast their votes on the side of fossil fuels. The Reuters news agency reports: “Labor, torn between its traditional union base and its urban environmentally conscious supporters, made no commitments on the Adani mine. The move backfired in the mining heartland of Queensland, where voters with jobs in mind handed the Liberal-led coalition crucial seats in the election.”
If temperatures of 120 degrees aren’t enough to persuade Australians to move away from fossil fuels, what will? These are not encouraging results for those in the United States who promote a “Green New Deal” — from Rep. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, at the national level, to Del. Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke, here in Virginia.
You can argue — correctly — that American politics are different. Coal doesn’t matter as much here, politically, and the coal-producing regions already vote emphatically Republican. Our “Queensland” switched parties a long time ago. Still, both Democrats and Republicans ought be studying the Australian results, each for their own purposes. For Republicans, Australia potentially shows a way to win. For Democrats, a way to lose.
For Republicans, that lesson is to run against immigration and argue that environmental solutions to climate change are bad for the economy. For Democrats, that lesson is a lot harder. Consider this a cautionary tale from Canberra. The Labor Party prided itself on many of the things that Democrats do as well. Had it won, Australia’s next foreign minister would have been an Asian woman who’s both gay and an immigrant — checking off four diversity boxes at once. The Labor Party saw her potential elevation as a celebration of Australia’s multiculturalism. Instead, Australia ignored both the political turmoil and the record temperatures and voted instead against immigration and for coal.
The many Democrats running for president ought to be asked why they think Americans will be more receptive to their message than Australians were to the Labor platform. Republicans, meanwhile, might want to ponder this: Demand for Australian coal is likely to decline even with a conservative government because the country’s main customers in Asia are all investing in renewable energy (although China is also building more coal plants). For now, though, Morrison will try to make Australia great again.