On 18 May, Australia will elect its newest administration. In recent years, Australian leadership spills have happened at a breakneck speed, with most prime ministers barely cracking two years, and none seeing out a full term.
The country careens around policy points as both major parties fail to identify a core point of difference to stake their debates on, and we’re left with a degree of personality politics where the two primary candidates have both taken the ‘jokesy dad’ vibe to its logical conclusion. Labor has Bill ‘Zinger’ Shorten, a man who at times manages to struggle out from behind his suit with some endearing dad jokes; while the Liberals have Scott ‘ScoMo’ Morrison, whose desperation to be liked is only matched by the desperation of his barely-contained Pentecostal evangelism. The race has been close, with Labor only just edging the incumbent Liberals in recent polls.
With that in mind, here are five things to help you understand the state of the Australian election:
1. Australia has had more PMs in the last 12 years than you’ve had hot breakfasts.
In Australia, a full term in office is three years. Since 2007, the country has been trucking along at almost twice the expected pace, ousting top officials at a rate that is usually reserved for ‘failed states’. As in the UK, the prime minister is not directly elected by the voting public, with the role of party leader instead determined by the internal politics of each party. Australia’s two major parties, the Australian Labor party (ALP, centre-left) and the Liberals (LNP, Tories) have each had a series of changes while in power, and each change has brought a significant shift in the tone of national discourse. The current tone is, as a colleague suggested, that of “pratfalling towards the apocalypse.” This election has seen both major parties implement mechanisms for reducing the rate at which the leadership can be changed, and has certainly shifted the nation away from a series of rotating coups.
In any other situation a nation which had faced six leaders in a row, each lasting about two years, might indicate a level of governmental instability usually reserved for post-war conditions. In Australia, it instead evokes the nation’s lethargy. The rate at which Australian PMs rise and fall is a point of rich national derision, and yet remains the least unusual aspect of this election. A common quality among the general electoral candidates is their ineffable crappiness. After the 2017 expulsion of sitting politicians under the pissweak bloodbath that was Section 44(i) of the Constitution, where a number of politicians had their eligibility questioned due mostly to still being citizens of the United Kingdom, we’re left with a situation where most of the remaining politicians are uninspiring to say the least. Australia lacks a national-level sense of hope, with the discourse suggesting people are instead praying for the option they consider to be the least worst.
2. Some of the most important issues have been deprioritised.
The election this week looks set to be the first where social media has had a potential to play a big part. It’s also the first where multiple ethnonationalist parties might win seats. Historic issues of refugee rights have disappeared, the election instead shaped by economic policies that are both esoteric and boring whilst climate change remains under-addressed in both policy and media. It’s now late autumn, yet recent days have seen highs of 23C; the political discourse treats climate change as a problem that is always arriving but never arrives – something for future governments and future editors. The reflections on nationalism, government process and climate change that have defined civil society for years are now being pushed out of the spotlight as much as possible, either because neither of the major parties have credible solutions for these issues, or, perhaps, meaningful differences to debate.
3. Obscure tax codes are defining the election, sort of.
The appealingly-named franking deficit income dividend imputation law remains a key part of the inter-party campaign accusations, despite many people not really caring about what it is.
A standard dividend imputation is, in theory, a system for not taxing the same income twice. If you own shares in a business, you periodically receive dividends as a proportion of the corporation’s profit. The corporations should (ha ha ha) already have paid tax on this, and thus, the dividend is paid out along with a franking credit that notes how much tax was paid on the dividend. The recipient of the dividend can then use it as a credit against their tax obligations to reduce their tax burden.
Why is this relevant? Well, because older Australians have government-endorsed superannuation schemes where they will own shares in a number of corporations as mediated by (in most cases) industry-specific superannuation organisations. These are funds received in retirement in addition to a pension. Those in well-secured union work, or who have higher incomes in the first place, will end up with larger superannuation, therefore having larger incomes subject to franking dividends. In short, if you’re just living on a pension, life is going to be really hard. If you’ve got superannuation, the situation is going to be better, but how much better is going to be dependent on your income in the first place.
The problem is that in Australia the following things apply: people pay no tax on contributions to superannuation, superannuation takes the form of shares in businesses, the no-tax threshold for retirees is higher than the general population, and people pay no tax on superannuation received. As a result, there are a bunch of people receiving franking tax credits who have not paid tax. Australia’s solution, since 1987, has been to simply pay out the face value of the franking credits, in effect generating a negative tax obligation: free money from the tax office. As we know, retirees who benefit from superannuation tend to be more white and more male than the average population, due to people of colour having shorter life expectancies (Indigenous Australian life expectancy is ten years below the average population; ten fewer years to enjoy retirement if they make it to that age) and men tending to have higher incomes with higher superannuation savings. The result has been to tie middle-class incomes more acutely to the health of the financial markets.
4. White nationalism is on the rise.
This election itself has been marred by the significant increase in white nationalists, in lock-step with developments around the globe. This has meant the resurrection of the memorably shitty One Nation party, led by the execrable Pauline Hanson, whose homegrown folksy racism is of the old school variety. They’re not literally Nazis, but they’re not far off. International developments have left Australia in a situation where every white nationalist seems to think that practically every country is ‘ripe for the taking’. This is made all the more remarkable by the absence of clearly articulated resistance to white nationalism from the major parties. Yes, there was Egg Boy, but that brief moment faded quickly. Now we’re back to having to deal with the racist billboards dotting the nation.
Jacinda Ardern’s response to the shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, earlier this year represented a vision of community that simply doesn’t exist in Australia. There has been little self-reflection in Australia, despite being the nation the Christchurch gunman was raised in. Instead, footage of the shooting was broadcast on freeview television, and violence against Muslims increased. Far-right parties have engaged in the mass reproduction of hateful dross that hits the checklist of all types of phobias. One Nation’s reputation is known internationally, but due to the increasing popularity of white supremacy, we’ve arrived at the odd situation where the white nationalist vote is split between three parties.
Fraser Anning, a One Nation senator elected with just 19 votes (not by 19 votes, he received 19 votes) promptly quit One Nation for not being fascist enough. He’s formed his own party, and he’s engaged in a programme of overt fascist jingoism, which notably blamed Muslim people for the Christchurch attacks. One Nation also faces a contender in the United Australia party, which is notable for a) its $60m election advertising war chest, and b) this war chest effectively being stolen from mining workers by their boss, UAP leader Clive Palmer, as a way of avoiding payouts to staff on a bankrupt mining operation. Palmer himself is a poorly-drawn facsimile of Trump, using almost identical attention-grabbing messaging and an identical absence of graspable policy. On top of this, there are also six other seven more minor parties splattering our collective ceramic. The net result of having nine far-right parties bickering for the pro-fascist demographic is the experience of heading into unpleasant racist arms race where each of these parties has given up on the idea of dog-whistle politics, and is content to blare out their bullshit with whatever microphone they can find.
5. Attack ads and shitty behaviour have set a poor tone.
Aside from being stifled by obscure tax law, the election campaign has also exuded a gross flavour of cheap tricks and dirty tactics, for which the suggestion of ‘griminess’ doesn’t really convey the degree to which the gross behaviour truly seeps into the soil of the country. There is a wealth of wildly inaccurate anti-left attack ads on WeChat, the primary Chinese social media platform (with some suggesting that the embattled centre-right homophobe Gladys Liu is to blame), while incomprehensible random-number-generated political ads circulate on Facebook, and the Murdoch-owned Daily Telegraph took to attacking Labor leader Bill Shorten’s dead mum.
Since the election was called the national discourse seems to be set to ‘acrimonious’, with illegal attack ads and personal slights having a more central role than policy, and with several parties disavowing their candidates for a variety of reasons: on the left there is Luke Creasey’s sexism, Wayne Kurnoth’s antisemitism, and Jay Dessi’s double-whammy of racist and necrophilic jokes; on the right, Gurpal Singh’s homophobia followed by his rape apologism, Steve Dickson’s shitty treatment of sex workers, Jessica Whelan’s Islamophobia, and Peter Killin’s resistance to gay people in his own party.
Of course, these egregious behaviours are matters of policy for the parties on the far right, hence most of the resignations having happened in the centre and left. Dis-endorsement isn’t a barrier to being elected, though. This is the context in which Pauline Hanson got into power and set up her own party; she was running on a Liberal party ticket, but was dropped after suggesting Indigenous Australian support funds should be disestablished. As it turns out, the attention she received for her comments about Indigenous Australians resonated with her base, and she received a gigantic swing vote of about 20% from Labor, starting out as an independent before forming One Nation. Here’s hoping that the future doesn’t see any of these individuals forming even more reactionary parties in 2019.