By Ernest Z. Bower, Senior Adviser and Director, CSIS Southeast Asia Program
Saturday’s national election in Australia was a popularity contest for the middle dominated by two parties led by ambitious young usurpers of previous party leaders. The Coalition led by the Liberal Party’s Tony Abbott won about 42 percent of the vote and incumbent Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s Labor Party earned about 36 percent. The closest national election in 40 years Down Under resulted in what could be a hung Parliament. While vote totals were still be sorted, the situation may empower a third force, the Green Party, which could suddenly be influential in the country’s foreign policy. That fact is interesting because had Labor or the Coalition won a clear majority, there would not be much to report on in terms of foreign policy impact – the most remarkable point in comparing their platforms on foreign policy and national security is continuity. However, a deadlocked parliament means probable concessions to the Greens by whichever party can form a government and may result in questioning engagement in Afghanistan and reduce Australia’s clout in Asian regionalism in the short term.
The nature of this electoral battle defined the outcome. Both Gillard and Abbott were representing the center positions dominating Australian politics. On key issues from taxation to immigration to climate change, space between candidates’ views was relatively limited and nuanced.
Julia Gillard, the Wales-born first female prime minister of Australia, had recently taken out the wonky and international minded Kevin Rudd in a stark Labor party coup d’état that exposed the institutional failure of Rudd’s rugged individualism. Put bluntly, one can’t run the Australian government by himself – and when the veneer broke over Rudd’s 180 degree shift on his signature climate change issue, other questions followed in a fusillade and his support dissipated into thin air. Gillard was loyal to Rudd up until the very moment she decided to follow the guidance of a handful of advisors that recommended she take him out. It was a move decided in a night and acted on immediately and unanimously. Within 48 hours, Rudd was out and Gillard was in.
Her policies are essentially consistent with Rudd’s, but what was lost was a leader who relished foreign policy and ran it like an intellectual dictator from his own desk. To the outside world, including US President Barack Obama and leaders in ASEAN, India and China, Rudd was a proactive interlocutor, at once thoughtful and engaged. President Obama clearly felt personally aligned with his fellow policy wonk, as he does with Korean President Lee Myung-bak. With Rudd gone, there is a certain unavoidable downgrading of Australian mindshare within Asia policy circles.
For his part, the pugnacious Tony Abbott also played the Brutus role within the Liberal Party, eviscerating party leader Malcolm Turnbull using the Emissions Trading Scheme issue in 2009. The aggressive triathlete picked up his party banner and drove hard at Gillard during the campaign, focusing more on personal issues like leadership style than substantive differences on issues. It is difficult to differentiate yourself when positions are similar and you are competing for the same median votes.
Not surprisingly, the Australian public essentially split the vote leaving Gillard and Abbott in position to take a deep breath, get some much needed sleep and set about pursuing the Green Party and independents to try to form a government. Doing so requires at least 76 seats in Parliament.
Enter the Greens. The Green Party with 13 percent of the vote is now empowered in its role as king-maker or swing party. Gillard and Abbott will both court them assiduously. As a result, Green views may have an inordinate influence on Australian policies, at least in the short term. The most notable of these will likely be an acceleration of timeframe on climate change laws. The Greens seek a two-year carbon tax with a set price ($23/ton) on the biggest polluters with $5 billion returned to household and a long-term 100 percent renewable energy target. The two mainstream parties sought longer term (5 year) transitions. The impact on foreign policy may be significant however. The Greens want Australia’s military out of Afghanistan immediately and in this push, they may be more aligned with popular opinion than Labor or the Coalition. Green leaders say they want the issue debated in Parliament as soon as possible, and this could be the fee they exact for aligning with Gillard or Abbott to form a government.
The impact of a Parliamentary debate on Afghanistan is potentially significant. Australian support for the US and NATO has been rock solid since after the Vietnam War. Support for the US-Australian Treaty alliance is part of a holy trinity of policies that have defined Australian policy and politics for decades. A decision to depart Afghanistan as the Americans led by General Petraeus hunker down to attempt to complete the mission there would be seen as a major step backward by Washington.
The August 21 national vote will almost certainly reduce Australia’s clout in Asia, at least in the near term. Neither Gillard nor Abbott is likely to be as forward deployed as Kevin Rudd or John Howard on foreign policy. This is an important point because the paradigm is changing just as new regional architecture for security and trade are being developed in Asia. Australia has been a major contributor, much more than just a member, in the G-20, East Asian Summit (EAS), Asia Pacific Economic Cooeration (APEC) forum and the Transpacific Partnership (TPP). Now Rudd-erless, Australia will surely retain its substantive engagement as a core treaty ally of the U.S. and its proactive voice in regional institutions, but engagement may now be overwhelmingly professionally without strong leadership or convincing political support.
Australian voters have followed their politicians to the middle. The question is can Australia retain its role batting above its weight as a leader in Asia policy as it plays it safe from the center? The next several weeks will reveal answers that policy makers from Washington to Jakarta to Beijing will watch closely.