By Ernie Bower
On September 7, Australians will go to the polls and elect a government and prime minister. The race pits the Tony Abbott-led conservatives, ironically called the Liberal Party, and their allies in the opposition Coalition, against the incumbent Labor Party led by a resurgent Kevin Rudd. From a U.S. perspective, the best outcome would be a clear victory for one or the other candidate.
Both men, along with the other leaders of their parties, are strongly committed to building on the foundation of the alliance with the United States. But an inconclusive victory could lead to another structurally weak minority government, or one without a mandate. Such a government may find it harder to conclude and pass a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, chart a path to economic competitiveness less dependent on resource exports, and return the country to responsible levels of spending on security and national defense.
The overwhelming consensus among political experts and observers is that the race is Abbott’s to lose. The Labor Party has replaced its leader twice in the last three years in a series of internal power shifts. Julia Gillard ousted Rudd in 2010. Three weeks ago, Rudd had his revenge when party members, facing almost certain devastation at the polls if no change was made, voted overwhelmingly to put him forward to face Abbott and the Coalition.
Voters across the country are in shock at the Shakespearean levels of intrigue and infighting their politicians have conjured to position for power and prepare to compete. Like many Americans, Australians yearn for less partisanship and more focus on national interests, especially on improving the economy.
For most of the next four weeks, citizens will be inundated with political pitches and partisanship, but Australian and U.S. interests are fully aligned in hoping that one of the candidates can win a clear mandate and govern decisively.
An economically prosperous Australia that can punch at or above its weight as a partner for the United States and other countries across the Indo-Pacific is an important factor in regional peace and stability. Australians have always stepped up when called on or needed, during peacetime or war. To continue to play that role, a clear-voiced leader will need to balance accounts, begin to marry allocation of funding and economic planning to enhance competitiveness, and resume investing in Australia’s long term security and defense.
Ernest Bower is senior adviser and Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies & codirector of the Pacific Partners Initiative at CSIS.