Australian elections 2013: What’s brewing, mate?

Australian politics remind me of a soap opera with all its theatrics and mudslinging. And with the elections looming, things are heating up between the frontrunners for the nation’s top job.

Remember last June when former Australian PM Julia Gillard was unceremoniously removed from the job by her predecessor Kevin Rudd? The irony of it all was that Rudd himself was toppled by Gillard back in 2010! As they say, karma’s a b***h.

But with Rudd back in the saddle, it’s not going to be an easy road ahead for his centre-left Labor party.

Rudd’s comeback as Prime Minister may well be short-lived judging by his slump in the popularity polls; Newspoll numbers in recent days show Australians leaning heavily in favour of the socially conservative, centre-right Liberal Coalition, led by Tony Abbott.

Abbott has had his fair share of political gaffes, including making the infamous ‘sex appeal’ comment which infuriated feminists.

He also embarrassed himself in a public speech by erroneously using the word ‘suppository’ (which actually refers to a plug of medication that is usually inserted into the patient’s nether regions) instead of the word ‘repository’, which was intended to dismiss Rudd’s capabilities to be a PM.

The comment went viral overnight, and Abbott became a laughing stock not just in Australia but across the English-speaking world.

But it’s highly unlikely these PR blunders will actually cost Abbott votes.

Despite an eleventh hour resurgence by Rudd to up-level public confidence in the Labor party (which was heavily diminished during Gillard’s term as PM), it seems rather imminent that it would be a case of too little, too late for Team Rudd.

Let’s review the hot button issues of the Australian election this year and find out what the candidates’ positions are on each topic:

1)      Deepening deficit and unemployment

The Treasury Department announced the estimated deficit for the current fiscal year to be a whopping AUD30.1 billion as a result of a mining slowdown, largely triggered by the purchasing habits of the Chinese who import coal when it’s cheaper to do so, but would otherwise tap into domestic supplies.

Despite being the largest importer of coal in the world, the Chinese import only 6% of total demand, which is why prices remain stagnant, and profit margins continue to stay razor thin.

Rudd has been loud and clear about “the end of the China mining boom”, and this is a chief concern for many Australians who could lose jobs because of the decline of the mining industry. The Treasury forecasted that unemployment will hit 6.25% next year, an increase from the earlier projection of 5.75%.

Rudd’s election promise is to revive the economy by increasing productivity and tax revenue. Just days ago, he announced an AUD35.6 million funding scheme to retrain Australia’s manufacturing workforce.

And before that, the Rudd administration committed AUD35 million to up-skill youth so that they may improve their employability. For Rudd, the high-skill, high-tech sectors are where the future job opportunities are.

In their proposed national plan, Abbott’s Liberal Coalition also talked about boosting productivity growth by “cutting government red and green tape”, “improve competition rules”, and to reduce “union militancy in workplaces”.

Abbott also promised to generate two million new jobs within a decade(!).

However, the Rudd government ‘warned’ Australians that, with Abbott at the helm, those working in the public sector across the country would face job cuts as it happened in the Liberal-run state of Queensland.

In response, Abbott said: “Sure, there may have been a reduction in public sector jobs but there has been an expansion in private sector jobs – and a job is a job.” In a trip down South to Tasmania, Abbott bit back by claiming that Australia’s smallest state “has been in a more or less permanent economic crisis…because of the ravages of a Labor Green government.” He vowed to fix problems such as the relatively high unemployment rate and low average wage in Tasmania if elected to office.

2)      Asylum-seekers

The Liberals have long been against granting refuge to asylum-seekers in Australia, and Abbott recently used the opportunity to slam Labor for having allowed some 50,000 illegal immigrants to settle in the country since 2007.

Rudd has flip-flopped on the issue; during his first term as PM, he was more sympathetic to the plight of these refugees. Today, the Rudd government has taken a tougher stand against ‘boat people’ and instead redirects them to Papua New Guinea (PNG) for resettlement under the PNG plan.

3)      Gonski Reform

Labor’s ‘Gonski’ reforms were introduced in parliament in 2011 to provide more support for students to reduce the growing gaps in students from various backgrounds.

Initially, Abbott was against the plan as he thought they were “too expensive and unnecessary because there is no fundamental problem with the way schools are funded.” But now Abbott has changed his position on the matter and promised that the Coalition will “match Labor dollar-for-dollar” and carry out the plan for the next four years if it wins the elections.

In response to this decision change, Education Minister Bill Shorten believed it to be a purely political move by the Liberals as rejecting the reforms could cost them precious votes on Polling Day.

4)      Same-sex Marriage

Yet another slip of the tongue by Abbott!

During a radio interview, he somewhat dismissed same-sex marriage as being “the fashion of the moment”. This comment drew the ire of Finance Minister Penny Wong, who tweeted to Abbott: “Equality is not a fashion item”.

Rudd, on the other hand, pledged a same-sex marriage bill within 100 days if he successfully defended the Prime Ministership, noting that “this is just a mark of decency to same sex couples across the country.”

Views on the ground…

Tony Thio, a Singaporean who works as a secondary college teacher in Victoria and who has resided in Australia for over five years, isn’t able to vote as a permanent resident but was candid about the state of politics in the country:

“Abbott will win because Australians in general aren’t politically or media savvy and will instead be swayed by the media, where in this case is majority heavily pro-Abbott”.

According to Aaron, a 33-year-old PR Account Director from Australia: “Elections don’t mean a lot when the only thing one party stands for is the thing the other doesn’t. There are few principles held firm for either major party today. No-one ever retires from Government and hands over the reins to a better party to continue on their good work. Eventually we all get to the point of realising that one party’s work simply wasn’t good enough.” According to Aaron, “Bob Hawke’s Labor Government of the 80s was the closest thing to a unifying voice we’ve ever had in Australia but even he was knifed in the back by Keating, someone from his own party. Gillard certainly isn’t the first saboteur as some would have you believe. I’m a swinging voter. And in honesty, I think this year, it will all hinge on what I have for breakfast the morning of September 7.”

Ben, a 26-year-old Investor Relations Manager, thinks that “a win for Abbott will have a material impact on business in Australia by way of increased investment. There are too many companies sitting on the side-lines right now, frustrated with a lack of policy direction for this country.”

Tom Buchan, founder of a PR firm in Australia, is much more pessimistic: “What we are seeing from each leader- PM Kevin Rudd and Coalition Leader Tony Abbott- is a duel over personalities, a Presidential contest with the media focusing on who looks and sounds the best, rather than what each leader stands  for in terms of vision and direction. It is very difficult to separate the Parties on their policies, so it’s all coming down to who is the most popular, or perhaps the least unpopular leader”.

What about Australians living abroad? Illka Gobius, 45, a freelance PR consultant who has lived in Asia for 16 years, says that “While I am an Australian, after the last election I took myself off the electoral role. Because I’ve lived in Singapore so long, I had decided that I no longer knew Australian politics well enough to vote. Ironically, the way events have unfolded since then, I have again taken an interest in Australian politics. I’m glad that I do not have to vote in this election, because the candidates have consistently demonstrated that they are politicians, not leaders. What Australia really needs is a strong leader at this point, because the dollar is diving, their dependence on China is too strong, and the price of primary exports is falling”.

According to Bridgit O’Donovan, 35, a Sydneysider currently based in Singapore, “I feel strongly about what I want from my leaders and the Australia that I want to return to. Neither candidate offers me any hope or consolation. I am dismayed by both parties’ stance on refugees. I don’t think anyone has communicated what they see is our future. This election is just argument with no content.”

So there you have it. Let the games begin!

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