John McTernan: Politics different in Australia

Julia Gillard waves as she takes her seat in the House of Representatives. Picture: Getty
Julia Gillard waves as she takes her seat in the House of Representatives. Picture: Getty
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Despite our shared heritage, politics are different Down Under, writes John McTernan. The difference between Question Time and a bar fight is sometimes only a lack of alcohol

Australia and Scotland share a history and a heritage and politics reflects that. There is, after all, a Labor Party in whose founding Scots played such a role that until the 1970s New South Wales Labor MPs with Scottish blood wore a tartan ribbon to mark a Tartan Day. And the Liberals, the main conservative party are routinely called Tories. But there are so many differences too.

“I move that that snivelling grub [Tony Abbott] over there be not further heard.”

That was the first sentence I ever heard former prime minister Julia Gillard say in parliament – and she was interrupting a speech by the then health minister. It was 2006 and I was working with the Australian Labor Party (ALP) under the leadership of Kim Beazley, but I knew this was a politician I wanted to get to know.

Unsurprisingly, Gillard was thrown out for using 
unparliamentary language. She was actually making a point about the bias of the then speaker who the previous week had allowed Abbott to go unpunished for using the identical phrase. Thus, was I introduced to the very different tradition of Australian parliamentary politics. Sure, I had known about former prime minister Paul Keating’s mastery of political insults – which has led to an iPhone app, the Paul Keating insult generator – but it’s something else to see it close up. The difference between Question Time in Australia and a bar fight is sometimes merely the lack of alcohol.

The robustness of parliamentary debate makes the House of Representatives, the Australian Parliament’s lower house, a real testing ground. Gillard was by some stretch the best parliamentary performer of her generation – but the misogyny speech she delivered, which went viral and got two million hits on YouTube, was made possible by the debating skills honed week in, week out on the parliamentary killing floor. That speech marked a point at which she sought to draw the line between ordinary, decent political violence and the vile sexist abuse which had become part of the Australian political discourse.

That reflects one of the deepest differences between Scottish and British politics and Australia – the role of shock jocks on talkback radio. Presenters, like the notorious Alan Jones who infamously said that Julia Gillard’s father had died of shame, have small audiences but cast a very long shadow. They comment on politics day to day, providing a right-wing frame, and very effective talking points. Ask any Labor backbencher with a slim majority and they will say that at bars and barbecues, there are a handful of listeners to 2GB, Alan Jones’ station, but that those few can dominate a conversation and steer an argument by spouting lines from the shock jocks.

US Democrats identify a similar strand in their politics, talkback radio is intimately tied to the rise of the Tea Party and its influence in dragging the Republican Party to the unelectable right wing fringe. This was tried in Australia too. Jones and some of his colleagues are the backbone of the anti-climate change movement in Australia. Their rallies attracted some of the biggest nutbars in Australia, and provided a platform for appalling sexist abuse of Julia Gillard from which Tony Abbott, as leader of the Liberal Party, never distanced himself.

The role of climate change in Australian politics is one of the strangest imaginable. It is a country – a continent indeed – that in recent years has been hit by droughts, cyclones, floods, bushfires and at the beginning of the year not just the hottest day ever recorded but the fourteen hottest days ever recorded.

In Britain, the conservative tradition wants to act, just as the centre and the left do. Across Europe the arguments are about the means not the ends of climate policy. In advanced economies, Australia and America stand out for the mainstream right being adherents of anti-climate change views.

Lord Deben, formerly John Gummer, the Tory environment secretary who persuaded Margaret Thatcher to back the environmental cause was once interviewed on Sky News Australia. He was asked what he had said to Tony Abbott’s shadow cabinet. “I said they should support a carbon price.” It was self-evident to him that was the right, conservative thing to do.

“All parties in Europe have this view”, he went on. “What about the United States?” interrupted his interviewer. “Oh, you can’t talk discuss climate change in America. There’s no point – 40 per cent of voters there don’t believe in evolution,” he retorted. And he had a point. Australia is not a country of ill-educated creationists. It’s a highly educated one with a third of voters having a university degree.

In the end, the elevation of this argument to a central point of political difference between the two main parties is a reflection of an unmodernised Tory party in Australia. Across the world, from New Zealand to the UK, moving to the mainstream on climate change policy is the emblem of the modernisation of a right-wing party seeking to demonstrate to the voters that “they get it”, and “they have changed”.

Realistically, this is because Tony Abbott does not accept that he lost the last election. Minority government is rare at federal level in Australia and does not have the same popular legitimacy it has in Britain.

Compulsory voting combined with a compulsory preferential system – one in which you have to chose who your vote will transfer to if your candidate doesn’t do well enough to win – regularly delivers decisive results. And the internal party discipline means that even the slimmest of majorities delivers political control. An Australian Labor Party MP who broke the whip would not be allowed to contest the next election, simple as that.

Having been in charge of political management for Tony Blair when the group of embittered former ministers was larger than the Labour majority – putting so many votes in the balance – this is like a dream come true. As is the relationship with the trade union movement. One UK union leader out on a fraternal visit asked me why the Gillard government gave so many things to the unions. “They support us loyally,” I told him. All the unions – left and right – supported Gillard, as did the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Aussie TUC. This is as it should be. The notion that the labour movement should tear down a labour government, or render a labour party in opposition unelectable simply wouldn’t be understood by Australian unions.

Australians play politics like they play sport. Ruthlessly, and to win. The speed with which a leader can be replaced – “rolled” – is breathtaking to experience. It happened to Julia Gillard when I worked for her, but it is true on both sides. Tony Abbott is the fourth leader that the Liberals have had in six years.

One would have thought that the will to win is an essential characteristic of a political party. Oddly it isn’t hard-wired in Britain. Look at Labour in the 1980s, or the Tory Party lashing itself to unelectable leaders and policies and consigning itself to three defeats at Blair’s hands. The assassination of Tony Blair by his own party baffles Australians, after all he was a proven winner. Politics is, after all, a contact sport and if winning isn’t everything to you, perhaps you should find a different career.

• John McTernan was communications director to Australian prime minister Julia Gillard and political secretary to Tony Blair. He will be writing a weekly column for The Scotsman from next week