What do Mother’s Day and general elections have in common? I’ve had two of each this year. Whereas the first of these events has very pleasant connotations - I had lovely greetings from my girls on the UK’s Mother’s Day in March and then from my son (in Victoria) on Aussie mums’ day in May - the second is distinguished by the fact that, by the time I return from a trip to the UK at the end of August, I will have missed both and voted in neither. Not for want of trying in the case of the first, in the UK in May, and because I am not entitled to vote in the Australian election on 21 August.
When Julia Gillard became Prime Minister on 24 June in an infamous and recriminatory ‘bloodless coup’, there was great excitement. She is Australia’s first woman PM. (How much of this politically correct excitement there was among Aussie Blokes in the outback is impossible to gauge.)
Overnight, literally as far as the public were concerned, the Australian Labor Party removed Kevin Rudd (we live in his Griffith constituency) because polls were suggesting that he had lost the support of a sufficient number of Australian voters to put Labor’s re-election later in the year in jeopardy. There were lots of mutterings in the media about ‘the Gang of Four’, ‘the Labor machine’, and ‘numbers games’ played, doubtless in smoke-filled back rooms and definitely late into the night. Ms Gillard had been Rudd’s number two and seemed efficient, articulate and, it transpired, ruthless.
While still, she hoped, in her honeymoon period - which is an interesting concept, since she is also the first Australian Prime Minister never to have married - she called an election for 21 August to get a mandate from the Australian people.
July 25th saw the one and only Leaders’ Debate. On such occasions, some TV channels use a market research analysis tool affectionately known as The Worm. This reveals some of the audience’s reaction to comments made by the speakers on a line graph on screen, which moves up or down through time. We watched ABC (like the BBC) which didn’t have any worms. But other channels’ worms revealed that women didn’t like Tony Abbott (leader of the Liberal party) and men didn’t react well to Julia G. Anyone who’d read a newspaper or listened to news radio in the previous 10 days knew this already. Political pundits gave Ms Gillard a narrow ‘win’.
During the following week, however, a different creature crawled out of the woodwork in the form of disgruntled leakers of Cabinet secrets that suggested Ms Gillard had opposed some Labor legislation she had claimed credit for. You can imagine how much speculation there has been as to the source. Gillard’s ratings have plummeted and Abbott is now in the lead in the polls. As Labor panics and Abbott takes advantage, there are three exciting weeks to go in this race to capture Australia’s political middle ground.
Differences we have noticed in campaigning here are that far fewer ministers and party leaders seems to speak on the campaign trail, or maybe the media just don’t cover them. It is largely down to Big Ears and Ranga. But most interesting is to see Labor and the Libs promising money hand over fist without any use by commentators or journalists of the word bribery. As the world over, announcements are made in appropriate locations. So Mr Abbott stood in a fish market in Mackay and assured his listeners that if the Liberals won the election, he would make sure that the Fisheries Minister had just as much say as the Environment Minister in deciding which marine areas should be protected, suspending the marine bioregional planning process. And there is, as ever, a generous helping of babies in photo opportunities.
And the hot topics in this election? Taxation and what to spend the money on, health funding, industrial relations (known here as WorkChoices), pensions (known here as ‘super’), paid parental leave, and – out of all proportion in every respect – how to ‘stop the boats’ bringing asylum seekers. Despite a recent abortive attempt to introduce a carbon emissions trading scheme, conspicuous by its absence (just as in the UK election) is any significant action on climate change and the reduction of Australia’s huge carbon footprint.
At my Pilates class the other day, I asked how many of the assembled group were excited about the forthcoming election. They're normally a lively, chatty lot, but there followed a deafening silence.