Wednesday, 6 August 2003

The Australian Political Ecology

I've had numerous e-mails from people in the USA inquiring about the political system in Australia. While there are some good sites explaining the system on the web, here is an unshamedly biassed roundup of Australian political parties, past and present. I'm only counting parties that have had Federal members elected.

Australia Party : A party for Chardonay-swilling chattering-class liberals in the US sense. Extinct since the 70's, and missed by none. Their ecological niche has been filled by the Australian Democrats and Greens (see below).

Australian Democrats : Originally had the same "third force" role as the Liberal Party did in England. "We'll Keep the Bastards Honest" was their motto. Quite similar to certain branches of the US Democrats in phliosophy. Originally founded when a rather leftist member of the LIberal Party (see below) broke away (SPLITTERS!). Has lost a lot of its more radical members to the Greens, and has never been the same since the leader of the party resigned to join the ALP (Australian Labor Party - see below).

Australian Greens : They're Green. They're Australian. If they'd just discard their Superstitious and Luddite elements, they'd make enough sense for me to vote for them in preference to any other party. But then they'd no longer be Greens, would they? Often preys on the young of the National Party ( see below ). Main activity : hugging trees.

Australian Labor Party : "I belong to no organized party : I'm a Democrat" - so said Will Rogers, but he could equally be talking about the Australian Labor Party. (Interesting spelling, "Labour" is the way the word's usually spelt here. But it's been "Labor" since 1912). From Wikipedia :

The Labor party is infamous for its relativley visible and clearly institutionalised system of factions. These sub-groupings within the party only encompass a small fraction of the membership, but, through strong norms of loyalty, wield almost all of the power. The nature of the factions is constantly changing, and there are separate groupings within each State. Currently, the two largest factions are the Labor Right and the Socialist Left.
. Which is a bit out-of-date. Currently, there's the NSW Centre-Left, the Victorian Socialist Left, and God only knows what else. From the official ALP site :
Today factions are often based on common interest, personalities or regional interests. Not only do factions have names "Centre Left", "Socialist Left", "Labor Unity" etc they often have structures, regular meetings and even their own newsletters. They may even have membership fees. Factions may elect office holders and people to be negotiators with other groups. However frequently key faction operators hold positions of influence because of the standing they have in the broader Party.
Factions are not monolithic blocs of votes. Often within factions there are sub groupings. Indeed although there are three large national factions there are many sub groups. At the 1994 National Conference of the Labor Party there were 15 sub groups!
10 out of 10 for honesty, and about 45 RPM for spin. They've never met a Big Business they didn't like, nor a small business they did. Not dominated by the Unions (who have a block vote by the party's constitution), they deny that categorically. Basically Centrist Euro-Socialists.

Democratic Labor Party : Irish Catholic Fanatically Anti-Communist offshoots (SPLITTERS!) of the ALP, popular in the 50's and 60's. Extinct since the late 70's, the population never having recovered from having their leader "nobbled" by the ALP appointing him ambassador to Ireland in 1974.

National Party (Formerly National Country Party, and before that just plain, honest, Country Party) : The closest thing Australia has to Agrarian Conservatives. For Free Trade, Capitalism, Free Trade, Family Values, Free Trade, Christian Virtues, and did I mention Free Trade? The Natural Enemy of the Greens. "If it moves, shoot it, if it doen't, chop it down and strip-mine the soil it's growing in." seems to be their motto. Has been in Coalition with the Liberals since Adam was a boy, and is often seen as being the Right-Wing of the Liberal Party. Though in Queensland, it's the Liberals who are the Left Wing of the National Party. Rather more Ecologically sound than their motto would suggest. Vety similar to European "Christian Democrats".

Liberal Party : Liberals with a small "l", moderate in all things, especially moderation. Sometimes too far to the Right for my liking, and just as often betrays the principle of "Less Government is Good Government". More similar to US left-wing Republicans than US right-wing Democrats, but only just. The party currently in Government, which has seen inflation go down to miniscule levels, a deficit become a surplus, unemployment to halve, and growth remain steady at 3.5% at a time when the SE Asian economies have imploded. Until they lose the plot - which all parties eventually do - they're likely to remain in power. The party of Small Business, believers in a mixed economy rather than fanatical free-marketeers, at least, as long as a mixed-economy works. Tend to go a bit Thatcherite in a crisis.

Republicans : Not a party as such - they have members in every political party, especially Labor, but also the Liberals. Want to replace a system that is obsolete and irrational (but works) with one that's new, rational, but may not. They're not too sure about the details, which is why we're still a Monarchy - in name, anyway. In practice, we have a ceremonial President like Germany etc (called the Governor-General), and an executive Premier (called the Prime Minister) who actually does the governing. Hey, it works.

So although Australia has Democrats and Republicans, they're quite different beasts from the US species, and occupy different ecological niches. Australian Liberals are neither Leftist Euro-Socialists like the Canadian variety (who are more like the ALP), nor "liberals" in the US sense.

Then again. Australia is the place where the trees don't shed their leaves, they shed their bark, and some mammals lay eggs. So what else do you expect?

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