6th October 2010
I have been remiss in not reporting before now a fascinating IFF Ramsay Garden seminar earlier this year with Rt Hon Helen Liddell, former Secretary of State for Scotland, recently returned from four years as British High Commissioner to Australia, and created a Life Peer in the recent honours list.
Helen spoke mostly of her experience in Australia at the dawn of ‘the Asian century’, offering us a glimpse into a part of the world we perhaps pay too little attention to. Since the seminar, Julia Gillard dramatically ousted Kevin Rudd as leader of the Labor party, called a snap election, and last month just managed to pull together the majority required to form a government with the support of a Greens party member and three independents.
For the global politics of climate change in particular this is a fascinating unfolding story - Helen’s talk helpfully put it all in context. Not to mention some interesting observations on coalition politics, which might have relevance closer to home here in the UK.
The story is as much about China as about Australia, the two being tied by an ‘umbilical chord’ of mineral exports. Some see this as an unhealthy dependency, while others are keen to expand the trading relationship into other areas. It has certainly helped Australia ease through the recession.
Even so, feeding China’s appetite for mineral resources has distorted the labour market to such an extent that qualified surgeons can now be found driving (admittedly highly sophisticated) trucks. That is leading to skill shortages elsewhere. And Australia’s exports are still mostly of raw resources with little value added at home. I was reminded of stories about the ‘gold rush culture‘ grown up around the Alberta tar sands. It speaks of a culture driven by pretty basic values - which also showed up in the part of our discussion about diversity, multi-culturalism, the status of women and the place of indigenous Australians (the last of which Helen described as ‘the world’s most intractable problem’).
The other big story during Helen’s period in office was the arrival of climate change on Australia’s political agenda. Yes - that recently. She spoke of a slow awakening to the magnitude of the problem as drought conditions persisted. It became a big issue in the election of 2007 that saw Prime Minister John Howard ousted both from power and from his own seat. But new Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (a mandarin speaker) struggled to pilot emissions trading legislation through Parliament against a motley coalition of resistance.
This is partly a consequence of the Australian political system - a Westminster system, based on a ‘preferential vote’ electoral system (or ‘alternative vote’ as we would call it) and compulsory voting. Helen reminded us that Australia is a good place to study, for that reason, for a glimpse of things to come perhaps in the UK.
Compulsory voting means that the election campaign is much curtailed: there is no need to ‘get out the vote’. So the campaign is confined to three weeks before polling day during which each party blows its ‘dog whistle’ (its key message).
And the resulting coalition government has in practice favoured mavericks - such as the No Pokies party representative - who can hold sway over critical legislation. That leads to an aggressive leadership style in Australian politics. Helen speculated that we might need to see something of that from David Cameron before too long. As she said: ‘every vote in the House becomes a new negotiation’.
The federal system, combined with preferential voting, also leads to diverse coalitions in different states - and the states are very powerful in the system. The downside is that this makes really big national problems all the more difficult to deal with. Again perhaps in a hint of things to come in the UK, the states are now lobbying to have the Federal Government take back control of healthcare - the costs of which are forecast to more than triple over the next 40 years.
All in all a fascinating glimpse into a vaguely familiar political landscape in a highly significant future geography. Particularly those of us with an interest in the governance of seemingly intractable issues should clearly keep an eye on Australia. It looks like a perfect crucible for observing C G Jung’s dictum: we don’t solve our difficult problems we outgrow them.