Australian politics are wildly entertaining.
Question Time, at least until Speaker Bronwyn Bishop resigned in August, was essentially half an hour of watching Carroll’s Red Queen, banging her gavel and ruling pretty much everyone out of order at top volume while politicians gesticulated below her. She never did order anyone’s head off, but I like to think she’d have tried had she stayed in office long enough.
What really caught my eye, though, was that Australia’s conservative party is called the Liberals but acts largely like what you’d expect to see from the GOP. Prime Minister Tony Abbott, ousted by his party late Monday, famously imported banks of flags so he’d have a sufficiently nationalistic background to give speeches in front of. His minister for the Treasury, Joe Hockey, channeled the best of the GOP field with his proclamations that 1) poor people don’t drive cars, but 2) if they really wanted jobs they’d get in those cars and drive around dropping off résumés.
The selection of Malcolm Turnbull as the new prime minister signals a deliberate shift away from silly conservatism and back toward the classical liberalism the party was established to represent.
We don’t know yet how strong that shift is. It’s unlikely that, say, Turnbull overturns the recent decisions making it illegal for doctors to report on conditions in refugee camps. But it’s also unlikely that he follows Abbott’s more esoteric ideas, like skipping judicial review entirely and allowing the PM to unilaterally revoke citizenship for those Aussie dual citizens suspected of fighting in Syria.
Turnbull only lost the leadership to Abbott by one vote in the first place, and Tones went on to spend two years making the Liberal Party look like a bunch of right-wing reactionaries—declaring wind power off limits because the turbines were ugly, expressing his displeasure that too many Australians were listening to scientists on climate change, banning his ministers from appearing on TV shows he didn’t like, and saying the concerns of Australian women were largely centered around ironing.
Abbott is basically an amalgamation of the kids’ table at our last GOP debates. He courted the religious right, the very wealthy, and the good ol’ boys. He isolated and marginalized social liberals on issues like gay marriage and vaccination.
That’s to say: The Liberals didn’t have much choice. There is an election upcoming, and they had to decide whether good old raw onion-eating Tones (which is sort of the equivalent to a corn dog-eating Rick Perry) was going to be the face of the Liberal Party or whether they were going to bring in some adults. The vote was 54-44, not even that close.
It will be interesting to see whether the presence of a center-right government that has just strongly repudiated reactionary right-wingery will have a moderating impact on our own GOP. Australia is, after all, a close ally, recently sending more support for our operations in Syria and generally getting on well with us. The Australian Liberal Party has just shown us what political risk—a huge one, taken specifically to signal a return to sensible policy and adult governance—ought to look like for the elected leaders of a country.
You don’t need to agree with someone’s policies to accept their good intent. Both sides have good ideas occasionally, after all. Obamacare was basically a Heritage Foundation white paper before Mitt Romney adopted it. The Liberals saw gridlock, saw that it was centered around certain political factions that don’t understand the word compromise, and signaled to the world that Australia will not be held hostage to the desires of its most conservative citizens. They saw themselves becoming unelectable, a bit of a laughingstock, and corrected their course.
It would be a lot easier to respect the intent of the GOP if they were willing to call out terrible leadership and management in their own party before asking Americans to adopt them. They consistently show the sort of rampant hypocrisy that Abbott has just been dethroned for—things like supporting religious “freedoms” that look more like oppression, or tax plans that defy both classical liberalism and logic itself.
In Australia, the political right has just announced that it is time to do actual work. In America, the right is twisting itself into a Gordian knot trying to avoid a government shutdown—because the most reactionary wing wants to be sure that poor women can’t access cervical cancer screenings and birth control pills. It shouldn’t need repeating, but federal funds already can’t be used for abortions. The GOP is going to shut down the government to be certain women can’t go to a Planned Parenthood for basic health care, on the strength of heavily edited and already debunked videos. They’re willing to furlough thousands of employees, cost the economy millions at least, and make themselves look as though they’ve got an obsessive vendetta, all to avoid having to tell the craziest among them to settle down a bit. We’ve got a whole Congress full of Abbotts.
There’s a thing in Australia they call tall poppy syndrome. It’s a national recognizance that Aussies are all basically equals. They take you down a peg if you start to think you’re actually set apart. And by ousting Abbott in favor of Turnbull, by repudiating our politics, they’ve just taken us down a peg, as well.
If you ask Australians, they’ll tell you Turnbull is a what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of guy. He’s the sort of man who crossed the aisle on the Emissions Trading Scheme because it was in line with his economic philosophies. It cost him the party leadership—Abbott won by a single vote largely because of that one issue. But Turnbull stuck by his position anyway.
If American center right sorts want to regain anything like credibility in the eyes of voters, they’ll take similarly logical stances. Turnbull supports gay marriage, as a libertarian. He supports obvious science on climate change, as a rational individual. And he wants more women in power, because as it turns out, half of voters and of the electorate are women.
Obviously he’s not a candidate of the left, either. He’s clearly read too much Friedman and he’s an aging overprivileged white guy with the usual set of blind spots and pretension. But he’s honest about it, willing to fight for what he believes in, and willing to change his mind when he learns new information. That’s what resonates with Australians. And it’s the sort of politics we should be aspiring to. It wasn’t so many years ago that our two parties knew each other as human beings and not simply the hated opposition, meant to be stopped at all costs no matter how rational their proposals.
It’s the fringe that’s the loudest, but it’s rational moderates who are the biggest voting bloc. The Republicans have been chasing the ever-decreasing white male vote and turning off other demographic groupings with such intensity that if they carry on it’s possible to imagine the demise of the party.
We are Americans, and we like to believe that we are all tall poppies, each special and wonderful in our own way. But we could take a lesson or two from societies that are a bit more collective—if nothing else, it would be nice to have a functional government.
I might even be willing to vote for a GOP that told the Huckabees of the world that we stand by the words of JFK on church-state separation, or the Walkers of the world that we won’t be undermining workers’ rights, or told the Rick Scotts that we won’t be wasting money on welfare fraud-detection boondoggles that have proved to cost more than they’re worth. A party that valued logic and reason above protecting an ever-shrinking pool of voters.
The GOP isn’t noted for taking sage advice. But for its own sake, and for the sake of the country, the party would be wise to look at the Australian spill and learn a few lessons before Americans realize that we could cut some flowers of our own.