Australian politics serves two main purposes in this country, it often seems. First, it provides a parliamentary chamber in which the invective is ruder and more personal even than in our own House of Commons. Second, it provides counterfactual political histories in an English-speaking country which, unlike the US, has a parliamentary system similar to our own.
In particular, the Australian Labor Party has occasionally changed its leader weeks before fighting a general election. Bob Hawke won in 1983 and went on to win two more elections after that. Julia Gillard seized the Labor leadership weeks before the election three years ago, although she only just scraped back into government. Now Kevin Rudd is hoping that his coup against Ms Gillard at the end of June will improve Labor’s fortunes enough to keep him in office in tomorrow’s election.
The polls suggest that the change of leader will not be enough to prevent Tony Abbott, leader of the Liberal Party, taking over as Prime Minister. This may be partly because Mr Rudd is not quite the breath of fresh air that the late-change tactic requires – he was Prime Minister in 2007-10 before being ousted by Ms Gillard.
So much for the tactics. What does it mean for Australia and the world if the Liberal-National coalition resumes office after a six-year gap? A victory for Mr Abbott would confirm a trend that affects many rich countries, which is that hostility to immigration is starting to shift votes. The opposition leader says he wants to get to a position where there are “zero” boatloads of would-be immigrants arriving in Australia each year.
Another implication of an Abbott victory is that Australia’s contribution to global efforts to mitigate climate change will become a feeble thing. “If we in Australia turn our back on it,” Mr Rudd said this week of global warming, “it licenses everyone around the world to do the same.” He is right: in economic hard times, most other rich countries had put green policies down their to-do lists; but if Mr Abbott wins tomorrow, Australia will go from leader to follower. To his credit, Mr Rudd, having modified the Labor government’s unpopular carbon-tax policy, has stood by it.
Mr Rudd has also stood by his government’s proud record on gay equality, and that will endure, as will most of Labor’s advances in disability care, schools and the national broadband network. But on immigration policy and climate change, it looks as if Australia will take a step back towards a me-first approach.
Political parties that offer a more progressive vision around the world should mark well the lesson of hard economic times, and, if they try changing leader just before an election, make sure it is to someone who hasn’t been prime minister before.