Australia: Moving Right or Moving Backwards?

Going by the rather melancholic and disgruntled tone of Australia’s many Murdoch-run newspapers, you could be forgiven for thinking that Australia’s a terrible place to live these days. Where the rest of the world sees it as a lucky escapee from the financial bloodbath of the last five years, this month’s Australian election was defined by negativity, bitterness and in-fighting. Perhaps it is hardly surprising then, that like much of the rest of the world, Australia looked right for guidance.Looking right is hardly a new concept for Australia. This election has focused largely on issues similar to that of the last conservative (Liberal Party) Prime Minister John Howard. Issues of a sluggish economy (albeit a better one than many other states in the West) and immigration have been at the forefront of election coverage. It is then no surprise that the Australian people voted for a party that has dealt unapologetically, often brutally, with these issues before. What is more surprising, and indeed troublesome, is Tony Abbott’s social policies that will undoubtedly take away from the monumental progress of minorities and women all across Australia in recent years.
Image courtesy of the Office of the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, © 2013

Image courtesy of the Office of the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, © 2013

Across the world, the picture is looking dim for social democrats and labour parties. In Greece, opinion polls show that the approval ratings of the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn have risen from ten percent to fifteen percent since June.[1] Norway has also turned to the right of politics in their recent election. Anti-immigration policies are a key feature of popular conservative candidates all around the world, from the UK’s consistent arguments with the EU over border policies to the US’s crackdown on illegal immigrants to Australia’s impatience with increasing numbers of asylum seekers arriving on Christmas Island. My colleague Mimi has already highlighted Australia’s extremely problematic treatment of asylum seekers (dubbed ‘Boatpeople’ by the Murdochian newspapers). Under Tony Abbott, the policy, known as Operation Sovereign Borders, is very simple – to turn back the boats. To where is not entirely clear, but the recent wave of asylum seeker drownings suggests that this definitely cannot be a long-term policy for any state that supposedly values human life and human rights. Furthermore, the Abbott government has foregone consultation on asylum seeker policy with Indonesia, the origin point of many journeys for asylum seekers. This diplomatic oversight of Abbott’s government denotes a certain arrogance with which he approaches foreign affairs. The government has so far outlined interests in retaining a strong special relationship with states such as the US, China, Japan and other heavyweight states in the Asia-Pacific region. What Mr Abbott does not realise is that he cannot pick and choose his diplomatic conversations, especially when issues such as asylum seekers and climate change present a need for regional dialogue, not the “offensive,” one-sided neo-colonialism that Mr Abbott is currently promoting.

Also worrying is the message Tony Abbott is sending both domestically and internationally in terms of his social policy. This is a decade in which the rights of women are being discussed and rectified worldwide. Everywhere from the University of Edinburgh where the student representative council decided to ban the Robin Thicke song Blurred Lines as a stance against its promotion of sexist rape culture, to the inspiration that Malala Yousafzai provides at world conferences, women’s issues seem to be at the forefront. Australia has, unfortunately, managed to move in the opposite direction to repair almost every crack in the glass ceiling virtually overnight. Julia Gillard stood as the country’s first female Prime Minister in mid 2010, and was extremely vocal about the sexism she faced in her political career.[2] Under the subsequent Rudd administration, the government in power had an unprecedented number of women in cabinet positions. Abbott’s cabinet has a total of one female minister – Julie Bishop for Foreign Affairs. He has appointed himself Minister for Women, even after incurring the wrath of many Australian women by commenting on the sex appeal of his fellow female candidates, standing with anti-Gillard protesters displaying ‘Ditch the Bitch,’ and addressing the “housewives of Australia” with a metaphor about ironing to explain energy prices. The new male-dominated cabinet might also be explained by Mr Abbott’s own view that men are naturally “more adapted to exercise authority or to issue a command.”[3] While Mr Abbott has no immediate plans to make any dramatic legislative changes for women, such as reversing the abortion laws he personally stands so strongly against, it is appalling that after seemingly smashing through the glass ceiling, Australia now seems entrenched yet again in a man’s world.

Moreover, there seems to be an international apathy about these pervasive social inequalities. Perhaps as Australia is frequently seen as one of the ideal democratic states in the international system, international human rights organisations may gloss over the fact that the everyday running of the state is still significantly problematic in some areas. The Economic Intelligence Unit’s (EIU) 2012 Democracy Index ranked Australia in sixth place overall, amongst a slew of Scandinavian havens for democratic ideals,[4] yet the movements towards equality for women, equal marriage rights for the LGBT+ community and humane treatment of asylum seekers all seem poised to slow considerably with the election of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. If Australia does not manage to resist a new Murdochcracy and confront its problematic social policy, it surely will not be standing amongst the Scandinavian leaders in the EIU Democracy Index for 2013.

[1]The Economist, 21/9/2013.
[2] Perhaps internationally, Ms Gillard was most famous for her scathing attack on sexist political culture in Australia, particularly with regard to Tony Abbott.