An overseas trip does wonders for your sense of Australia’s place in the world. I think we all realise, in our moments of quiet contemplation, that Australia is a very small and peripheral country in the overall scheme of things. But such is human nature that a political coup d’etat here, an exploding level of debt there, or a depressing burgeoning of political correctness everywhere in this continent-sized country of ours can be given a steroid-enhanced level of overall importance by almost all of us.
A little bit of travel tends to cure that natural tendency, at least temporarily, to overweight the importance of affairs close to home. My wife and I have just returned from a few weeks in Canada and Jamaica. Ya, mon! Despite reading a newspaper every day I did not see a single mention of Australia on any of our 17 days abroad. Not one. Well educated friends back in Canada of course knew about the defenestration of Tony Abbott. But they couldn’t understand how a Prime Minister could be dumped by his own party against the wishes of party stalwarts and party members. You see, you basically can’t do that in Canada – the caucus is far more constrained than here. That, though, was about the extent of their interest in Australia, other than an occasional question about whether our southern hemisphere commodity-driven economy was being hit as hard as Canada’s was. ‘Yes’, we said. Oh, and there was a question or two about whether we were letting in lots of Muslims down here, despite Christians being the most discriminated against and oppressed group in the world today. ‘Yes’, we said.
In Jamaica the knowledge of, and interest in, Australia extended no further than cricket. Ya, mon! This country’s newfound enthusiasm for saving the world from the dangers of carbon dioxide was known to approximately no one in the land of Usain Bolt, the world’s best rum, and where Ian Fleming wrote his Bond books. Still, no doubt we Aussies are a moral example to throngs of others, somewhere. And no doubt the billion dollars here or there we’re throwing at helping reduce the rate of increase of global temperatures, come the year 2100 A.D., by some 0.005 degrees will have them dancing the limbo in the streets of Montego Bay. What the temperature would have been on January 1 some 84 years from now will, because of our actions, not be hit till January 3 or so. Ya, mon!
As I said, travel can do wonders for one’s sense of perspective and the relative importance of things. So with that bracing lesson in mind let me mention the big events related to voting that are looming in the year 2016. I will rank them in order of importance, most to least.
Top place is debatable. You could make a case for the November presidential elections in the US. President Obama’s foreign policies have been disastrously bad – a faux deal with Iran that is doing next to nothing to constrain the mullahs’ desire for a nuclear bomb, the imploding Middle East, a sense that the world is a less safe place now than when Obama came into office at the start of 2009 (only to be given, almost immediately, his Nobel Prize – a joke then and a bigger joke now). At home, Obama has tried to rule by executive decree on any number of issues: immigration, guns, health care peripheral matters, education, and plenty more besides. Many on the left who would be outraged at this blatant disregard of the Separation of Powers were it being orchestrated by a Republican utter not a peep when it’s being done by their team and their guy. Ya, mon!
How much of the Obama legacy, such as it is, gets locked in will largely turn on this coming election. So this November’s ballot is a biggy, for Americans and the wider world. (Full disclosure, I have a $100 wager with a Spectator reader from the left who contacted me 18-or-so months ago and wanted to bet on this November US election. He likes Hillary. I have the Republican. I still feel confident.)
Despite the US clearly being the Rome of our day, with US events counting far more than most others, you could make a case for saying that Britain’s referendum (which may, or may not, take place this year) on whether to leave the European Union (EU) is an even more important global event than a presidential poll. You see, if the Brits vote to leave, the whole, already shaky, supranational EU superstructure may then go into terminal free fall.
The problem with the EU, which is best thought of as a club for democracies in one particular geographical region of the globe, is that it is run in such a democratically deficient way. There’s a Parliament, yes, but it can’t initiate legislation or bring down the EU government. Member countries can have decisions imposed on them without ever consulting the voters. Think of the euro currency. Think of the Lisbon Treaty. Think immigration. Frankly, the lack of voter input in this great big EU supranational body is so poisonously obvious it is helping boost the worst sort of political parties – not just in Greece but in France too. Were I a voter in Britain I’d cast my eyes at Australia and wish I had the same say over my country’s running that voters here do. And I’d vote to leave the EU. That Britons will vote to leave is still an against-the-odds bet. But who knows.
Some way below the ‘importance’ of those two 2016 biggies, perhaps down somewhere near a possible referendum in Canada on its voting system, is Australia’s national election, to be held before the end of this year. In world terms, it’s a trifle. And with the most left-leaning Liberal Party leader ever, the difference between a Coalition win and a Labor win later this year is hard to articulate. Free speech will stay in its current state of disrepair, whoever wins. Any attempt to deal with the burgeoning debt will rely more on raising government revenue (aka pushing up taxes) than cutting spending, whoever wins. We can be certain, however, that the ABC will not be politically impartial: which ever party wins, it will attack Labor and Liberals equally from the left of the political spectrum.
Not just in world terms but in pretty much any terms, this year’s Australian election won’t make much difference at all. It will be a Labor winner or a Labor-lite winner. Ya, mon!
James Allan, Garrick Professor of Law at the University of Queensland is the author of Democracy in Decline