Understanding Australian Politics
July 18, 2010 6:30 PM   Subscribe

How do I understand Australian politics? What should I read? What should I watch?

I have recently moved to Australia (Sydney!). It has been a few months already, and being a political news junkie, I am disappointed that I am not yet clear on the Australian political landscape. I don't have the right to vote, so this is not an immediate concern. But it would be nice to know the right from the left and to understand how the political system in Australia works (only 3 year terms!?).

I read (well, browse through) several newspapers every day, so not really looking for those.

Links, book recommendations, TV show recommendations etc.. are all welcome.

I have seen this thread, but it may be outdated.
posted by vidur to Law & Government (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You may want to have a look at Get Up!


the Australian Labor Party (left, but has been moving increasingly to the right over the last few years)


the Liberal Party of Australia (right wing)


The Australian Greens (Green, left.)
posted by Year of meteors at 6:58 PM on July 18, 2010

This is the Australian Electoral Commission site. It has info that might help you.

As we're kicking into election mode bigtime, I'm following the daily goss here. (You may already have found that, though.)

The wikipedia page doesn't seem too bad as a starting point, upon skimming.

Good on you for caring enough to learn! (If only Australian teenagers did the same, instead of rushing to vote for anyone who promises them a free laptop.)
posted by malibustacey9999 at 7:00 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You probably want to take a look at Crikey for some generally smart analysis that avoids the Murdoch bias.

We have a range of parties. In order of size:

Labor are center-left, traditionally close and cuddly with (and occasionally completely shafted by) the trade unions.

Liberal are center-right, traditionally close and cuddly with business. Ideology within the Liberal party ranges from small-l libertarianism to God-bothering racist moral warriors.

The National Party are essentially the rural version of the Liberal party, supporting farmers interests. They form a coalition with the Liberals to form government. In some states (ie. NT, QLD) they are in fact one party, in other states (ie. SA) there is quite a distinction between them, but at the Federal level they are referred to as "The Coalition" because they always form a coalition. Their only real ideological difference with the Liberal party is a tendency to place agricultural protectionism above free trade.

The Greens are, as everywhere, a left wing environmentalist party, but they do carry some power in Australia as a result of (a) our Senate with provides some form of proportional representation and (b) our preferential ballot system, whereby voters can vote [1] Green and [2] Labor etc. We've currently got Green senators, and there's a possibility they'll grab seat in the House of Reps this election. Of course, they've been saying that for years. Strongest in Tasmania.

And beyond that we have a scattering of minor parties.

Family First: Pentecostal Christians, although they'll grit their teeth and deny it. Got a Senator elected by accident last election, they are now dead in the water. Strongest in Victoria.

One Nation: Racist, anti-immigrant party who are now a completely spent force. Strongest in Queensland

Australian Democrats: A center-left party - essentially a version of the Labor without the connection to the union movement. Leadership challenges, political infighting, and a failure to differentiate themselves from the Greens who they were leaking votes to at a great rate has resulted in this party also being pretty irrelevant.
posted by Jimbob at 7:22 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

News Radio does Parliamentary broadcasts. I listen to them in the car. They're online, too.
posted by flabdablet at 7:25 PM on July 18, 2010

Best answer: If you just want to know the mechanics of how things work (Senate, House of Reps, elections, etc etc), you really can't go past Wikipedia. This would be a good start. Australia uses the Westminster system, and is similar to the UK parliamentary system, but with some important quirks (compuslory voting for all aged 18 and over, preferences, etc). In fact, if you understand preferences you will understand quite a fair bit about how the Australian electoral system works!

Now if you are interested in the "issues" you would do well to have a look at each major party's website - the main parties are Liberal (centre-right), Labor (aka the "ALP") (centre-left), and The Greens (left, with an emphasis on the enviroment, obviously!). As a rule, Green "preferences" are forwarded to the Labor Party, but the Greens are definitely NOT in a coalition with Labor. You might also hear about the National Party (right, with an emphasis on rural and regional issues). They are in permanent coalition with the Liberal Party so (unless you live in a rural area) you can safely rely that they will pretty much have the same policies on things that matter to you as the Liberals. Don't believe any rubbish you might hear about One Nation (right to far right, with an emphasis on immigration) from crazy lefties - this party is a spent force (if it ever was a serious force to begin with!). There are also some very minor parties - like Family First (right wing, "social conservatives"), who are actually quite important in the scheme of things (see next paragraph).

An interesting concept is the "balance of power". Australia uses proportional representation to elect the Senate (upper house). What this means is that some minor parties will receive a seat, based on a very small percentage vote (relative to the whole nation). Since these minor parties usually have their own agenda, they tend not to side with either of the major parties. The governing party in the Lower House (always Liberal or Labor), then needs to court these minor parties whenever there is a change in legislation. These minor parties are then said to "hold the balance of power", and their views can mean quite signifcant changes to legislation.

When it comes to media reporting, you can (generally) trust the ABC for the best quality of reporting. The 7:30 report is quite good - Kerry O'Brien generally does not hold back when interviewing politicans of either side. The newspapers are not unbiased - the Sydney Morning Herald will report from a left-wing stance, The Australian will report from a right-wing stance, and the Daily Telegraph is probably quite a good barometer of what the lower middle classes and traditional working classes think (I am a Sydneysider so I can't comment on The Age etc).
posted by humpy at 7:25 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: A few Oz polly wonk blogs:

Club Troppo
Larvatus Prodeo (currently being redeveloped)
posted by zamboni at 8:39 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you follow Twitter (and have a lot of time on your hands), #ausvotes seems to be the hashtag to follow. Quite a few of the political journalists who are on the road with the campaign are posting. Granted, this may leave you more confused than you started out.

As humpy mentions, the 7.30 report is often good, and whilst not always about politics, will have a lot of politics at the moment, including feature pieces and interviews with politicians.

I'd also recommend checking out Insiders on ABC TV – there should be a few back episodes on iView. They generally do a good overview of the key themes of each week in politics, but are pretty self-congratulatory about the role of the media in the process (as you'd guess with a name like Insiders).

The ABC also have their election website up and running now, which is a good summary of what is going on.

A lot of these recommendations are probably going to be less useful in understanding what the process is than what is happening minute to minute. I'm not sure what a good source is for the whole process, but in my experience education about the political process in Australia is pretty poor, so you're probably not any less knowledgeable about it than your average Australian.
posted by damonism at 8:48 PM on July 18, 2010

You may want to listen to Late Night Live once you have a basic grasp of what's going on in Australia. As an interested American, I've learned a lot from Phillip Adams and his consistently interesting guests, be they political or otherwise.
posted by CutaneousRabbit at 8:58 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

To get an idea of where things are it might be worth reading the journalist Paul Kelly's books, in particular the recent March of the Patriots and the End of Certainty which are about the last 30 years of Australian politics.

Your local library may well have these books.
posted by sien at 10:13 PM on July 18, 2010

Best answer: Just discovered this handy resource: Glossary of Australian political terms, from the SBS's (the Soccer Broadcasting Station) election coverage page.
posted by damonism at 11:01 PM on July 18, 2010

As humpy mentions, the 7.30 report is often good, and whilst not always about politics, will have a lot of politics at the moment, including feature pieces and interviews with politicians.

What, no love for Lateline? Screening at around 10:30pm (weeknights only) on the ABC, it covers the same kind of current affairs ground at The 7:30 Report, but with more time to digest & summarise the day's happenings.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:09 PM on July 18, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks folks. This should keep me busy and will hopefully get me up to speed.

Another related thing on which help would be appreciated: It seems that the political parties (esp. ALP) have a lot of factions. Is there any source that explains these factions and their chief players (in ALP and Liberals at least)?

For example, I understand that Gillard and Rudd are from different factions of ALP. *hoping I got that right* There are people behind them, who seem to be the "real" movers & shakers.
posted by vidur at 12:38 AM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: Factions are more about "who will be party leader" than anything else. They are not as important in the larger scheme of things.

Have a look here for a brief rundown on ALP factions.

Factions are factions, but even the most "right" member of the ALP factions would never consider voting with the Liberals on any issue. In fact, if they do so (known as "crossing the floor"), they are almost always expelled from the party. This relates back to the leadership style of the ALP, which uses a Caucus to ratify all decisions of the leader. The theory being - air out the dirty laundry in the Caucus room, argue about what to do, and then present a "united front" in parliament. In practice however a Labor Prime Minister generally gets his own way. My guess would be that this style of leadership is related to the fact that the Labor party originated from the union movement.

The Liberals have looser factions. Some Liberals have crossed the floor in recent history - it is not unknown but does happen. A Liberal who crosses the floor is not automatically expelled from the party, but the party leadership would take a very dim view of it.
posted by humpy at 1:41 AM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Can't help with the factions issue, sorry (will be keeping an eye out for any answers you get as I'd like to know myself).

Seconding Lateline for more details on the issue du jour and some very good interviews with politicians and public figures. Q and A on the ABC on Monday nights is meant to be a way for ordinary Australians to interact with politicians, but often is spoiled by some very stupid questions from the audience.

I don't follow them myself, but I believe that Catallaxy and Skeptic Lawyer are considered good quality blogs for getting the libertarian/right-wing point of view.

If the #ausvotes hashtag on Twitter is moving too fast to be useful (or you want the juicy bits without the filler) you can get a daily digest of it via Paper.li's #ausvotes. It picks out the most retweeted/highest profile links from the last 24 hours, refreshes daily. Also displays the popular photos and videos doing the rounds.
posted by harriet vane at 1:45 AM on July 19, 2010

Best answer: Well humpy's absolutely covered it in terms of sources. As factions go; I can tell you a bit.

The first thing to know as humpy says is that Australia has the most disciplined Party blocs in any comparable first world country. Our tradition—which emerged in the era of the First World War, during the general strikes, from the hard early 20th century industrial politics of the ALP—is that any MP who votes against their Party's position as set by the Caucus (Labor's entire Party voting secretly together) or the Party room (the Liberals and Nationals, ditto) is a pariah. There were two figures in the Labor Split of 1917—William Hughes the Prime Minister and William Holman the NSW Premier—who went from being Leaders of Labor to Leaders of Nationalist, anti-Labor Parties. They're still hated.

Rat is the Labor term, not used lightly. The phrase crossing the floor implies, in Australia, an act of voting against one's Party in an act of brave career suicide; not only do you lose your job, you go and sit with the other lot, and it's remembered decades after.

An aside: the three issues upon which 'conscience votes' are generally allowed in both Parties are euthanasia, abortion, and anything to do with gay rights. They're the a special Trifecta and both Parties use them to keep their more religious members inside their tent. But that's definitely a matter for another thread.

Within each Party, therefore, there are factions who duke it out far more viciously and cruelly than you get to hear about in the media, for control over the position that'll get voted on in Parliament—and at every level down to the local Council. Within my Party, the Labor Party, we have the Right (known officially in my State as Centre Unity) and the Left (officially in NSW the Socialist Left). In other States there are different variations; there's a Pledge Left, I believe, in Victoria, there used to be a Centre Left faction in some States, there remain various unions like the NUW and AWU and SDA holding their own voting blocs of MPs who owe favours in some states; but the game's the same: you get 50%+1 of the majority Party, you get 50%+1 of the Parliament or voting body, you get your policy. It works the same way in the Liberal and National Parties, they're just more volatile, less disciplined, and more on the pattern of personal fiefdoms.

Consider the position of an MP who is trapped supporting a position they abhor: either they vote with their Party and hope to organise another victory another day, or they chuck it in, and lose utterly.

The second thing to know is that the factional system is breaking down utterly at the moment and the last ten years has seen, on one hand, an ossification of the factions as they work, and on the other, a total abandonment of policy differences as matters for difference. Thus you have Julia Gillard, an erstwhile member of Victoria's Left, made Prime Minister with the votes of Right MPs and union blocs against the efforts of other Left MPs (Albanese, Faulkner, etc.) In the Liberal Party the moderate lawyerly Left has all but disappeared as far as I can tell in my State, though it's stronger elsewhere, and reactionaries are holding conservative reins they haven't held since before the Second World War.

Oh yeah, and the Greens. Either the blazing cause of the future, or the next minor-Party failure on the lines of the Australian Democrats, depending on who you speak to, and how far you are from your city's CBD.

It's going to be an interesting next ten years. No matter what you read, know this: anyone who tells you they know where the country's going is a damn liar.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:48 AM on July 19, 2010 [2 favorites]

Incidentally, I disagree that the Sydney Morning Herald editorialises towards the Left; they've consistently been a conservative paper of review, now declining along the global pattern towards true crime and bikini clickbait. We have no significant left wing media sources in Australia.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:53 AM on July 19, 2010

Q and A on the ABC on Monday nights is meant to be a way for ordinary Australians to interact with politicians, but often is spoiled by some very stupid questions from the audience policy of posting tweets from fuck-knows-who as a kind of running subtitled commentary on the proceedings, in a half-arsed attempt to appear appear cool & relevant to the kids on the lawn.
posted by UbuRoivas at 5:15 AM on July 19, 2010


Links, book recommendations, TV show recommendations etc.. are all welcome

My two are Rats in the Ranks and Grassroots.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:49 AM on July 19, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks once again, folks. Awesome information and pointers. Jynnan Tonnyx all around!
posted by vidur at 4:15 PM on July 19, 2010

Breakfast with Fran Kelly is quite often the agenda-setter for the day's political media coverage.

I agree with Fiasco da Gama that Australia has no significant left-wing media. The public broadcaster is frequently accused of having a left-wing bias, but this is solely because it works exceedingly hard to avoid any kind of systemic bias and therefore ends up looking left wing by comparison with every other major media source.
posted by flabdablet at 4:57 PM on July 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Further: the most informative thing I've ever read about factions in the Australian Party context is Andrew Leigh's* 'Factions and fractions: a case study of power politics in the Australian Labor Party', Australian Journal of Political Science, 2000, vol. 35, no. 3, 427-448. If you don't have access to a library and if you care that much about a deeply geeky topic, me-mail me and I'll sling you a copy.

*Leigh is now himself a candidate for Labor in the ACT
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 5:31 PM on July 19, 2010

Late entries:

Grog's Gamut
posted by zamboni at 12:38 PM on August 4, 2010

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