Learning from Australia’s Political Meltdown

How is it that a government which steered Australia comfortably through the global financial crisis, and has presided for the last six years over a period of almost unprecedented prosperity, could be facing electoral extinction in September? The answer holds valuable lessons for governing parties elsewhere.

CANBERRA – Australian politics should, on the face of it, hold as much interest for the rest of the world as Tuvan throat singing or Bantu funerary rites. But I have found otherwise in my recent travels in North America, Europe, and Asia. Much more than one might expect, there is an eerie fascination in political and media circles with the political agonies being experienced by the current Australian Labor Party (ALP) government.

How is it, policymakers and analysts ask, that a diverse, socially tolerant country, with living standards that are the envy of much of the world, has become roiled by so much political divisiveness and bitterness? How could a government that steered Australia comfortably through the global financial crisis, and that has presided for the last six years over a period of almost unprecedented prosperity, have faced extinction in the national election due later this year, as every opinion poll last month was predicting?

Less than three years into its term, in 2010, the ALP dispatched its leader, Kevin Rudd, who had brought it to power after 11 years in the political wilderness and still commanded a majority of the public’s support. But his successor, Julia Gillard – Australia’s first woman prime minister – failed so spectacularly to retain that support that the ALP seemed destined to political exile for a generation.

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