Friday, November 23, 2007
Australia's Election Showdown
First a confession – just don’t tell the boss. I don’t care who wins the Australian election, although I think it’s a fascinating clash with implications particularly for the endless campaign in the US.
My first focus whenever I arrive in Sydney is simply to race to the harborside or the beach, and suck in a huge lungful of Australian coastal air. Say what you like about the Chinese economic miracle but to live in China, as I do, tends to bring home every noxious particle of its miraculous growth.
On the Australian coastline, where most of the continent’s population lives, it feels easy to be happy.
Which raises the first mystery of this Australian election. Economic growth has been churning along for more than a decade, largely fueled by funneling resources into the mighty engine of China. Almost every Australian has a job. Unemployment is at a generational low of barely 4% and getting lower.
After eleven and a half years as Prime Minister, John Howard is urging voters to ask themselves the same question.
The latest polls show a tightening of sentiment, but the Labor Opposition is still the bookies’ favorite to form government once Saturday’s vote is counted. Some polls still put them nearly ten percentage points ahead.
The last time Labor toppled a conservative Coalition government was 1983. Ronald Reagan was still a first term president.
Such momentous changes – should they be confirmed by the voters - indicate something important. The Bill Clinton/James Carville mantra, taken up since by both sides, “It’s the economy, stupid” will have been turned on its head.
If that happens, climate change may emerge as a decisive issue. Indeed, global warming may have contributed for the first time ever to the toppling of a national government.
Of Australia’s two major parties, Labor has made climate change its issue. Howard’s coalition has been far too late to spot the danger.
Until recently, Howard enjoyed the sport of dismissing global warming as the obsession of a crackpot fringe. It left him flatfooted. His attempted re-positioning, promoting nuclear power as a potential answer, failed to grip in a country that currently has only a single research reactor. No-one has yet found a community keen to have one built down the road.
Now not just country areas, grappling with a record drought but middle class suburbanites fret over a warming planet. Already farms are reverting to deserts and urban water supplies are strained.
Veteran conservative commentator Piers Akerman says there is a warning here for US Republicans. “Climate change is definitely a vote winner with younger voters these days,” he says. “You must be aware of it and you must have a coherent policy to address it.”
Associate Professor Rodney Smith from the politics department of the University of Sydney goes further, saying the Australian experience is that it is not just young voters taking it up. Polls show it draws a strong response, he says, among older voters too. And it crosses traditional party lines.
Expect a scramble in conservative politics to reposition more convincingly. Less Bush, more Schwarzenegger.
As an Australian who no longer lives here, there is much to be proud about this country. The melding of so many nationalities is one great achievement, a process far more successful than is sometimes projected.
But it is the air and the water, the spectacular clarity that strikes every visitor, that is influencing this election. Perhaps after years of growth, Australians are expressing the truest conservativism of all: they like things as they are. They worry that change is coming. They are weighing their votes.
-- From Hugh Riminton, CNN International Correspondent, in Sydney.
ABOUT THIS BLOGHear from CNN reporters across the globe. "In the Field" is a unique blog that will let you share the thoughts and observations of CNN's award-winning international journalists from their far-flung bureaus or on assignment. Whether it's from conflict zone, a summit gathering, or the path least traveled, "In the Field" gives you a personal, front row seat to CNN's global newsgathering team.