The Globe and Mail

By Tom Switzer

Whether it’s the smiling face of Prime Minister Julia Gillard or Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that Australians wake up to Sunday morning, one thing is clear: Theirs is a conservative nation.

That’s the message of what is being billed as the closest federal election down under in half a century. But it was not supposed to be this way.

When the Australian Labor Party defeated the 12-year-old centre-right Liberal-National coalition government in late 2007, the conventional wisdom suggested a political realignment.

Not only did it spell the end of John Howard – a 33-year parliamentary veteran, a friend and admirer of Stephen Harper’s, and a man president George W. Bush lauded as a “man of steel.” We were told it signalled the nadir of conservatism and the dawn of a new era of progressivism.

But that was then. On a wide variety of election issues – from climate change to constitutional change, from economic management to border protection – the political gravity in Australia is well to the right of where many Labor partisans and small-l liberal intellectuals might think it is.

None of this is to suggest that the policy and character differences between the two candidates have not been sharp.

The Welsh-born Julia Gillard, 48, is an avowed republican and atheist, whose heroes include British Labour firebrand Aneurin Bevan. A former feminist and socialist activist, she lives childless in a de facto relationship.

The English-born Tony Abbott, 52, is an unapologetic monarchist and devoted Catholic, whose heroes include Winston Churchill. A former seminarian and journalist, he now has a wife of more than 20 years and three daughters.

On policy, perhaps the biggest difference between the two parties concerns the government’s proposed national broadband network. Labor wants the government to spend about $30-billion to deliver 100-odd megabits per second to every household in the next decade. The coalition’s proposal is more modest, relying more on encouraging private-sector involvement in the Internet revolution, and questioning whether government can deliver on time, on budget or at all.

Notwithstanding these differences, there is no question that just as the United States remains a centre-right nation in the Obama era, so too does Australia under Labor.

In fact, so conservative is Middle Australia that when Ms. Gillard overthrew first-term prime minister Kevin Rudd in a an internal party coup in June, many Australians were angry and upset that the natural order had been radically changed, literally overnight, without their consent, even though Mr. Rudd’s approval ratings were declining. The Aussie penchant for a “fair go” runs deeps in the national psyche.

And so, just as some American liberal Democrats became neoconservatives in the 1970s, so, too, has the erstwhile socialist Ms. Gillard been mugged by reality. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, we are all conservatives down under.

Well, not quite. To be sure, Labor’s failure to prosecute the case for a price on carbon has alienated its political base, culminating in a rise of support for the far-left Greens. That party is expected to a score a record-high 12 to 14 per cent of the popular vote, giving it control of the balance of power in the Senate.

The climate, political speaking, has nevertheless changed so much so that cap-and-trade schemes or carbon taxes no longer resonate with Middle Australia. Al Gore’s moment down under has come and gone.

For years, Labor deemed it blasphemy to question its grand ambition for an emissions trading scheme. But when Mr. Abbott opposed the government’s legislative centrepiece on the eve of the Copenhagen fiasco last December and highlighted the perils of what he called a “big new tax” that would amount to economic pain and no environmental gain, Labor panicked and dumped the policy.

During this campaign, Ms. Gillard has hardly even mentioned climate change – at least until the 11th hour when she desperately sought to be the second choice of Green voters in Australia’s preferential-voting system.

Nor is climate change the only issue where Australian conservatism reigns. Take the economy. Ms. Gillard has ditched Mr. Rudd’s proposed 40-per-cent mining super tax, which threatened the resource-rich states of Queensland and Western Australia, on whose back Australia’s prosperity has ridden in recent years.

She has also repudiated the big-spending fiscal policy of her predecessor and even praised the economic reform legacy of Labor’s bête noir, Mr. Howard.

Like Canada, Australia weathered the global financial storm in 2008-09. Labor argues that its $42-billion “stimulus” policies saved Australia from recession, but the reason has more to do with the resources boom and the starting point. When Wall Street collapsed two years ago, Australia had record low 4-per-cent unemployment, no debt, a $20-billion budget surplus and a properly regulated banking sector.

The consensus is that Australia has not suffered an economic contraction since the early 1990s because its leaders – on both sides of the divide – have implemented a smart mix of free-market economic reforms and sound monetary policy.

Then there is immigration. Since becoming Prime Minister in June, Ms. Gillard has changed Labor’s tune on asylum seekers and backed refugee offshore processing.

When the Labor government substantially watered down Mr. Howard’s tough border-protection policies two years ago, it led to a significant increase in unlawful arrivals and to a collapse in public support for an orderly humanitarian refugee program, as well as large-scale legal immigration levels. The Liberal-National coalition, on the other hand, pledges to adopt an ever harder line on illegal immigration, with front-benchers promising to turn back the boats as a way of deterring the indiscriminate people-smuggling racket in Southeast Asia.

In what are termed the culture wars, Ms. Gillard has thrown up the white flag, vacating the battlefield to Mr. Abbott on gay marriage, the republic and the bill of rights. Add to this her opposition to gay marriage and teachers unions, and it is easy to recognize that conservatism is deeply bred into the Australian mainstream.

All the available public opinion evidence, moreover, indicates that the key voting groups that help decide federal elections are sections of the socially conservative working and lower-middle classes – otherwise known as “Howard battlers,” the equivalent of Reagan Democrats in the United States.

In stark contrast with the so-called left-wing elites from metropolitan Melbourne and Sydney who care passionately about refugees, multiculturalism and man-made global warming, the “battlers” are mortgaged to the hilt after participating in a property boom that rivalled Canada’s.

Located mainly in the outer suburbs of Sydney and Brisbane and especially the sun-belt seats of Queensland, they are also deeply concerned about population pressures and illegal immigrants. It was these people Ms. Gillard and Mr. Abbott have been courting in recent weeks.

Then there is foreign policy, where Labor and the coalition have clashed bitterly in the past, most notably over Vietnam and more recently Iraq. The subject rarely came up during the election, largely because Ms. Gillard and Mr. Abbott virtually agree with each other. Both are strong supporters of the U.S. alliance that has been the centrepiece of Australian defence policy since the Second World War. They are deeply committed to the war effort in Afghanistan, where Australia has about 1,500 troops. (Last week, Australia lost its 18th soldier.) Both are committed to the decades-long engagement with East Asia.

It is hardly surprising that a broad cross-section of the Australian people strongly supports the U.S. alliance. For one thing, it serves real and substantial interests, such as intelligence and the all-important security guarantee.

For another thing, the need for a great and powerful friend for this country of 22 million is deeply embedded in the national psyche. From its birth as a state in 1901, Australia has always sought a close association with a great power with which it shares values and interests.

But the nature of the alliance will change. The spectacular rise of China means different things for the United States and Australia. For the former, its main significance is the emergence of a potent geopolitical rival; for the latter, it is the opportunity for a rewarding partnership, and that opportunity is being eagerly seized by Australia.

China is Australia’s largest trading partner. With exports to and imports from China growing at more than 20 per cent a year, and with the compatibility that exists between Australia’s vast mineral and energy resources and the needs of the Chinese economy, it does not seem improbable that China will become even more important to Australia’s national interest.

To their credit, both Ms. Gillard and Mr. Abbott, as well as their parties, recognize this reality. But there are also risks and uncertainties involved. Canberra won’t face a hard, stark choice between Washington and Beijing. But as numerous security analysts argue, Australia will need to learn to play a more demanding diplomatic game than ever before, one that will on occasion involve the difficult feat of riding two horses simultaneously.

That’s the medium to long term down under. For the immediate future, however, Australians are increasingly focused on the local. And regardless of the winner of this weekend’s tight election contest, Australia will remain a pretty conservative place.

Tom Switzer is editor of the Spectator Australia and a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.