Monday, 26 July 2010

Australian Thoughts

I've just returned from a couple of weeks in Australia. I saw quite a lot of Sydney and journeyed also to Tasmania. It is dangerous generally to attempt to discuss a country that one has only visited briefly and that in holiday mode but, just for this once, I feel moved to try to at least give some quick impressions, mindful that this is all they are.

Australia struck me as a place in which there is an unusual degree of direct and friendly communication. By and large anywhere you go people will speak to you and do their best to deal with you. In these respects the impression I received was pleasantly preferable to the UK. There were two areas where this pleasant impression was diluted though. One concerned gay life there. Sydney is famous as a city that hosts a month long Mardi Gras, in February of each year. During this period it appears a very gay city. During the rest of the year, as I discovered, there is really only part of one street that is mainly gay and that is far from secure. In the shops there and in conversations with people it became clear that there is quite a bit of violence directed against gay people in Sydney and the presence on the city streets of gay life is less than in Manchester.

The other area in which I received a less pleasant impression of Australia was its politics. A general election is currently underway there. The governing Labor Party underwent a kind of coup recently with the previous Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, being toppled from within and replaced by Julia Gillard. The circumstances surrounding this concerned the attempt to impose a mining tax, something that led to a slump in the government's popularity and serious opposition from an unlikely alliance of trade unions and mining corporations. The toppling of Rudd was based on placating this opposition, something that simultaneously ensured that the Labor Party lost quite a bit of "green" support. The tax was not entirely abandoned but it was significantly reduced.

Since these events generally made the Labor Party look less than an ideal group to be governing the country I wondered, whilst there, about the opposition. Not only did everyone I meet suggest that the opposition was even less desirable than the governing Labor Party but exposure to them through the news media tended to confirm this. For reasons that are certainly obscure to an outsider the opposition is not defined by one party but by a coalition of two, the Liberal Party and the National Party though the politician featured most from this grouping is the leader of the Liberal Party, known less than affectionately as the "Mad Monk", Tony Abbott. Abbott gained his label due to indicating earlier in his life that he wished to be a Catholic prelate, something that still marks him given pronouncements on virginity made more recently. Abbott's party, despite its name, is a conservative party of a fairly classic type and, despite Labor's problems, is making little impact in the election due to the fact that Abbott himself has described climate change as "crap", hardly indicative of an attitude that will help the country deal with such clear problems as the water supply.

Stepping back from the figures and parties the dominant issues in the campaign are not reassuring. One of the few areas were the opposition has made any impact is with regard to the question of immigration and asylum seekers. The fact that the country, at a population of a mere 22 million, clearly needs an influx of workers and also needs to navigate its relationship with Asia, are factors neither side seems to wish to address. Other questions of apparent concern to the parties are similarly dealt with in a peculiar way. The labour market in Australia is fairly heavily regulated, in some respects clearly far too much so. Yet, despite the fact that such regulation requires young workers to have shifts of at least 3 hours, a regulation that makes it difficult for them to even hold paper rounds, Abbott makes no play with this instead indicating he will change nothing. Abbott also appears an ignoramus on the economy suggesting that Australia has a large debt which, on international comparisons is utterly untrue. The economy is generally in reasonable shape, the main problem being instead one of how to ensure that it develops and adapts. On this neither side seems to have much to say.

Generally then the Australian political scene appears pretty miserable with the re-election of Labor looking pretty certain and only good in being preferable to the other side. How a massive country with such a small population can develop in the region remains unaddressed and apparently incapable of being addressed. None of this augurs well for Australia's future despite the pleasant demeanour of its people.

No comments: