WORLD -- August 19, 2010 at 12:21 PM ET
Australian Election a Fight to the Finish
If you think politics is a bare knuckles sport in this country, try Australia, where the brawling inside the major parties can be more intense than the contests between them.
This weekend's national elections are proving the point again. The two major party leaders both reached their positions stepping over the political corpses of their immediate predecessors. The issue that created the convulsions down under also would be familiar to Americans: climate change. Australia may be, as the writer Bill Bryson famously described it, the "sunburnt country," but drought and some horrific forest fires have made global warming a top concern of the citizenry. But trying to craft climate change legislation is another matter in an economy heavily dependent on mining and agriculture.
When Australians vote Saturday for their members of parliament (and they face a fine if they fail to show up), they also will have heard debates on the economy and immigration, two other issues familiar to American and other western electorates.
By comparison with the American economy, Australia is thriving, thanks in good measure to China scooping up its minerals and the general Asian economic boom bolstered by Chinese super-growth. Unemployment is 5.3 percent, slightly more than half the U.S. rate. There also has been debate over the deficit, 46 billion Australian dollars, in contrast to U.S. trillion dollar deficits. Australia's budget probably will be back in balance in four years or less. The ratio of debt to GDP is the lowest in the industrial world at 6 percent.
Immigration has struck an emotional chord in some Australian quarters, most recently fueled by a jump in asylum seekers, including more than 1,000 this year from neighboring Indonesia. There are an estimated 48,000 illegal immigrants among Australia's 22 million population.
In foreign policy, Australia's 1,500-troop contribution to the NATO fight in Afghanistan has not yet provoked the political backlash that Vietnam and Iraq did in years past. The tight links between the U.S. and Australia, which go back to World War II when the U.S. assumed the Asian defense burdens of the British Empire, have been reaffirmed by every U.S. president and Australian Prime Minister since, including most recently President Obama and the recently-ousted Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.
By mid-day Saturday in the U.S., we should know if Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her Labor Party have been returned for another term or whether they have been ousted by Tony Abbott and the Liberals (who are really conservative). Gillard, Australia's first female prime minister, has regained a slight lead in the polls, but a close count is anticipated for all 150 seats in the House and half the Senate.
You can watch a July debate between Gillard and Abbot here:
We'll have more on the Australian election -- and why it matters -- on Thursday's NewsHour. Stay tuned.