You can blame Tom Ferguson for this one – in a response to my take on the Democratic Convention, he asked if I might consider giving a run-down on events in Australia, the land that shaped and nurtured me from the time of my conception. It’s probably not a bad idea, Australia is a mystery to most Americans – it still mystifies me sometimes – so I’ll give it a burl and see if I can’t occasionally give you the oil on what goes on in the Old Brown Land, politically, socially and culturally. For this, the first of what, if interest warrants, will be an occasional series, I should give you a rough guide to Australia’s political system and its current Prime Minister.
First, though, I’d better slip in a bit of a disclaimer. Australia has changed since I was born, mostly, but not entirely, for the better. Cultural and social changes have been accompanied by changes in attitude; a gradual shift away from the old-style Australian-ness. However, many Australians of my age and background retain the mores of past generations and I am no exception. Shaped by the stories and experiences of my forebears, I grew up as Australia’s isolation from the rest of the world was coming to an end but was fortunate enough to have spent my formative years free of the influence of teevee. So if you can take the word of a bloke from a nomadic, working-class family of very limited means who grew up at a time when Australia was on the verge of great changes, then read on. If not, no sweat – she’ll be apples.
Australia is a country of paradoxes. The first Europeans to settle there were horrified by what they found. In their letters home and in their diaries, they said it was a land created by Satan, full of bizarre creatures and trees that shed their bark and not their leaves and which, when under stress from drought, had a disturbing habit of dropping giant limbs on unsuspecting Christian English gentlemen. Not only that, the seasons were back to front, it was either downpour or drought, the soils were thin and poor, many of the major rivers ran inland and it was inhabited (unofficially, but more of that later) by people who, according to James Cook, were bereft of any property or goods yet seemed not to want any and appeared perfectly happy to be that way. Of course it was only the officials who kept diaries: soldiers, public servants and the Governor himself. Those in their charge, the majority of the first settlers, were prisoners fresh from the prison hulks and gaols of London, limited in both ability and opportunity to write. This formed the soil in which the first seedlings of a national character took root.
There I go, widdershins again, but it might go some way to explaining why Australia and Australians are the way they are. Back to the government.
My homeland was first settled some 60–70,000 years ago, give or take a few thou here and there, by what are thought to be the first people to leave Africa. Under the English it evolved as a collection of colonies, each under the control of a governor appointed by the Crown (the English Parliament and the ruling monarch) and by custom a member of the Peerage. In 1901, after a long political battle, it became a Federation of states and territories. Until 1927, when Parliament House in the specially created Australian Capital Territory was opened, the Federal Parliament sat in a borrowed building in Melbourne. Officially, Australia is said to be the world’s 6th oldest democracy, but that is not quite true; it has always been a benign monarchy and Aboriginal people were not counted citizens until the 1960s.
The head of state is the reigning English monarch, represented in Australia by the Governor-General (and in each State by a governor) who is appointed by the Crown on the advice of the Prime Minister of the day. Parliament is bicameral, combining elements of the English Westminster system with the federalist senate of the US congress. The Prime Minister (Premier in the states) is appointed by the party in government and not by popular vote. Voting in federal elections is by the preferential method, by which candidates are voted for in order of preference. This can give rise to a lot of “donkey (informal) votes” and because it can, among other things, lead to the election of candidates from minority parties is often reckoned a Bad Thing by the losers in an election. At present the major players in Federal elections are the Australian Labor Party (ALP), the Liberal Party and the National Party, these last two have been in coalition since 1944 which, thanks to preferential voting, has often given government to the conservative Liberal Party (Libs). The Greens are increasingly a force in Australian politics and influence elections at both state and federal levels. Australia-wide they hold 34 seats. The next minority in rank, the ultra-conservative, xenophobic Katter’s Australian Party, holds three.
Australia’s is currently governed by the Labor Party with Julia Gillard as Prime Minister. Born of working class parents in Wales in 1961, Ms Gillard emigrated with her family to Australia in 1966. She was appointed Prime Minister in 2010 after Kevin Rudd stood aside and in elections that year she led the first minority government since 1940.
Julia Gillard has no children, is unmarried, lives with her partner Tim Mathieson and is not a Christian. Asked about her religious beliefs, she told a reporter: “No I don’t … I’m not a religious person … [I’m] a great respecter of religious beliefs but they’re not my beliefs.” All this, coupled with the awful truth that she speaks with a broad, working-class Australian accent and is not a fashion plate see her subjected to malicious attacks from some quarters, an echo of attacks aimed at the Obamas in this country. One of the most hair-raising slurs against her was made by an opposition MP who said that “a barren woman” could not possibly govern.
Despite the odds, she has, in my opinion, led Australia in some great advances – the greatest in decades – and unless I hear from you to the contrary I’ll outline a few of them next time. As I said at the beginning, if you want someone to go crook at, Tom Ferguson’s your man. I’ll get out of your hair now.
PS: Microsoft Word does not know the difference between emigrate and immigrant.