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Column Australian politics is at a crossroads – a fact belied by a lacklustre election campaign

Thousands of young Irish men and women in Australia on working visas are becoming caught up in an ugly xenophobic campaign about keeping jobs for locals, writes NSW Senator Ursula Stephens.

MORE THAN 14 million Australians are set to cast their vote in the national election on Saturday 7 September in what is being seen as a lacklustre campaign, heavily influenced by the Murdoch Press, who is actively supporting the conservative Liberal And National Party Coalition.

National polls predicts a win to The Opposition Leader Tony Abbott, while Labour, led by the incumbent Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, who returned to the position just three months ago, is trailing in its traditional heartland seats.

Voters are not enamoured with either major party

Voting is compulsory in Australia. Many voters feel they have been subject to a three year election campaign, since the formation of the Minority Labour government in 2010, so there may well be a high informal vote – a sign that voters are not enamoured with either of the major parties.

There are 150 seats in the House of Representatives, and in 2010 neither party gained an absolute majority. It took almost three weeks of negotiations with Independents and Greens members for Labour to be able to form government – something the Coalition was not able to achieve. So, since 2010, the Opposition has campaigned on the instability and illegitimacy of the Labour government and the Labour-Green alliance.

This has been the first minority government in Australia’s living memory, and the public have struggled to understand the complexity of those arrangements.

‘The night of the long knives’

The Government has the additional challenge in this election campaign, to explain the return of Kevin Rudd to the Prime Ministership. In what was described in 2010 as ‘the night of the long knives’ , Australians went to bed with Rudd as PM and woke to discover he had been deposed by Julia Gillard; in June, Rudd wrested the leadership back from her, when Labour’s numbers in the polls were so abysmal that Labour would have been completely decimated at an election.

Kevin Rudd experienced a short honeymoon period, because as soon as the election date was announced – the Murdoch press kicked in, with every Murdoch owned paper running daily front page ‘spoiler’ stories.

News consumers are switching alliances

This blatant media bias is new to Australian politics – although the conservative press have professed independence in the past, their editorial comments have usually been supportive of the Coalition.

Interestingly – Australian voters are not impressed – sales of Murdoch papers have declined as people are boycotting the newspapers. Even online subscriptions are being cancelled as readers move to social media and other news sites for information.

This in turn has changed the face of the 2013 election campaign. Both Labour and the Coalition have brought in savvy strategists from American Presidential campaigns to spearhead their digital campaigns, bypassing newspapers, TV and radio for Facebook, direct mail, Twitter, and telemarketing techniques using intuitive contact management systems and based on the Australian Electoral Roll. Voters are receiving automated phone calls from party leaders urging support for local candidates – it’s called robocalling.

Australians don’t recognise the global impact of the financial crash

Economic management is the key theme of the campaign from both sides – Labour is standing on its record of good economic indicators throughout and since the Global Financial Crisis, while the Coalition argue that Labour has mismanaged the economy and taken Australia into too much debt.

It is astonishing to me that Australians do not recognise the impact that the financial crash had on the countries such as Ireland, Greece and Italy and that Australia escaped from that economic downturn relatively unscathed,  as noted by US economist Joseph Stiglitz in a recent opinion piece.

But while national economic indicators improve, consumer confidence continues to fall – pessimistic about the future, jaded voters are bunkering down for an austerity-driven Coalition government.

Young Irish falling victim to a xenophobic campaign

The Coalition’s policy to ‘Stop the Boats’ is to turn back rickety unseaworthy boats filled with asylum seekers back to Indonesian waters, combined with a preposterous proposition ‘ to buy the boats from people smugglers’.

Meanwhile thousands of young Irish men and women who travel to Australia on working visas, many repatriating money home, are becoming caught up in an ugly xenophobic campaign about keeping jobs for locals, as political parties of the extreme right would like Australia to close its borders.

Australia’s economy is linked closely to China, and the mining boom is slowing, so 457 visa holders are finding it much harder to find work.

At a crossroads in Australian politics

Marriage equality, climate change, voluntary euthanasia, food security, infrastructure spending, sovereignty, foreign ownership of agricultural lands have all featured in this campaign polarising voters who have a new tool to help them sort through the myriad of micro- parties registered; the national broadcaster has had more than one million voters use their online VoteCompass to determine how they will vote.

We are at a crossroads in Australian politics – come Sunday 8 September, Australians will have made a choice to either ‘ go back to the future ‘ with an uninspiring Coalition government, or to take ‘ a new way’ with a Labour government that has a continuing reform agenda around lifelong disability care, clean energy technologies, improved national savings, infrastructure investment and nationalising our vocational education and training system.

The outcome will include a new senate composition from July 1, 2014. The worst outcome for Australia would be for the Coalition to gain control of both houses – again the micro-parties and their complex preferences deals could deliver that outcome.

But, as the wonderful, late Seamus Heaney said to me once: “Ah Ursula, you can always come home to Ireland.”

Ursula Stephens is an Australian Labour Senator representing New South Wales. She was  born in Wicklow and Chairs the Parliamentary Friends of Ireland . She is standing for re-election next Saturday.

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