An Electoral Dry Run Down Under

What Australia's New Prime Minister Could Mean for Democrats

It's rare to see a dry run for an election campaign. But over the next month, Australia will provide a testing ground for some of the core themes in this November's American elections.

Last weekend, Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who took office in June after the fall of her predecessor, Kevin Rudd, called an election for August 21—they do things fast down there—in which her Labor Party will be using a central argument that Democrats hope to invoke against the Republicans.

Gillard's statement opening the campaign left no ambiguity about Labor's message. "This election will revolve around a clear choice," she declared, "whether we want Australia to move forward or back." In one minute and forty-one seconds, Gillard used a variation of "move forward" six times and "go back" four.

Labor's slogan, "Let's move Australia forward," is thus all about its subtext: that Australians don't want to return to conservatives who governed the country for eleven years before Labor's 2007 victory.

And in the coming months, one of the Democratic Party's very favorite words will be "Bush," as in George W. Bush, by way of making the same point. Democrats now hope they can persuade voters to see their ballots in this year's midterm elections not as an up-or-down vote on their own stewardship but as a choice between—well, going forward, or moving back to the Bush era.

Over the last few weeks, a series of Republican tactical errors helped inject the Bush legacy into the political dialogue. When Republicans went on the offensive in calling for a renewal of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, Democrats were given the opportunity to assail one of the former president's least popular initiatives.

And when the heads of the Republican campaign committees for the House and Senate, Rep. Pete Sessions and Sen. John Cornyn, defended the Bush record last Sunday on Meet the Press, Democrats pounced.

They quickly produced an online advertisement repeatedly quoting Sessions saying "we need to go back to the exact same agenda," and suggesting the agenda he had in mind was Bush's.

A party spokesman insisted that the quotation in question was not a reference to Bush, although Sessions had said earlier in the show: "People had jobs when Republicans were, not only in charge, but George Bush was there." With polls showing voters more inclined to blame Bush than President Obama for the economic mess, all such statements by Republicans will come at a high price.

Can the forward-or-back theme work? That's where Gillard's Australian experiment comes in. In many ways, her center-left Labor Party is in a far better position than the Democrats are. The Australian economy is a global marvel. It never went into recession, and the nation's unemployment rate is an astonishingly low 5.2 percent.

Given the country's buoyant economy, it's remarkable that Labor members of Parliament even considered ousting Rudd at all. But Rudd was dropping in the polls, hurt by his government's mishandling of cap-and-trade legislation and controversy over its proposed tax on soaring mining profits.

Rudd's colleagues panicked and, lacking a strong base in the party's factions, he was forced aside for his deputy Gillard, who moved promptly for an election to legitimize her leadership. The switch at the top halted the momentum of the opposition Liberal Party (which, just to keep Americans confused, is actually the conservative party) and its leader, Tony Abbott.

And to make the trans-Pacific comparison even more interesting, Abbott's party is running on themes the Republicans hope to use here. Its latest advertisement includes the tagline: "More Labor. More Waste. More Debt. More Taxes." And to drive home the Liberals' point that new leadership has not altered the incumbent government's direction, an announcer opens and closes with the words: "Nothing's changed. It's the same Labor."

For now, Gillard has pulled ahead in the polls, partly by virtue of a disciplined personal performance in her first weeks in office and also by tying Abbott to the earlier conservative government's unpopular labor relations policies—even though Abbott has said he would not reintroduce them.

As Australia goes, so goes America? Not necessarily. But for the last decade, politics in the two countries have run in tandem, with Rudd's 2007 victory prefiguring Obama's. At the very least, when Democrats say our election is about whether we want to move forward or go back, they can give a respectful nod to Prime Minister Gillard. 

(c) 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

Topics: 

Share

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).