Australia Elections 2016 The Second Innings

Focus By Balaji Chandramohan

"From India's point of view, it's welcoming to see changes in Canberra's strategic posture which includes acknowledging great Indian Naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region especially in the South-West Pacific."

Australia, known for its healthy and matured democratic tradition, has come out of a tough session after the recently concluded double dissolution elections with the incumbent Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announcing that his conservative coalition government was re-elected for a second three-year term.

The 2016 Australian federal election was a double dissolution election held on July 2 this year to elect all 226 members of the 45th Parliament of Australia, after an extended eight-week official campaign period. It is worth noting that it was the first double dissolution election since 1987.

Despite the victory of the incumbent Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, it is understood that Liberal Party he heads faces a tough challenge ahead with a divided party, a fractured Senate and a weary electorate. As such, the incumbent government went into the election with a comfortable majority of 90 seats and few had predicted it would suffer such steep losses.

In general, Australians usually know who their next leader will be on the night of their vote, but the July 2016 poll was too close to call, triggering a complicated system of centralised vote both at the House of Representatives and Senate levels.

In the elections held to 150 seats House of Representatives the incumbent liberal/conservative coalition won 76 seats and main opposition Australian Labour Party won 69 seats, and the remaining five went to smaller parties or independent candidates. In the Senate, The incumbent Liberal/National Coalition government won 30 seats out of 76 with a loss of three, while the Labour opposition won 26 seats with a gain of one. The Liberal/National Coalition will require at least nine additional votes to reach a Senate majority, an increase of three for it to pass through bills in the Senate.

The result has raised the prospect that Malcolm Turnbull could face a leadership challenge from colleagues within. If Turnbull ends up being removed, Australia would end up with its fifth prime minister in just over three years, continuing a period of remarkable volatility in the nation's politics. But this may well be an aberration.

Even if Turnbull manages to hang onto his job, he has a plethora of problems to contend with and for that matter has to face the more conservative lawmakers in his party who are angry about performance of the party and upset that he ousted his predecessor Tony Abbott in an internal leadership ballot less than a year ago.

One of the main complications of the elections has been that the Prime Minister Turnbull will also need to deal with a fragmented Senate that could make it tough for him to pass laws and as such it’s understood that the incumbent has to strike deals with the opposition or a disparate group of Senate independents and minor parties to get them signed into law.

Elections in Australia are conducted using a full-preferential system in one vote, one value single-member seats for the 150-member House of Representatives (lower house) and is changing from full-preferential group voting tickets to an optional-preferential single transferable vote system of proportional representation in the 76-member Senate (upper house). Voting is compulsory, by Westminster convention, but subject to constitutional constraints.

In terms of parliamentary democracy Australia combines a mature post-colonial parliamentary political system at both the national and state levels with commodity exports (particularly minerals) in order to improve its strategic position in the world. It has a significant manufacturing base and service sector dominated by finance and tourism, a robust stock market and a strong – some argue over-valued – currency.

In recent years, Australian politics has been rocked by incessant infighting in both mainstream parties, which have resulted in frequent leadership changes, resulting in Australia country struggling to return its budget to surplus for its export economy. The country's economy is dependent on its exports of extractive resources, such as coal, and has been hit hard by the economic slowdown in China, forcing Australians to do some soul-searching about what else their country has to offer.

In the above context, Turnbull, who happens to be Australia’s fifth Prime Minister, since 2007 has been known for his progressive views on climate change, same-sex marriage and the republican movement with his background as former a journalist, barrister and investment banker helping such a policy posture.

As a matter of fact, Turnbull seized the leadership of the party in 2008 before being ousted by his socially conservative rival Tony Abbott, who led the Liberal Party back to government in 2013 on a platform of austerity and border protection, but in office was plagued by gaffes and poor opinion polls.

In the run-up to the recently held elections Turnbull offered a vision of a ‘start-up’ Australia, arguing that his party is best placed to transition the country from the mining boom to a new phase of economic growth which will help its export economy including Australia’s efforts to help it’s bottom-up approach.

The priorities of the newly elected government will be to make Australia:

a) A much more egalitarian society;

b) To have a better track record of democratic governance and adherence to the rule of law;

c) Make a higher average standards of living; and,

d) Consolidate its status as a major US strategic ally (to the point that it is the most important US strategic partner in the Southern Hemisphere).

The priorities for Australia in the near future are to continue to strengthen its neighbourly relations with Indonesia so as to overcome past differences and solidify the security of its northern borders, and will have re-approach its relationship with Melanesian countries and the larger Indo-Pacific in light of the changing realities affecting the region which were all to a larger extent addressed in the recently released Australian Defence White Paper.

Strategically, it’s understood that the 2016 Australian Defence White Paper, which was released under Malcolm Turnbull’s watch is a curtain-raiser for the strategic path that Canberra is set to undertake in the next two decades. That path will include enhancing the alliance with the United States, including facilitating a greater US military presence in the south-west Pacific and increasing maritime strategic cooperation with Japan, France, India, Indonesia and New Zealand all of which having significant military presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

In the above context, Australian Defence White Paper 2016 was a marked departure from the earlier ones which were released in 2009, 2012 and 2013, which were reticent about greater strategic manoeuvring against Beijing's maritime expansion. The geo-strategic Indo-Pacific orientation has helped in bringing about the grand strategic alliance.

From India’s point of view, it’s welcoming to see changes in Canberra’s strategic posture which includes acknowledging great Indian Naval presence in the Indo-Pacific region especially in the South-West Pacific.

Australia, which has primarily a defensive maritime strategic orientation, has decided to add an offensive strategic orientation, because the latter will provide consensus among the countries in both the South-West Pacific and South-East Asian regions, in view of China’s increased maritime capabilities.

It’s understood that the primary security threat to Australia is expected to come from the west (the Indian Ocean); to deter that requires a primarily defensive strategy. One way of extending the defensive orientation, is to build alliances before any armed attack on Australia is undertaken. Australia is on the path of building such alliances; one example is the agreement to permanently base a 2,500 strong US Marine Task Force in Darwin. Adding an offensive strategic aspect to Australia’s strategic re-orientation requires upgrading and expanding the Navy.

In that context, the newly elected Australian government will give focus to increasing Australia’s power-projection capabilities in the South-West Pacific and even beyond.

On the other hand, Australia as stated in the Defence White Paper will apply the ‘smart’ power where it combines diplomatic, economic and security initiatives in order to re-align the regional balance in ways that are favourable to or at least neutral with regards to Australian interests and, yet, which reduces the historical levels of suspicion that have greeted many of its past regional forays.

In conclusion, as Australia predominately being a middle-power in the international power-politics system, it has to juggle a complex set of external relations with the other major powers such as the United States and China, and in dealing with alliance architecture with countries such as India and Indonesia in an effort to put its focus back.

On the other hand, as demonstrated in the 2016 elections it has to deal with the internal political fissures that it has got despite having a robust system of democracy which will be the challenge of the re-elected Malcolm Turnbull government.

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