We don’t know how many Australian Indigenous people lost their lives during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic; they weren’t counted in the country’s official statistics. When the 2009 H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic hit Australia, the Indigenous population recorded almost five times as many deaths as the non-Indigenous population. Now, as Covid-19 spreads across Australia, some doctors have warned that whole communities may be wiped out.
A recent Facebook post shows the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, up a ladder installing a fleet of neon reindeer across his roof’s guttering. ‘No matter what’s going on each year,’ he says, ‘getting in the Christmas spirit has always been such an important part of our family life. I do the lights.’ Unfortunately, Morrison hasn’t been able to enjoy his light show in the lead up to Christmas Day. This week, while Australia faces an unprecedented environmental catastrophe, the prime minister flew to Hawaii with his wife and children for a ‘well-deserved’ holiday.
The Republic of Nauru, which hosted the Pacific Islands Forum earlier this month, is the third smallest state in the world by area (about 21 km2) and second smallest by population (about 11,000). It celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence this year. Under Australian administration from 1920 to 1968, the British Phosphate Commission mined Nauruan phosphate in brutal disregard for the island’s environmental and economic sustainability, delivering cut price phosphate to Australian farmers and paying grossly undervalued royalties to Nauruan landowners. The Australian government’s position was that on the exhaustion of the island’s phosphate reserves, the Nauruan people should up and leave and resettle on Curtis Island in Queensland.
The Australian government formally closed the Manus Regional Processing Centre on 31 October. The MRPC was an offshore immigration detention facility at a naval base on Manus Island in northern Papua New Guinea, which held around 750 people at its last official count. Refugee solidarity groups across Australia have long called for it to close, along with camps in Nauru and elsewhere. But last week’s developments are no cause for celebration.
After Tony Abbott decided to give a knighthood to Prince Philip last month, the right-wing Melbourne shock-jock Andrew Bolt laid into the prime minister: ‘This is just such a pathetically stupid – gosh, I didn’t mean to be that strong because I actually like Tony Abbott very much – but this is just such a very, very, very stupid decision, so damaging that it could be fatal.’ Rupert Murdoch agreed that there had been a failure of leadership: ‘Tough to write, but if he won’t replace top aide Peta Credlin she must do her patriotic duty and resign,’ he tweeted. Abbott has narrowly survived a vote on whether or not to open up his position to challengers, but his troubles are far from over. His collapsing poll numbers and waning credibility are for once about substance, not style. Leadership may be a lightning rod for discontent, but the underlying cause is the government’s inability to convince the public of the merits of its neoliberal economic agenda.
As everyone expected, Tony Abbott and his crew have won an easy victory in the Australian election. But it was not the landslide the opinion polls and even the exit polls predicted. They all suggested the Labor Party would lose most of its seats in its Western Sydney heartlands and in Brisbane. They also suggested that Kevin Rudd would lose his Brisbane seat. In the event Rudd held on quite comfortably and Labor kept most of its Western Sydney seats – as it did in Melbourne and Adelaide.
Once anti-immigration sentiment has turned nasty, it’s hard to look back and say with any certainty whether government cast the first stone. Enoch Powell. and his party were in opposition at the time of his ‘rivers of blood’ speech in Birmingham in 1968: the problem, as the member for Wolverhampton South West saw it, was Wilson’s Race Relations Bill. Running for office, David Cameron talked tough on immigration. In coalition he could have smashed the soapbox, put it out for recycling and hoped for the best. But he's had to deal with the self-destruction of the Tory Party and the good fortunes of Ukip, which is up its backside like a jalapeño suppository. Pained and jumpy, the government has been playing the immigration card as though it were in opposition, using the public purse to work up feeling on all sides of the debate.
There was a sense of inevitability about Julia Gillard’s fall; the surprise is that it was so long delayed. The Australian Labor Party’s standing is low enough that sooner or later enough MPs would become convinced that their continued presence in the federal parliament demanded a new leader. Or rather an old, new leader, Kevin Rudd. There is nothing unique in what has happened. Gillard’s overthrow is simply another example of the extreme instability of leadership that characterises Australian political parties. The fearsome institution of the ‘spill’, by which parliamentary coups can be staged, and the relentless short-termism of Australian politics, mean that parliamentary leaders are under constant pressure. Tony Abbott, the leader of the opposition, staged a successful coup against Malcolm Turnbull, who had staged a coup against Brendan Nelson. Earlier this year Ted Baillieu went to work as the premier of Victoria and ended the day as no one, having been overthrown by a man whom he had originally himself overthrown. Such instability is made worse by the destructive effects of opinion polling. Australian politicians insist that polls are the furthest things from their minds; in fact, they hardly think of anything else. Rudd himself was unseated as prime minister after one bad opinion poll.
On 26 March the New South Wales Labor government suffered a shattering defeat in the state elections. It won only 25 per cent of the votes, lost 32 of its 52 seats – one to the Greens and the rest to the conservative coalition – on swings against it of up to 35 per cent. Much of its heartland was lost and will be difficult to regain. It was the worst defeat in its history: even worse than in 1932, when the party succumbed to a major economic and political crisis. This was more than just a defeat in one part of a not terribly important country.
In the beachside house where I used to live near Cairns in Far North Queensland, looking out through the coconut palms to the placid tropical sea protected by the coral reefs on the horizon, it could be hard to remember the region’s natural perils, and its far from picturesque history. In most seasons you could only swim within protective netting, as deadly stingers lurked in the summer currents. The rainforests were full of scorpions and snakes and ruthless logging operations, the mangrove swamps harboured crocodiles, the mosquitoes carried fatal diseases, cane toads were a plague, the Great Barrier Reef’s corals were dying under too many cruise ships and glass-bottomed boats, the cane fields had been established by the forced labour of Pacific Islanders, and cyclone warnings were common.
I flew into Brisbane on Sunday 9 January after three weeks in Britain. The pilot on our descent said the weather was ‘not good’. It wasn’t raining as I got out of the terminal but the humidity hit me like a torpid wall. On Monday, I was just glad to be home. Jetlagged and needing to go to work early the next morning, I went to bed early, unaware of the seven billion tonnes of water that had fallen in 72 hours. So it wasn’t until I woke up on Tuesday and listened to the radio that I had any inkling there was a major problem. I usually take the City Cat ferry service to work but as it was cancelled I went by car over the new Go Between Bridge (named after a Brisbane rock band). The water, usually slow moving and silty, was high and rapid.
I left Queensland three and a half years ago, just before Brisbane City Council began to give away four-minute egg-timers to help people spend less time in the shower. On beaches all along the coast the outdoor taps had been turned off. People were encouraged to report the malfeasants who watered their gardens or washed their cars. When I returned last August, the drought had not yet broken: reservoirs were at their lowest levels ever; people were showering over buckets to save water. No one was meant to flush the toilet till it was absolutely necessary. You’d certainly never leave the tap running as you brushed your teeth. Then the rain came, and at first there was widespread rejoicing. But it kept coming, till the floods covered an area the size of France and Germany combined. I’m now in Melbourne, watching the news as floodwaters rise in Victoria, thinking about the day I first saw Brisbane from the river.
After two weeks of negotiation Australia finally has a government: a Labor government with a majority of one as long as the Green MP and three of the independents continue to support it. All this contrasts strikingly with British experience where the present coalition was negotiated in a couple of days. One reason for this is that Labour was never a serious negotiator in Britain whereas in Australia both Labor and non-Labor were. Another is that three of the independents are former members of the rural wing of the conservative coalition who represent constituencies that would normally return MPs from that wing. (The two who declared for Labor earlier hold seats that would usually be Labor.) They all, however, are maverick figures who seriously quarrelled with the conservatives and have sympathies with some of Labor’s traditions. And they don’t simply want barrels of pork for their constituents. They could not, therefore, be expected to make up their minds quickly. How long such an arrangement can last and how stable it will be is almost impossible to say – though it would be surprising if the independents had not secured a guarantee that the prime minister, Julia Gillard, will not attempt an opportunist premature election.
The Australian Labor Party, and Australia itself, scored an own goal recently with an inconclusive general election and the imminent threat of a hung Parliament. Or so one might reasonably surmise, but the locals don't seem too terribly agitated about it, at least the Aussies I run across. The country is prospering, in a way that Britain and the US clearly are not: building cranes sweep across the skylines, shops and restaurants are jumping. The most recent economic forecast is bright. This could all change in a hurry should Chinese real estate go bust and/or there's a double-dip recession in the West, but at the moment the situation is looking ripper.
The Australian (Labor) government has just published a white paper (‘Securing Australia – Protecting Our Community') which assures its readers that the terrorist threat to Australia is stronger than ever. External threats remain, of course, but are now made much worse by the dangers of homegrown terrorism, a result of the spread of jihadist propaganda among Australia’s Muslim population. The government is proposing to increase significantly the powers of the federal police – including the right to search the property of suspected ‘terrorists’ without a warrant – and to introduce further (and severe) visa tests on people coming to Australia from 10 unnamed countries. Sound familiar? It should, because the prime minister, Kevin Rudd, has acknowledged that in preparing the legislation the Australians consulted the British government. What lies behind all this?