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Despite three years of Labor rule, the country’s political gravity still reflects a conservative psyche, as shown by the narrowing gaps between Julia Gillard and challenger Tony Abbott (AFP/Getty Images, The Globe and Mail)
Despite three years of Labor rule, the country’s political gravity still reflects a conservative psyche, as shown by the narrowing gaps between Julia Gillard and challenger Tony Abbott (AFP/Getty Images, The Globe and Mail)

Globe Essay

Down and to the right for Australia Add to ...

Whether it's the smiling face of Prime Minister Julia Gillard or Opposition Leader Tony Abbott that Australians wake up to Sunday morning, one thing is clear: Theirs is a conservative nation.

That's the message of what is being billed as the closest federal election down under in half a century. But it was not supposed to be this way.

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When the Australian Labor Party defeated the 12-year-old centre-right Liberal-National coalition government in late 2007, the conventional wisdom suggested a political realignment.

Not only did it spell the end of John Howard - a 33-year parliamentary veteran, a friend and admirer of Stephen Harper's, and a man president George W. Bush lauded as a "man of steel." We were told it signalled the nadir of conservatism and the dawn of a new era of progressivism.

But that was then. On a wide variety of election issues - from climate change to constitutional change, from economic management to border protection - the political gravity in Australia is well to the right of where many Labor partisans and small-l liberal intellectuals might think it is.

None of this is to suggest that the policy and character differences between the two candidates have not been sharp.

The Welsh-born Julia Gillard, 48, is an avowed republican and atheist, whose heroes include British Labour firebrand Aneurin Bevan. A former feminist and socialist activist, she lives childless in a de facto relationship.

The English-born Tony Abbott, 52, is an unapologetic monarchist and devoted Catholic, whose heroes include Winston Churchill. A former seminarian and journalist, he now has a wife of more than 20 years and three daughters.

On policy, perhaps the biggest difference between the two parties concerns the government's proposed national broadband network. Labor wants the government to spend about $30-billion to deliver 100-odd megabits per second to every household in the next decade. The coalition's proposal is more modest, relying more on encouraging private-sector involvement in the Internet revolution, and questioning whether government can deliver on time, on budget or at all.

Notwithstanding these differences, there is no question that just as the United States remains a centre-right nation in the Obama era, so too does Australia under Labor.

In fact, so conservative is Middle Australia that when Ms. Gillard overthrew first-term prime minister Kevin Rudd in a an internal party coup in June, many Australians were angry and upset that the natural order had been radically changed, literally overnight, without their consent, even though Mr. Rudd's approval ratings were declining. The Aussie penchant for a "fair go" runs deeps in the national psyche.

And so, just as some American liberal Democrats became neoconservatives in the 1970s, so, too, has the erstwhile socialist Ms. Gillard been mugged by reality. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, we are all conservatives down under.

Well, not quite. To be sure, Labor's failure to prosecute the case for a price on carbon has alienated its political base, culminating in a rise of support for the far-left Greens. That party is expected to a score a record-high 12 to 14 per cent of the popular vote, giving it control of the balance of power in the Senate.

The climate, political speaking, has nevertheless changed so much so that cap-and-trade schemes or carbon taxes no longer resonate with Middle Australia. Al Gore's moment down under has come and gone.

For years, Labor deemed it blasphemy to question its grand ambition for an emissions trading scheme. But when Mr. Abbott opposed the government's legislative centrepiece on the eve of the Copenhagen fiasco last December and highlighted the perils of what he called a "big new tax" that would amount to economic pain and no environmental gain, Labor panicked and dumped the policy.

During this campaign, Ms. Gillard has hardly even mentioned climate change - at least until the 11th hour when she desperately sought to be the second choice of Green voters in Australia's preferential-voting system.

Nor is climate change the only issue where Australian conservatism reigns. Take the economy. Ms. Gillard has ditched Mr. Rudd's proposed 40-per-cent mining super tax, which threatened the resource-rich states of Queensland and Western Australia, on whose back Australia's prosperity has ridden in recent years.

She has also repudiated the big-spending fiscal policy of her predecessor and even praised the economic reform legacy of Labor's bête noir, Mr. Howard.

Like Canada, Australia weathered the global financial storm in 2008-09. Labor argues that its $42-billion "stimulus" policies saved Australia from recession, but the reason has more to do with the resources boom and the starting point. When Wall Street collapsed two years ago, Australia had record low 4-per-cent unemployment, no debt, a $20-billion budget surplus and a properly regulated banking sector.

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