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Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)
Jeffrey Simpson (Bill Grimshaw)

Jeffrey Simpson

For blood-on-the-floor politics, nothing beats Australia Add to ...

Think Canadian politics is rough? Try Australia's.

There, party leaders are not elected at conventions or by votes of party members after a leadership campaign. Rather, the parliamentary caucuses do the choosing, a system that has often led - as it did again recently - to coups and knifings. One day, a leader, even a prime minister, is running the party; the next day, he's out.

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On Saturday, Australians voted for a new Parliament. The results were so close that no one yet knows who will take office. Votes are still being counted. As of Tuesday, the two major groupings, Labor and the Liberal-National coalition, were virtually tied, with independents and one Green MP holding the balance of power.

Haggling for their support has already begun, and could go on for days, even weeks. Welcome, Australia, to the uncertain joys of minority governments, of the kind that country has not had since 1941.

Leading the haggling for the big parties, of course, are Labor's Julia Gillard and Liberal Tony Abbott. Both of them became leaders in what we might call very Australian coups.

Ms. Gillard's was especially daring, since she took on a sitting prime minister, Kevin Rudd. He had been prime minister for only 2½ years. His style had irritated Labor MPs, and the party's poll numbers were slumping badly, so Ms. Gillard told him she would challenge his leadership in caucus. Mr. Rudd counted heads, realized the gig was up and quit.

Such a development would be almost inconceivable in Canada. Can you imagine how the Jean Chrétien-Paul Martin rivalry inside the Liberal Party would have played itself out under Australian political rules? Toward the end of the Chrétien era, Mr. Martin had a majority of MPs who preferred him to Mr. Chrétien, but there was no mechanism to force a direct challenge.

Similarly, there were times when Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney's popularity was so low that, had Australian rules been in place, he might have been challenged. Ditto for Joe Clark after he lost power in 1980.

In any event, Ms. Gillard pulled off the coup and yanked up Labor's popularity, but not enough to win a majority. So she will haggle on behalf of Labor, hoping to cling to office with the skimpiest of majorities.

Mr. Abbott won the Liberal leadership in the same way. He challenged the incumbent, Malcolm Turnbull, over his willingness to negotiate with the government over an emissions trading scheme for carbon pricing. Mr. Abbott wanted nothing to do with pricing carbon; he won a caucus vote 42-41.

Again, imagine what would have happened to opposition party politics in Canada under Australian rules. It doesn't take much of a stretch to see caucus challenges to opposition leaders such as Lester Pearson, John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield, John Turner, Stéphane Dion and, these days, Michael Ignatieff.

Australians say their system keeps leaders on their toes, makes them solicitous of caucus opinion at all times and is, therefore, quite democratic. Maybe, but it cuts out the party's rank-and-file members and contributes to elitism. If you like intrigue and blood-on-the-floor politics, however, nothing beats the Australian system.

Whichever party leader manages to emerge as prime minister, she or he won't have clear sailing. The Australian Senate, elected by proportional representation, has considerable power - which senators are not afraid to use because they're elected.

Post-election, nine Greens hold the balance of power in the Senate, and they don't agree with either major party on much, especially climate change.

The Greens formed a kind of unholy alliance with the climate-change skeptics led by Mr. Abbott to sink Mr. Rudd's emissions trading scheme. They said it was too weak. Having killed the best option then on offer, they now face major parties that are no longer keen on pursuing active climate-change policies. Mr. Abbott promised a derisory 5-per-cent reduction in emissions by 2020; Ms. Gillard proposed a kind of constituent assembly of citizens to discuss the issue - a cop-out, in other words.

Whoever emerges as prime minister, therefore, won't be able to get much done easily.

 

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