Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced on Sunday July 10 that the right-wing coalition he heads has won enough seats in the country’s parliament to continue in power. Australian Labor Party leader Bill Shorten conceded defeat. The election took place on Saturday July 2, but results were so close that it took eight days for a final count to determine the winner. When Turnbull made his announcement, his Liberal-National Coalition of four parties had nailed 74 of the 76 seats needed for a majority in the House of Representatives (lower house). He expressed confidence that he could pick up two more from electoral districts still undecided.
Labor, for its part, had only 67 confirmed seats. So the Coalition will be able to govern either with an absolute, though minimal, majority, or as a minority government relying on some independents and minor party legislators to pass its bills.
Despite the ultimate victory of the conservative Coalition, its vote totals and number of parliamentary seats won represents a substantial drop from the last election, which was held in 2013. The Coalition lost 16 seats, and 3.36 percent of the popular vote. Most of this loss went to Labor: Eleven seats and exactly 3.36 percent of the popular vote.
The Australian Greens party on the left, the centrist Nick Xenophon Team (NXT), and the right-wing populist-nationalist Katter’s Australian Party won one seat each, and two independents were elected.
The results of the election to the upper house, the Senate, were very similar. The Coalition parties won 26 of the 76 seats, while Labor won 23, the Greens three, NXT two, and the anti-immigrant One Nation Party got one seat. A number of seats are expected to go to independents or regional parties, and a few were still undecided at writing. Turnbull admitted that he will have a harder time getting his bills through the Senate than through the lower house.
This election was contested on the issue of the neoliberal austerity, anti-labor, and free trade policies implemented by Turnbull and his predecessor as premier, hardliner Tony Abbot, also of the Liberal Party. However, some Australian unionists were far from satisfied with Shorten and the Labor Party’s positions on these issues. In particular, a projected free trade agreement with China was seen by some union members, especially in the construction and electrical industries, as being against the interests of Australian workers.
Also, issues of overtime pay (called “penalty rates” in Australia), regulation of the construction industry, and protection of government-provided health care benefits were raised by unions against the Coalition government, but Labor was not seen as being strong enough in defense of workers’ interests on some of these matters either. Allen Hicks, national secretary of the Electrical Trades Union, was quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald as saying, “When we work overtime, weekends, unsocial hours, and public holidays, we should be justly compensated with penalty rates.”
The issue is whether to legislate fixed rules for these penalty rates, as they are currently set by an independent commission.
On health care, the main issue was cuts the Coalition government made in 2014 to Medicare, Australia’s government-run universal health care system. Unlike Medicare in the United States, Australian Medicare covers everybody with complete care, irrespective of age, income or health. The 2014 cuts resulted in a reduction of payments to doctors and an increase in the price of prescription drugs. Turnbull admitted that this may have cost the Coalition votes, and promised to review the policy.
The Communist Party of Australia pointed out that the Coalition only secured 42 percent of the popular vote and Labor only 35 percent. This means that an unprecedented 23 percent of voters rejected both of the two major parties. The Communist Party views the Medicare issue as a key one for the Coalition’s losses, but does not think that Labor’s Shorten took a firm enough position against possible privatization of some health care functions.
The Communists praised the program of the Australian Greens party, which got nearly 10 percent of the popular vote, for its “comprehensive program of progressive reforms including the humane treatment of asylum seekers, strong action on climate change, protection of the environment, support for workers’ rights, marriage equality, free public education, affordable housing, and expansion of Medicare to include dental services.”
Photo: Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull addresses party supporters during a rally in Sydney, Sunday, July 3, 2016, following a general election. | Rick Rycroft/AP