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Lessons for Australia from UK Election

cameronThere are some lessons for Australian policymakers – and particularly Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten –  in the stunning way in which British prime minister David Cameron was able to return to 10 Downing Street this weekend, without the need to engineer a coalition with minority parties. Three of the leaders of rival parties were forced to end their political careers after their resounding defeats.  The fourth party leader, Nicola Sturgeon of the Scottish Nationalist Party, does not have a seat in Westminster. But the SNP won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland and is guaranteed a hearing in the British Parliament.

Until recently Scotland was a Labour Party stronghold. Despite the many differences between Australia and the United Kingdom, we might draw a parallel between the resurgence of the Scottish ‘lion’ and the stirrings we see today in Western Australia. WA is unhappy with Canberra’s treatment of their interests, just as the Scots feel their interests are not being served in London.

What can Australia learn from the British election. The main message is for prime minister Tony Abbott and treasurer Joe Hockey, and with the federal Budget on Tuesday May 12, it is one that needs to be taken on board immediately.  Voters are prepared to support a government that takes harsh measures in the national economic interest, provided (1) they are properly explained and seen to be fair, and (2) they begin to see results. The UK voters trashed Ed Miliband’s Labour in the polls because they did not accept his economic message. It has an uncanny similarity to that of opposition leader Bill Shorten: deny the economic problem and carry on spending.

Hockey has neither the vision nor the competence of George Osborne, the British chancellor (finance minister), who engineered Britain’s austerity measures and subsequent recovery. Hockey and Abbott have already ruled out even a modest 2.5% increase in the GST, whereas the British public swallowed Osborne’s 5% rise taking it to 20%. But Osborne’s real onslaught was on public spending, something Hockey seems to have all but given up on.

If Tuesday’s Budget is as weak in this area as commentators have suggested, it will be time for Hockey to be sacked and replaced by the competent Scott Morrison.  His recent proposed change to pensions and child care are both sensible and fair, in complete contrast to the measures proposed by Hockey and Abbott last May.

Lynton CrosbyThere’s a further lesson for the Australian prime minister.  Australian Lynton Crosby has been credited with winning several elections for John Howard and the Coalition in the 1990s, and two mayoral campaigns for Conservative Boris Johnson in London, traditionally a Labour stronghold. Crosby’s business partner, Mark Textor, managed the campaign that saw John Key re-elected  in New Zealand. Crosby was snapped up by Cameron to mastermind his election campaign this year.

Not all Tories approved the appointment of the so-called ‘Wizard of Oz’. But his tactics worked wonders, focusing on marginal seats Labour thought they would win (like that of shadow chancellor Ed Balls who was shown the exit by a young woman). He held fire until the final stages of the campaign, giving the impression that the Tories would struggle to fight off the challenges from other parties.

Many Conservatives became nervous and restless in the final weeks, some accusing Cameron of running a limp campaign. Friends who live in Cameron’s Oxfordshire constituency told us the prime minister did not seem to be that interested in winning. Most media commentators and geopolitical analysts like Stratfor predicted a hung Parliament. In London The Times said the Queen was standing by, expecting to be involved in the impasse; a writer on the Financial Times canvassed a ‘grand coalition between Conservatives and Labour’. Most Australian commentators followed this line. In the ABC’s blog The Drum David Marr said he felt Labour would have the numbers to win.

With a federal election due next year, Abbott will want to see Crosby on a plane back to Sydney as soon as possible.

Labour’s thrashing in the UK has an equally significant message for Bill Shorten, the Australian Labor leader. Shorten is the Ed Miliband of Australian politics. He is perceived to be at centre right of his party, but his actions and policies suggest otherwise.  In economic policy, just as Miliband moved away from the centre ground occupied so successfully by Tony Blair’s New Labour, so Shorten has abandoned the reforming and unifying zeal of Bob Hawke and Paul Keating. Keating is openly critical of the Opposition’s position. Like Miliband, Shorten pays too much attention to his old trade union cronies, whose members represent only a small minority of Australia’s workforce. Like Miliband, he is economically immature and does not understand – or want to understand – the need for ‘hard choices’.

As in Britain in the long build up to the election, the polls are beguiling for the Australian Labor Party. But clearly, the British never really saw Miliband as a national leader, and it is the same with Shorten. His challenge is to build his image as a statesman with ideas and a vision for Australia’s future.  If he succeeds he has a chance with the vast majority of hard-working, apolitical, aspirational Australians who want someone who will face up to the challenges of the future. Like the Brits, Australians will swallow unpalatable medicine if they believe it will make life better over time. So far, they are unconvinced by either Shorten or Abbott.