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Australia votes: A mercifully boring election campaign

SYDNEY • As Australia's long general election campaign draws to a close, it is perhaps worth noting what has been mercifully absent: a surge of xenophobia-tinged populism that has been so evident in recent campaigns in the United States and Britain. 

Unlike the high-pitched hysterics and vitriol that seem to be an inevitable feature of recent Western political contests, the main feature of Australia's election campaign has been a dull, plodding tedium. 

For Australian voters casting their ballot tomorrow, the eight-week campaign has not resulted in the rise of a fear-mongering Donald Trump-style populist or an anti-immigration nationalist party in the vein of Britain's UK Independence Party (Ukip).

Instead, an opinion poll released last week by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute found that 72 per cent of Australians believe immigration from a wide range of countries "makes Australia stronger". 

 
 

Among the highest priority issues for the public, concern about refugees and asylum seekers was ranked behind education, health, domestic violence, the economy, terrorism and national security, and dysfunction in Australian politics.

This election is not free of wildcard populists, but they look tame in comparison to Mr Trump - with his anti-Latino rants and his proposed ban on Muslims entering the US - or Ukip leader Nigel Farage, whose anti-migrant Brexit campaign was likened to Nazi-style propaganda.

An insurgent campaign against the major Australian parties - the Liberals, Labor, Nationals and the Greens - has been led by an MP from South Australia, Mr Nick Xenophon. Though he was disparagingly likened to Mr Trump by former prime minister John Howard, his brand of populism is far more mundane.

A progressive on social issues and a long-time campaigner against gambling, Mr Xenophon supports a boost to the refugee intake.

On economics, he wants to promote Australian manufacturing and to impose greater scrutiny of foreign investment but these policies have been fuelled by old-style protectionism rather than anti-foreigner sentiment.

The relatively tepid nature of Australia's campaign partly reflects the relatively tepid personalities of the two main candidates. 

The  Prime Minister, Mr Malcolm Turnbull, is a former investment banker who appears to have muted many of his progressive passions and instincts to appease his ruling Coalition's conservative wing.

Once a staunch advocate of action on climate change or the rights of homosexuals, he now limply promotes the party line and reserves his passions for backing a reduction in company taxes.

The opposition leader, Mr Bill Shorten, is a former union leader from the right-wing of the Labor party who is more of a political careerist.

By temperament, he seems woolly and appeasing, and he tends to stray  to the pragmatic - or popular - middle ground. His passions have not focused on particular policies or platforms so much as restoring Labor to power.

He famously backed former leader Julia Gillard's coup against Mr Kevin Rudd in 2010 and then backed Mr Rudd against Ms Gillard just three years later.

Another factor adding to the lukewarm campaign is that it lacks a leader in the spirit of former prime minister Tony Abbott, a divisive and fiery character who led the opposition in 2010 and 2013. He was known for his strident three-word slogans  - among them "Stop the boats" - and his witheringly effective attacks on Mr Rudd and Ms Julia when they were prime minister. With the sidelining of Mr Abbott, who was ousted by Mr Turnbull last September, the volume of the campaign has been noticeably lower.

Candidates like Mr Shorten (above, left, featured in a promotional poster near a Sydney polling centre) and Mr Turnbull have mostly kept their campaigns free of the vitriol seen in other recent political contests.
Candidates like Mr Shorten (above, left, featured in a promotional poster near a Sydney polling centre) and Mr Turnbull have mostly kept their campaigns free of the vitriol seen in other recent political contests. PHOTO: REUTERS

Perhaps, for Australia, the uninspiring nature of its current leaders suits the times. The nation has enjoyed 25 years of continuous economic growth - more than any other nation - and has relatively low unemployment. So far, it has transitioned surprisingly smoothly from the end of a China-fuelled, decade-long mining boom.

There is rising inequality but it does not tend to be as pronounced or as visible as in the US or Britain. Perhaps the greatest symptom of this inequality is between home owners who have reaped the rewards of a recent housing boom and those who have yet to enter the housing market. But it seems unlikely that the cause of housing unaffordability will be enough to rouse Brexit-level passions among those without mortgages.

The other reason that Australia has avoided a fierce migrant-centred debate is that, to some extent, the nation has already had such a debate and settled the issue.

In the past 15 years, the country has adopted some of the toughest anti-refugee measures in the world, including towing back boats of asylum seekers and detaining more than 1,000 refugees in highly secretive detention centres on small Pacific islands.

The brutally effective measures have been criticised by the United Nations and human rights groups but they have been strongly supported by Mr Turnbull and Mr Shorten, who has been intent on neutralising the issue.

The election has not been entirely free of extremists. There are some anti-migrant and anti-Muslim parties but they are largely on the fringes.

Right-wing firebrand former MP Pauline Hanson may succeed in a comeback. She has switched her focus from campaigning against Asian immigrants in the 1990s  to denouncing Muslims. But her popularity can be largely credited to her residual name recognition in Queensland rather than a resurgence of hate-fuelled politics.

And so, Australia has been left with what some commentators have branded the most boring election in the nation's history.

In the current era of global insecurity and instability, this may perhaps be its most exciting feature.

READ MORE ONLINE

More reports on the upcoming Federal Election in Australia online at http://str.sg/auselection.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 01, 2016, with the headline 'A mercifully boring election campaign'. Print Edition | Subscribe