On May 21, an entire continent will elect a new parliament. No, not Europe. 17 million Australians are called upon to vote. The central topics of debate – migration, climate protection and the relationship with China – are similar to ours – but the points of view are often completely different.
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Among men: The candidates
Two men compete for the post of head of government. Prime Minister Scott Morrison (54) from the Liberal Party, which belongs to the conservative spectrum in Australia. It traditionally forms a coalition with the National Party. The alliance has ruled since 2013, under Morrison’s leadership since 2018. In Australia, the party leader of the largest parliamentary group is automatically prime minister. But this means that internal party conflicts can grow into a nationwide government crisis.
His challenger is the Social Democrat Anthony Albanese (59). The former bank employee has been a member of parliament for a quarter of a century and has been Minister for Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and in local governments. Nevertheless, Albanese sticks to the image of the staid civil servant. His party is currently ahead in polls.
Mighty rival: The conflict with China
There is silence. And that is already a higher escalation level in the world of diplomacy. China and Australia have nothing more to say to each other. There is currently no exchange at government level. For decades, Australia saw itself as the dominant power in the Indo-Pacific. From an Australian point of view, however, Beijing has been acting in the region more and more ruthlessly for a number of years. Chinese investors bought the port of the city of Darwin, and both countries accuse each other of espionage.
As recently as March, China forged a security alliance with the Solomon Islands, allowing Beijing to set up military bases on the islands north-east of Australia. In addition, there have been conflicts over the years about the human rights situation in China, the democracy movement in Hong Kong and investigations into the origin of the new corona virus, which Australia is demanding. A Chinese embassy official is said to have described the situation to reporters: “China is angry. If you make China your enemy, China will also be your enemy.” In short: Down Under, people feel threatened.
Security pact with Great Britain and the USA
This is also changing Australian security and foreign policy. Even before he became prime minister, when Morrison was Minister for Border Protection and Migration, he supported a confrontational policy against China in the security cabinet. He is now trying to intensify this – and catch up on what he has supposedly missed. For a long time, Australia acted in the region as if it were the only logical partner for its neighbors. Alliances and cooperation are now being courted. In 2019, for example, an economic cooperation agreement was concluded with Indonesia, and in 2021 also with Malaysia, South Korea and the Association of Southeast Asian States ASEAN.
At the same time, Morrison is arming his country. For the 2022/2023 budget year, military spending was increased by 7.4 percent to the equivalent of 31 billion euros. Australia is one of the largest importing nations for weapons. Morrison achieved perhaps the most important foreign policy success in September 2021. Australia joined forces with the USA and Great Britain to form the Aukus security pact. The military alliance is also seen as a signal to China.
At the border: migration
For many people, Australia is one of the dream destinations when it comes to emigration. Good weather, beautiful beaches, modern cities. The country is an immigration society that is open about it. However, Australia is taking particular action against illegal immigration.
Scott Morrison has played a special role in this regard in recent years. As Minister for Border Protection and Migration, he was largely responsible for Operation Sovereign Borders from 2013.
The starting point was an increasing number of refugees trying to reach Australia by boat, mostly from Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea or Indonesia. In 2013, according to official figures, there were 20,587 people.
Turnbacks by boat people are controversial
The most important part of Morrison’s strategy were so-called turnbacks. Any person caught attempting to sail to Australia without a visa was taken back to Indonesia or Sri Lanka by the Navy.
Or got into one of the holding tanks that were built on small islands in the middle of the ocean. There, the refugees often had to live in inhumane conditions for years before a decision was made on their asylum application.
From a political point of view, the program was successful: the number of boat people fell to zero after 2013. According to a poll at the time, 71 percent of Australians supported the turnbacks. International organizations have criticized the strategy.
Anthony Albanese also initially criticized the government’s turnback policy, but later praised its success. This policy would not change even under the Social Democrats.
All coal: climate and environmental protection
A dying Great Barrier Reef, record annual storms and devastating forest fires – the effects of climate change are particularly dramatic in Australia. The climate protection index, which is also used by the United Nations, places Australia 56th out of 61 countries. Germany is ranked 19th there. At the same time, according to surveys, 70 percent of Australians would like their country to do more to combat global climate change.
For Scott Morrison, however, climate protection is always an economic issue. In his opinion, Australia simply cannot afford to restructure the economy and society.
Down Under gets 40 percent of its energy from coal, 34 percent from gas, 22 percent from oil. A large part is mined and mined in our own country. Added to this is the environmentally harmful uranium mining. 46 percent of the world’s deposits are found on the continent.
Morrison wants to continue or even increase the reduction in fossil fuels. A speech he gave in front of Parliament in 2017 is famous.
With a lump of coal in Parliament
Morrison stood in front of the MPs with a lump of coal in his hand and shouted: “That’s coal! Don’t worry, don’t be afraid. It won’t hurt you.” He accused critics of coal mining of wanting to send hundreds of thousands of Australians into unemployment.
Morrison has also denied a connection between increasingly extreme fires and climate change. After all, there have always been fires. In addition, funds for environmental protection measures were cut and existing protected areas were abolished.
Only in the past few months has the government been able to bring itself to make concessions. In addition to billions in aid for the Great Barrier Reef, Australia is to become climate-neutral by 2050.
But here, too, Morrison brakes: “This is an energy, trade and economic plan, not just an environmental plan. This is not a revolution, but a cautious development in order to take advantage of the changes for our market.”
Morrison’s challenger Anthony Albanese seems more ambitious when it comes to climate protection, but he is not a pioneer in international comparison. He also wants to achieve climate neutrality by 2050. The aim is to reduce environmentally harmful emissions by 43 percent by 2030. “Then we can finally show up at international conferences again without being one of the bad kids in a corner with Brazil and Saudi Arabia.”