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Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Baddies schmaddies

Unlike the last time we had a federal election and unlike the last US federal election I've been fairly detached from the debate this time, mainly for family reasons but also out of a sense of curiosity as I try to place local discussions in a broader context. When I get up in the middle of the night to watch socmed activity from overseas it's hardly surprising to see no mention of Australia's Saturday election - yes, it's just that close folks. Which is why Tony Abbott's "baddies versus baddies" comment - which attracted so much opprobrium from certain sectors in Australia - was so interesting for me.

The comment was of course taken out of context by the commentariat. In truth, Abbott basically supports Western intervention in Syria. And Abbott was also right in bringing attention to the fact that there are very few actors you can unequivocally support in the Syrian conflict, as the rebel groups have clearly been comprehensively influenced by Islamofascists intent on establishing sharia wherever they succeed in throwing out Assad's forces. It's clear they intend to do the same should they win the larger battle in the longer term. Unfortunately, Christopher Pyne was quite correct in saying that Abbott's interpretation of the conflict was "sophisticated". But there are certain sectors of the commentariat in Australia for whom anything Pyne says will be ludicrous regardless of the individual merits of the case.

The SMH headline - 'Tony Abbott urges caution over Syria intervention' - is actually more accurate than the Guardian's. In fact, Abbott's response was very clever. This close to an election would be a bad time for a small-target campaigner in the prevailing atmosphere of non-stop attention-grabbing headlines where getting out a complex message is almost impossible, to say much else. As Abbott remarks, he supported Iraq and he supported Afghanistan. He's basically a US man, like his hero Howard. In this sense there's precious little to distinguish between Abbott and Rudd, both of whom would unquestionably urge Australian participation in a Syrian intervention that had congressional backing (the vote in Congress is apparently due on 9 September, two days after the election).

Given the timing and given the low awareness in Australia of what's actually happening on the ground in Syria - there is little media involvement, and the Assad regime is pushing a heavy line of propaganda - Abbott can hardly have said much else. The "wait and see" attitude is inevitable in the circumstances; Abbott hardly wants to upset the apple cart over such a minor issue as the vaguely-articulated human rights abuses that may of may not have happened in a largely invisible foreign country.

A more interesting question is whether the timing of our election has turned out to be a major problem for Obama and Cameron. If Australia had not been in caretaker mode would the three tradition allies have more readily decided in favour of armed intervention? There has been no comment in the press in either the UK or the US about the lack of executive leadership here. Which is hardly surprising. It's common for Australia to appear to be invisible when the larger picture of world affairs is addressed.

For Australian voters who care about their financial situation the Syrian crisis must be important inasmuch as it has started to impact on the price of equities. For their part, Australian investors are used to keeping watch on overseas developments - particularly those in Europe, the US and China - because of the relative size of our stock market. At just three percent of the global total, it tends to be heavily influenced by things that happen in other places. Because so many Australians participate in the equities market through their superannuation you would think they would act in their own self interest when it comes to choosing a political party to support.

Both major parties in Australia are centrist and both are more tolerant of the other side than the more ideologically-inclined politicians you find in the US for example. Oddly, it has been ideological considerations that brought both New Zealand and the UK - where conservative governments are in power - to support marriage equality.

Such considerations are foreign to the broader public debate in Australia, particularly in relation to the Liberal-National coalition. The real question that should be occupying the minds of Australian voters is whether a Coalition government would be better for the economy than the alternative, or worse. Going by the lift in Queensland's unemployment rate following the election of the Newman government there in March last year you'd have to think that in the aggregate the Coalition presents a real danger to the economy.

Australia's economy is relatively strong in global terms - and this is one thing that people overseas pay attention to when they talk about Australia - but something as seemingly minor as a 1-percentage-point rise in the unemployment rate could have a major impact on the material wellbeing of millions of Australians.

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