There was an election this weekend. Actually, make that two. Despite Afghanistan’s groundbreaking election and its subsequent media blitz, Australians also went to the polls last Saturday. Practically ignored by all media outside of Sydney, the international press will undoubtedly commit an error of judgment this week by ignoring Australia’s election.
Aussie politics is merely a blip on the radar screen of the media because interest in Australia is minimal. Historically passive, isolated and a reliable ally to the U.S., the only rival Australia has is Antarctica. And that’s in the completely boring and relatively disregarded category.
Though not nearly as enticing to the media as Afghanistan – no voter-registration scandals, widespread fraud, or images of donkeys carrying ballot-boxes – the American press must dedicate particular attention to the political workings of Australia.
Incumbent Prime Minister and Liberal Party candidate John Howard was re-elected to a fourth term on Saturday. Challenger Mark Latham, a Labor Party candidate, was annihilated in the polls and amassed a measly 20 percent of the vote, according to preliminary estimates.
The Labor Party will subsequently be forced to concede Senate seats, allowing Prime Minster Howard to pass controversial legislation that has been repeatedly blocked for the past eight years, including deregulating cross-media ownership laws and reducing the influence of union labor.
So what? Australia’s economy has been surging in recent years, while unemployment and interest rates have been declining considerably. But while things appear fine internationally and focus lies on Howard’s staunch support for President Bush in the war on terror, media misses the point.
Howard’s re-election means that the xenophobic administration (don’t let the “Liberal” party name deceive) now has the ability to continue ignoring the country’s severe social tension while trumpeting the success of his economic agenda.
While Howard is pandering to the wealthy, he essentially sits idly by as indigenous Australians continue to face economic, educational and health disparities. According to Bill Byson’s Down Under, the average life expectancy of an indigenous Australian is 20 years less than a Caucasian counterpart, while an indigenous baby is two to four times more likely to die during birth. Indigenous people are also 18 times more likely to die from disease and 17 times more likely to be hospitalized due to violent crime than Australians of Caucasian descent.
An incident earlier this year typified the racial tension, which erupted in Sydney following the death of a 17-year-old aboriginal boy after he was killed trying to flee police. While a squad car patrolled an inner-city suburb of Sydney predominantly populated by aborigines, TJ Hickey saw the police car, was frightened, and sped off on his bicycle. Police pursued, and while rounding a corner TJ was thrown from his bike and impaled on a metal fencepost.
Aborigines blamed law enforcement for his death and rioted, and over 50 police and a number of fire trucks were called to the scene to restore order. In a move reminiscent of the American civil rights movement, Caucasian firefighters clashed with rioters and used water hoses to subdue them. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to say that present-day Australia has a social climate that suggests the country is where the U.S. was 50 years ago.
Economically speaking, Australia is stepping forward. In social terms, the Howard administration is taking the country three steps back.
Opposition leader Mark Latham was the obvious choice for Aussie voters. He sought to reform education and healthcare, opposed Australia’s allegiance with the United States in its invasion of Iraq, and above all, wished to level the disparities aborigines have dealt with throughout Australia’s history.
While the media analyzes the election in Afghanistan ad nauseam, Americans deserve to know the implications of another election that took place the very same day.
While Australia stands in the shadows of Afghanistan’s spotlight, the press shows its own discriminatory policies. If the media want to hold the Liberal Party responsible during its next term and take Australia out of the political periphery, it must rise above arbitrary decisions of newsworthiness. After all, Australian politics isn’t always black and white.