ELEPHANTS DOWN UNDER
THOMAS L FRIEDMAN | NYT NEWS SERVICE
I’VE learned three things visiting New Zealand and Australia: There is a place in the world where rugby is front-page news.
There is a place in the world, the Auckland airport, where the restrooms have digital clocks in the entryway telling you hourly when they were last cleaned and when they will be cleaned again. And there is a place in the world where moderate Republicans still exist, unfortunately, you have to take a 13-hour flight from Los Angeles to get there.
Indeed, to go from America amid the GOP primaries to Down Under is to experience both jet lag and a political shock. In New Zealand and Australia, you could almost fit their entire political spectrum from conservatives to liberals inside the US Democratic Party.
Or as Paul Quinn, a parliamentarian from New Zealand’s Conservative National Party, once told a group of visiting American Fulbright scholars: “I will explain to you how our system works compared to yours: You have Democrats and Republicans. My Labour opponents would be Democrats. I am a member of the National Party, and we would be ... Democrats’ as well.” For instance, there is much debate here over climate policy, Australia has a carbon tax, New Zealand has cap and trade but there is no serious debate about climate science.
Whereas in today’s GOP it is political suicide to take climate change seriously, in Australia and New Zealand it is political suicide for conservatives not to.
In Australia and New Zealand, ‘there are plenty of climate skeptics in politics, but they know it’s a political loser to say so,’ explained the Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding. “This became the case after Australia suffered its worst-ever drought, lasting more than a decade. Now, there is strong public acceptance of the basic scientific conclusion that the climate is changing and humans are a significant contributor.” Tony Abbott, the current leader of Australia’s main conservative party, once crudely dismissed climate change, but after he became the party boss, even he embraced the need to bring down emissions.
Instead of cap and trade, though, he argued for industry friendly taxpayer- funded incentives to cut carbon.
Malcolm Turnbull, Abbott’s predecessor, supported cap and trade, as did his predecessor. “On climate,” Turnbull told me, “there has been an assault on the science, and it has had an impact, but not to the point of the center-right parties adopting a ‘climate- change-science-is-bunk’ platform the way the GOP appears to have done.” Conservatives in Australia and New Zealand have also long accepted single-payer national health care systems. The Labour Party ruled New Zealand from 1999 to 2008, when it was replaced by the conservative National Party. During Labour’s tenure, it passed legislation legalising civil unions, giving prostitutes the same health and safety protections as other workers, and extending income subsidies for families with children, noted Jon Johansson, a political scientist at Victoria University of Wellington.
While these moves were resisted by conservatives when in opposition, he said, they have ‘not tried to repeal any of them’ now that they are in power.
There are many reasons for the narrowness of the political spectrum here, Johansson added.
Neither New Zealand nor Australia are strong church going countries, so social issues don’t resonate as much. Both being isolated, sparsely populated, pioneering communities, New Zealand has only 4.5 million people and they have strong egalitarian traditions and believe the state has a role to play in making sure everyone gets a fair shake.
“We also have compulsory voting,” said Turnbull. You get fined if you don’t vote. “In a voluntary voting system like yours, there is always the temptation to run hard on hot-button issues that will fire up the base and get them out to vote. In a compulsory voting system, your base has to vote as does everyone else and so the goal is to target the middle ground.” To be sure, conservatives out here have all the low-tax, free-market, free-trade, less-government instincts of their American colleagues, but it is tempered by the fact that campaign donations and lobbying are much more restricted.
Looking at America from here, makes me feel as though we have the worst of all worlds right now.
The days when there were liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats, who nudged the two parties together, appear over. We don’t have compulsory voting.
Special interest money is out of control, and we lack any credible Third Party that could capture enough of the centre to force both Democrats and Republicans to compete for votes there. So we’ve lost our ability to do big, hard things together. Yet everything we have to do tax reform, fiscal reform, health care reform, energy policy, is big and hard and can only be done together.
“A lot of us who love your country,” said Johansson, “do not see where change can come from in America these days. We see all the barriers you have now to structural and fundamental change. It feels like you’ve lost your amazing ability to adapt politically.”