tears

So, Australia has a new prime minister. Maybe you’ve heard the news. Actually, maybe you haven’t. In his terrific book In a Sunburned Country (which here in Oz is known by the epically dull title Down Under), Bill Bryson wrote, “Flying into Australia, I realized with a sigh that I had forgotten again who their prime minister is.” He then goes on to admit being bemused to find out that in 1967 Harold Holt, the PM at the time, actually disappeared off the coast of Victoria and was never seen again. “This seemed doubly astounding to me — first that Australia could just lose a prime minister (I mean, come on) and second that news of this had never reached me.”

Well, we’ve lost another one. But Kevin Rudd did not wash out to sea — though he may wish he had. He was cast away in an ocean of politics.

I’m not very happy about it. I won’t go into a lot of detail, because I have no desire to get very political on this page. There’s a reason it’s called outernational. Politics don’t interest me. Peace and justice do, however, as do the vast forces that shape history. And politicians occasionally stumble into having to deal with those things, or at least pretend to deal with them. So in my old age I’ve compromised my natural apolitical or even anarchic leanings to pay a little more attention to what goes on in Babylon.

One of the reasons I wanted to move to Australia was to get away from the obnoxious political scene of the United States — so lurid and crazy it increasingly resembles a comic-book dystopia. (And this is a sad irony considering I think the current President is one of the smartest and classiest we’ve ever had.) I’ve often told friends and acquaintances here that I appreciate Australian politics because it’s so reasonable. Sure the Labor and Liberal (Americans read: conservative) parties might squabble. And it can get ugly, no mistake. But at the end of the day everyone’s still Australian. Probably because it’s a such small, isolated, nation — and a friendly one as I always maintain — they still agree on the fundamentals. The opposing parties do not regularly brand each other traitors, or worse, as happens in the States. Few Aussies would tolerate the distortions and outright lies now standard in American discourse.

For the first few months I lived in Oz, I couldn’t really figure out the politics — could hardly tell one party from the other — and it seemed to me that low-level controversies were always simmering in the news without really amounting to much. Frankly I didn’t pay a lot of attention. After the experience of American politics over the past decade it was a very cozy feeling.

Well imagine my surprise when I woke up one morning to find out that the Prime Minister had been sacked by his own party overnight, and that a new one, Julia Gillard, would presently be sworn in. I had a general idea about how the Westminster system works: that the citizens choose an individual candidate only ostensibly, and what they’re really voting for is a party; that the party can form its own consensus about who should lead it even mid-term; and that an election can be called at any time. But I always considered them quirks of the system and never thought they would come into play. And in fact Australia had not had a prime minister removed from office in over forty years, so I don’t think many Aussies really thought it possible either.

Even more disconcerting were the details of how the decision had been made. The so-called crisis in the party was not a matter of weeks nor even days, but instead hours. The gist of it is that factions in the Labor Party had grown tired of Rudd’s apparently egotistical and heavy-handed approach to both policy and people. He’d bungled negotiations with powerful mining interests over a new tax, looked bad on other issues, and with some lousy polling had compromised the party’s ability to carry the next election. His bad temper and lack of people skills only made things worse. The factions had quickly reached a secret consensus to vote Rudd out one morning. Gillard, Rudd’s deputy prime minister, broke the news to him in a private meeting in the afternoon, more or less giving him an ultimatum. He scrambled to raise support throughout the evening before realizing he had no chance to win the vote. At about nine the next morning he conceded at a press conference, and Gillard took over the nation’s helm.

I saw an online report of the developing story as I was up in the middle of the night watching Australia play and win a crucial match in the World Cup (only to be heartbreakingly eliminated on goal differential anyway), and was absolutely stunned. I just couldn’t believe the seeming capriciousness or even thoughtlessness of it. Later I joked with friends that Whole Foods Market, my old company, takes more time and deliberation to decide on a cheese buyer.

Australia is a small nation in terms of population, and considered a backwater in a lot of American and European minds. Still it’s one of the most stable, wealthy, and significant democracies in the world — certainly in the region — and its government looks after one of the only seven continents on the planet. I simply couldn’t believe that government had decided to sack its duly-elected leader. Because of his personality? Really? The way it stole thunder from the national team’s valiant but futile effort in the Cup that night added insult to injury.

It reminded me of something that would happen in some Balkan republic. I’d like to say it made me feel very American; but that makes no sense considering I’ve already admitted to being glad to leave behind the upheaval and uncertainty there. (This moment in Australia can’t hold a candle to the 2000 election.)

Meanwhile — and this is what’s so nuts about the whole thing — just like that, Australia has its first female prime minister. But can anyone really enjoy it? Talk about an anticlimax. And it wasn’t just me, the confused American, who wondered whether the party was a being a bit hasty, if not actually panicking. As one editorialist put it, Labor wasted a perfectly good PM. There were many letters to the paper from people who pointed out that they had voted for Rudd, not the party, and were taken aback about the swap — common sense and the democratic impulse in defiance of the Westminster bollocks. And the way Gillard basically stabbed Rudd in the back after years of being his deputy is pretty bone-chilling to ponder and put a lot of people off.

But outrage is not how I’d classify the reaction. The attitude of people in dealing with it was interesting to observe. The media was telling me the nation was in shock and glued to the television. But as I ran a couple of errands in my neighborhood on that sunny winter’s afternoon, nothing seemed any different. People weren’t walking around looking anxious about this intra-party coup d’etat, or clustered in groups in the street having heated debates (as I would picture in the above-mentioned nondescript Balkan republic).

Of course, these are Aussies. It would take a lot more than losing a prime minister to get them riled up. They might not be happy with how it happened; and some are pretty cynical about Gillard’s agenda and the state of the party. To be fair a few are mildly pleased about the first woman prime minister. But the general tone is, “Fair enough. Let’s see what you’ve got for us.” Maybe it’s a recognition that politics is just a surface structure and none of it really matters.

I also tend to have a sense of humor about who’s in charge of any particular country I’m living in, whether president or sheikh or queen. They’re all the same at the end of the day; let ’em have their fun. If Gillard manages to hold her own, I’ll be as nonchalant as any Aussie about the whole thing.

But I retain my qualms, especially because I had developed a fondness for Rudd over the past few years, even before I migrated. When he was elected in November of 2007 to finally remove the stodgy John Howard from office with a campaign that emphasized the environment and the multicultural future of Australia, I saw it as a harbinger of the “change” that became such an important idea in the American election the next year. When Obama won in turn exactly one year later, Rudd was one of the first world leaders to publicly congratulate him, with an unabashedly effusive statement that promised a strong partnership between the two nations to tackle the climate crisis. He appointed Peter Garrett, former lead singer of Midnight Oil, to his front bench (Americans read: cabinet). I mean come on, how cool is that? One of the first things he did in office was to issue an official apology to indigenous Australians for the destruction of their society and heritage — something the government had stubbornly refused to do for decades until that moment.

Significantly for me, Rudd is an “out” liberal Christian in a world that seems to have stopped believing in them, and has made it clear that his Christian principles underscore his work for justice, tolerance, and stewardship of the environment. He once referred to “a Christian socialist tradition” as an important component of political discourse.

All of this made me feel good about migrating to Australia. Without being overly enthusiastic — whatever, he’s still a politician and he’s still going to compromise and waffle — I was in my own passive way a Rudd supporter. And the morning he was ousted was a harsh adjustment for me. His openly tearful concession speech only reinforced whatever affection I had for him. Not only was he disarmingly emotional, but he made this extraordinary acknowledgment: “This is probably not the occasion for high statements of theology. But to the great God and creator of us all, I thank him, or her, as well.”

When was the last time a world leader invoked the maternal aspect of the Almighty in a public speech?

Almost immediately after taking office, Gillard showed dismaying signs of backtracking in a number of areas where Rudd had my support. Within days she “compromised” with the mining companies on the tax, vowed to reassess the government’s climate policy, and indicated that asylum seekers would have a tougher time of it. Is it a total sellout to corporate interests and irrational public fear? Stay tuned.

Apologies to Peter Garrett, but I’m pretty disillusioned about the Labor Party at this point – not that I’d be able to get excited about any political party in the first place. If anything, I’m now more interested than ever in the Greens — the Australian version of the Green Party — which I previously didn’t know much about. And I don’t think I’m the only one.

Most of this was written in June, shortly after these events took place, and then stayed on the shelf while I was getting ready for the trip to Abu Dhabi and settling in and starting work here. Since that time, Gillard has made several serious gaffes both in policy and in dealing with the media.(Example: she named East Timor as a possible destination for asylum seekers — without checking first with the government of East Timor to see what they thought of it. Classic.) She’s been unable to reconcile with Rudd, who’s now seen as a bit of a lone wolf; has fallen all over the opposition trying to seem tougher on immigration; and her standing has dropped significantly in the polls (which is why Rudd was sacked in the first place). In general she and her party have made a mess of things and it’s easy both for lukewarm supporters and the opposition to blame an ill-conceived and toxic leadership swap. She’s called an election for later this month, but the fact is that things have gone so far downhill that Labor is now in serious danger of being ousted, which was unthinkable just weeks ago. Absolutely shocking, and their own stupid fault. I’m glad I’m out of the country for the time being, and equally glad that as a resident, not a citizen, I’m not entitled to vote anyway. But hey Australia, good luck with that.

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