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A Guide to What Australia's Federal Elections Mean for India

The Indian diaspora, now over 720,000, has become the fastest-growing immigrant community in Australia, overtaking the Chinese-origin community as the largest overseas-born group.
Voters cast their ballots ahead of the national election at an Australian Electoral Commission early voting centre, in the Central Business District of Sydney, Australia, May 17, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Loren Elliott/File Photo
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New Delhi: Today, May 21, Australians will be voting to elect their next government – and possibly a new prime minister – at the end of a campaign which has seen high-pitched exchanges between the candidates over the state of the economy, climate change and the country’s largest trade partner, China.

With Australia having compulsory voting, more than 17 million voters are expected to exercise their choice to select members of the 151-seat House of Representatives and 40 Senate seats. The prime minister will belong to the party or coalition, which gets at least 76 seats in the House of Representatives.

According to the Australian constitution, there is no fixed term for the House of Representatives, but it has a maximum duration of three years.

The last parliament began on July 2, 2019, and was prorogued on April 11, 2022.

Who are the candidates?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison wants to be re-elected and is the main campaign face for the three-party centre-right Liberal-National Coalition. He is being challenged by the veteran politician of the centre-left Australia Labor Party (ALP), Anthony Albanese.

Having succeeded Malcolm Turnbull in 2018, Scott Morrison has taken credit for Australia’s strict COVID-19 closed-border policy and one of the lowest death rates worldwide. He has also projected his record in international diplomacy and defence as his key strengths.

Scott Morrison, Australian Prime Minister. Photo: PTI/File

However, with the top issues for voters being rising prices, economic growth and climate change, Morrison is perceived to be batting from a weaker pitch.

Fifty-nine-year-old Albanese is one of Australia’s veteran politicians, having been a member of parliament for 25 years. In this election, he has attempted to move beyond his centre-left image to appeal to a larger conservative population. He reportedly claimed to be “not woke”, taking a softer position on climate change and a tougher stance against China.

Is there a front-runner?

During the six-week campaign period, opinion polls have consistently shown Labor in the lead. But, the gap has narrowed in the last leg of the campaign, with observers terming it too close to call.

According to a Guardian poll published on Tuesday, Labor has a two-point lead over the Coalition, a much narrower margin than when the party was ahead by four points two weeks ago. Similarly, the Sydney Morning Herald has published that Labor’s lead has shrunk from eight to two points within a fortnight.

The final Newspoll of the campaign showed that Labour had maintained the two-point lead on Friday.

With betting being legal, betting agencies declared Anthony Albanese the favourite to win the election and become Prime Minister, as per news.com.au. The report also reminded that the betting agency, Sportsbet, had to hand out A$5.2 million in 2019 when it called the election in favour of Labour before the results came out.

In fact, the 2019 results have been haunting the ALP, which had been comfortably in the lead throughout the campaign, as per all opinion polls. Scott Morrison had even termed the results as a “miracle” victory.

Labor was the largest single party in the 2019 elections with 68 seats, but not enough to gain a majority. Instead, the Liberal-National Coalition managed to scrape through with the required number of seats to form the government. 

A review of the 2019 opinion polls concluded that the sample was likely “skewed towards the more politically engaged and better educated voters”, which led to Labor voters being overrepresented.

A campaign sign for Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese is seen at the entrance to an Australian Electoral Commission early voting centre ahead of the national election, in the Central Business District of Sydney, Australia, May 17, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Loren Elliott/File Photo

While Australia has traditionally been a two-party state, several smaller parties like the Greens and United Australia Party may do well as opinion polls show that voters are looking beyond the mainstream choices.

The new phenomenon in this election has been the so-called ‘Teal independents’ – a group of 22 loosely-tied candidates, mostly women and funded by a political action group Climate 200, set up by the son of Australia’s first billionaire Simon Holmes à Court.

As per Channel 9 news, the ‘Teal independents’ are not functioning as a political party but “seem to converge on two specific policies: the call for a federal integrity commission and a greater emphasis on tackling climate change”.

What happens if there is a hung parliament?

In Australia’s political history since World War II, there has never been a hung parliament except once. The 2010 elections saw both the Labor and the Liberal-National Coalition winning 72 seats each. After over two weeks of negotiation, Labor formed a minority government with the outside support of three independents and one Greens lawmaker.

There is no indication of how the ‘Teal independents’, some of whom might win, would support the government. However, given their platform for more action to combat climate change, it is unlikely they would find it easy to back a Scott Morrison-led Coalition, which is largely climate change-sceptic.

Do Australian Indian voters matter?

The Indian diaspora, now over 720,000, has become the fastest-growing immigrant community in Australia, overtaking the Chinese-origin community as the largest overseas-born group. With the numerical rise of the diaspora, it also means that Hinduism and Punjabi have become Australia’s fastest growing religion and language, respectively.

An online survey of 617 Indian-origin Australian registered voters, analysed by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, found them to be significantly leaning toward the Labor party. While 43 per cent identified with ALP, the Coalition garnered only 26 per cent. Surprisingly, five per cent selected the right-wing One Nation party, which has a stringent anti-immigration platform.

When asked about their voting preference in the elections, 40% said that they would vote for ALP, while 25% stated a choice for the Coalition.

Do relations with India really matter to Indo-Australian voters?

In an opinion piece published in March, the publisher of one of Australia’s largest ethnic media outlets, Indian Link, claimed that India’s relations with Australia have primarily come into play due to the fact that political parties are actively wooing the diaspora in a tight election. 

“With a potential vote bank of over 400,000 Indian voters, a large number of them in marginal seats such as Parramatta and Reid, these voters are well connected to their country of origin and would like to see a closer bond between these two nations,” wrote the author in the article titled, “Coalition or Labor: Who would be better for India?

However, according to the previously-cited online survey of Indo-Australian voters, their top three policy priorities are primarily in line with the majority of voters – healthcare, economy and climate change. Relations with India do not even figure in the ‘top 10 priorities’ list – but the survey analysts cautioned that this does not mean that this issue is insignificant.

“That is not to say [that] they view this issue as unimportant, but Australia-India ties seem to be only one motivating factor among many others”.

The oft-cited political canon is that the Liberal party has given more attention to India, while the Labor party has traditionally been seen as friendlier towards China in the past. The exception to this conventional wisdom is the Julia Gillard government, which pushed to remove obstacles to the sale of uranium to India in 2011. Incidentally, Albanese was among the Labor leaders opposed to the move, citing nuclear proliferation concerns and the Fukushima nuclear disaster.

IAEA experts, charged with reviewing Japan’s plans for the Fukushima nuclear facility, leave Unit 4 in 2013. IAEA/Flickr, CC BY 4.0

IAEA experts, charged with reviewing Japan’s plans for the Fukushima nuclear facility, leave Unit 4 in 2013. IAEA/Flickr, CC BY 4.0

In the current Australian election campaign, the Coalition has attempted to paint Labour as China’s ‘favoured’ party, even though Labor’s policies toward Beijing are not much different from the conservative Coalition.

With much space for any new government in Canberra to reconcile with Beijing, it is natural that the next Australian government will continue to build ties with the other Asian giant, India.

India’s former high commissioner to Australia, Navdeep Suri, said that there was “enough momentum in the relationship to make it bipartisan”.

Also read: Citing Indian High Commission Interference, 13 Academics Resign From Australia India Institute

Campaign promises and views stated while canvassing for Indian votes

Even as Prime Minister Scott Morrison continued with his Indian culinary adventure, he has also attempted to curry favour with the Indian voters by campaign appearances making at religious associations – like his rival – to seek votes from the community. 

The Guardian reported that during his address at the Hindu Council of Australia last week, Morrison, donning saffron scarves, described his ‘chummy’ partnership with Indian PM Narendra Modi as “Scomodi”.

The questions at the event seemed to revolve around whether a religious discrimination bill will discriminate against Hindus, to the swastika symbol being banned by a state government for its Nazi connotations.

He was also asked about the tensions within the Indian community, which had flared up due to the farmers’ movement in India. “Whatever conflicts they have in their home countries have no place in Australia … We don’t have transfer of hatreds. They can stay away, they have no part in the Australia I lead,” he said, as quoted by the Guardian.

Earlier in the month, Labor leader Anthony Albanese took part in another event organised by the Hindu Council of Australia in Sydney, where he talked about improving ties with India. 

Labor leader Anthony Albanese in a Hindu Council of Australia event. Photo: Facebook Live screengrab

He stated that his government would be pushing for a more “comprehensive” free trade agreement with India. “We certainly would continue to support the comprehensive economic dialogue agreement. We think that it isn’t comprehensive enough,” he said.

The Morrison government had pushed India to complete an interim Free Trade Agreement by March, even though there was no investment protection chapter. It was politically crucial for Morrison to be able to tout the India deal, signed on April 2, as among his key achievements, hyping it up for his rural agricultural base. 

Australian officials are confident that it will be signed in the second phase of the negotiations, but India, so far, has been reluctant to move beyond its stated position on dispute arbitration.

Incidentally, Australia’s national broadcaster, ABC reported on the controversy over Albanese and Morrison donning saffron scarves, which featured the banyan tree logo of the far-right Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

The two leaders also made promises related to care for the elderly – a topic seen as culturally close to the Indian community. 

The Labor party has committed A$6 million to provide “assisted living” for South Asian seniors, Indian Link reported.

Morrison criticised Labor’s promises on elderly care, raising questions about its implementation. He also cited large government funds invested in implementing recommendations of the aged care royal commission, and a programme to gather data about elderly care demand that he says will benefit the Hindu community.

The Labor leader has claimed that he has a long association with India, bringing up his six-week backpack trip during his younger days. Albanese had also led a parliamentary delegation to New Delhi in 2018. When Indian external affairs minister S Jaishankar visited Australia this year, he met with the veteran Australian politician.

Just like the overall direction of relations with India will not change even if there is a new prime minister at the helm, Canberra’s representative in New Delhi will also remain in place whatever the election results. In fact, Albanese has repeatedly mentioned Australia’s high commissioner to India, Barry O’Farrell as an exemplary model of a political appointee for a sensitive diplomatic posting.

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