Lessons to Learn: Extraordinary Australian Political Developments
Australia is the world’s smallest continent, though it is a big country with an area of about (8,468,300 km2). Compared to its size, the Australian population is small (~22 million). Accordingly, the Australian National Parliament reflects this small population with the House of Representative or Lower House consisting 150 sitting Members of Parliament (MPs) and the Upper House or Senate 76 members. Election for the Lower House is held every three years, but is usually called before the maximum period elapses. Senators in the Upper House are elected every six years, however some complexity is involved. There are two major parties – the Australian Labor Party (ALP) and a Coalition of Liberal Party and National Party, except the Nationals in the state of Western Australia are not part of the Coalition. The Australian Greens emerged as the 3rd political force (~13% primary vote) in this year’s Federal election, following a complete annihilation in the 2007 election of the then 3rd political force, the Australian Democrats and a growing disenchantment with ALP. There are other minor parties and independents. Any party which wins 76 seats (50%+1 or simple majority) in the Lower House forms a government. This background will be helpful for better understanding the story that will follow.
Anyone who follows events around the world can appreciate that extraordinary political developments have occurred in Australia since June 2010 – the removal of Kevin Rudd, a very popular Prime Minister before even serving a first-term government, and the election of a female Prime Minister for the first time in the history of Australia. This article describes the chronology of events that led to the demotion of Kevin Rudd, a person of high calibre not only in the domestic stage, but also an internationally well-known political figure and experienced diplomat. The article also sheds light on how Kevin Rudd reacted to his unexpected removal from the Prime Ministerial office in a brutal manner. At the end of the story, important lessons are drawn and recommendations are made in the hope that everyone, and more so our Eritrean politicians, can benefit from the story and wisdom of Kevin Rudd. The important question is, am I comparing Apples and oranges? I leave the judgment to the reader.
In the 2007 Australian Federal election, Kevin Rudd was elected as the Prime Minister of Australia, defeating the 2nd longest serving Prime Minister, John Howard. Prime Minister Rudd was elected with high personal popularity rating and a great majority in the House of Representatives. One of Mr Rudd’s key election promises was then a strong action on climate change, which he described as the “greatest moral challenge” of all time. Mr Rudd formed a majority government in November 2007 with a clear and strong mandate; he ratified the Kyoto Protocol at the UN climate conference held in Bali, Indonesia in December 2007. At the heart of his government’s climate change policy was the introduction of Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) or an emissions trading scheme (ETS), which is market-driven mechanism to control concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. The CPRS bill passed the House of Representatives without strong opposition but defeated in the Senate, as the balance of power was held by the Greens and independent Senators who together with the main opposition voted down the legislation.
Prime Minister Rudd position on climate change weakened prior to attending the UN Copenhagen climate conference held during 6 – 18 December 2009. To make matters worse, the Copenhagen climate conference was a failed one because global agreement was not reached to curve GHGs emissions. Mr Rudd was extremely frustrated with the slow pace of actions on climate change both in the domestic and international arenas that he broke one of his 2007 election promises on 27 April 2010. He shelved the ETS until the end of 2012 when the current Kyoto protocol expires. Since the abandonment of the ETS and a failure of another crucial project, Prime Minister Rudd popularity plummeted.
Mr Rudd’s colleagues in the ALP started to panic and ousted him in a bloodless Parliament House coup on the 24th of June 2010. Ms Julia Gillard was elected unopposed as the first female Prime Minister of Australia. On the 17th of July 2010, Ms Gillard nominated 21st August as the date for the 2010 Federal election. Kevin Rudd felt very sick while he was campaigning in his local electorate; he was operated on for a gall bladder. Few days after he was discharged from hospital, Mr Rudd declared his unequivocal support for Prime Minister Gillard and said, “he will do everything in his capacity for the re-election of this Federal Government“. In spite of the conspiracy against Mr Rudd by his own cabinet members – that really shocked many Australians – he thrown his full support behind Prime Minister Gillard because both shared a common vision for Australia. Mr Rudd added, the stake is high if the Coalition is elected, and therefore, his adversities are minuscule compared to the future of his country, and by saying that, he put the national interest of Australia before his own interest. Here is another quote said by Kevin Rudd during the election campaign: “Life’s just too short to carry around a great bucket-load of anger and resentment and bitterness and hatreds and all that sort of stuff.“
As predicted, the election results gave a Hung Parliament since 1940. The two major parties won 72 seats each, with the remaining six seats grabbed by one independent from Tasmania & Queensland each; two independents from New South Whales; one Greens MP from Victoria and one National Party MP from Western Australia. The National Party MP immediately declared his support to the Coalition, as he was in complete disagreement with one of ALP’s major policy (mineral tax), which bears direct consequence for his mineral-rich electorate. The remaining four independents and the Greens MPs which held the power of balance negotiated with the two major political parties. They put forward their list of demands, and after serious considerations of their proposals by the two major parties, political consensus has been reached to form a minority ALP government 17 days after the election was held. This represents a new political era in the history of the Australian Parliament, not only because the election outcome resulted in a Hung Parliament, but also for the first time, an indigenous MP, a Bosnian descent Muslim MP and Greens MP have entered the House of Representative. Australia has had several Greens Senators and an indigenous Senator, but not MPs.
Some may argue Kevin Rudd stood behind Julia Gillard for his own benefit, because he was promised a senior portfolio if the Gillard Government was re-elected. Whilst this point is valid, still Prime Minister is the top political position in the country, and for Kevin to be demoted in the manner described in this article, yet showing reconciliation with those who forced him to relinquish power is really admirable! It is a testimony to his philosophy of life – look forward; contribute positively; never indulge in the past. After the re-election of the Gillard Government, Kevin Rudd has become the Foreign Minister of Australia. When asked (by the media) about his relationship with Prime Minister Gillard, he summarised it in two words – ‘professional’ and ‘productive’. What do these two words imply? My interpretation is, despite he is unhappy with what has happened to him, and his personal relationship with his former deputy, Ms Gillard has been seriously damaged, Kevin Rudd took the pledge to work with her cooperatively and constructively to achieve tangible outcomes for Australia. Both understand the Australian people elected them just to do that and they also understand political disunity will bring the demise of their government. That is what professionalism about – being able to serve a mutual interest even during a disagreement and great difficulty.
Lessons to be Learnt
There are four important lessons to be learnt from the story described above:-
1. First and foremost, Eritrea needs a representative National Parliament that reflects the multi-ethnic reality of the Eritrean society. For that to happen, Eritreans who believe in democratic ideals and the principle of law should strive to focus on issues pertain to the Eritrean people and avoid personal/secondary issues that many of us now seem to be more occupied with. It is the dream of many Eritreans to see Eritrea having a functioning parliament, where its MPs are elected by consensus democracy. Why consensus? Because present Eritrea lacks the necessary democratic institutions and it will take years to establish those institutions in post-PFDJ era. Therefore, we are far away from holding free and fair general election. It is only in a representative parliament that Eritreans can properly and constructively debate their problems and endeavour to find solutions satisfactory to all stakeholders. It is incumbent upon us not to stand against political processes that lead us towards forming a National Parliament. Instead, we should rectify the shortcomings with such processes by remaining engaged. Eritrea is a small country and its viability relies on us being prepared to compromise and live in harmony.
2. “A promise made should be a promise kept”. Understandably, Kevin Rudd was under enormous pressure when he broke his election promise. He found himself in a clear dilemma over how to mitigate the impacts of climate change. On the one hand, his strong desire to introduce ETS before most of the industrialised nations have committed to curve GHGs emissions – so he was accused by his political opponents of jeopardizing the Australian national economy – and on the other hand, his obligation to fulfil his election promise. In spite of the dilemma, the Australian public didn’t forgive Kevin Rudd for abandoning a piece of legislation that was central to his government’s climate change policy. As he passionately advocated for ETS (when his party was) in opposition, abandoning it in government gave the impression that he didn’t believe in it; otherwise he would have withstood the pressure. The lesson is public figures should be accountable to the people who elected them.
In the case of Eritrea, many promises have been broken; I will draw a parallel between the story of Kevin Rudd and ONE BIG promise made to the Eritrean people, because of its severe consequences that Eritreans have been suffering from since independence. EPLF under the leadership of Isayas Afewerki broken a promise made during its Second organisational conference in 1987. Previously on this matter, I wrote the following:-
…The then EPLF, in its second organisational congress in 1987, adopted a resolution that it would establish a multi-party system of government in Eritrea after liberation. …Eritreans counted on the promise of the EPLF, the organisation to which many belonged and supported with integrity. Eritrea attained sovereign statehood at a time when democratisation has become increasingly a viable option in Africa after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Given the multi-ethnic make-up of the Eritrean society and the plural political reality of Eritrea, the country needed democracy….. Conversely, after the EPLF consolidated its grip on state power it backtracked on all promises made regarding the democratisation process and the issue of reconciliation with the other national organisations that contributed to the ultimate success…..
According to this document, the promise of a multi-party system was made again in 1994 when the EPLF, in its Third organisational congress, transformed itself into a political party, the PFDJ. The important question then who is responsible for the status quo in Eritrea? Firstly, EPLF because the ultimate victory is sealed at its hand, although the astounding success is a cumulative effect. EPLF should have ensured the promise made to the Eritrean people is kept. Secondly, every Eritrean shares a responsibility for the current situation in Eritrea. Like the Australian people who disapproved Kevin Rudd for not keeping a promise, we should have also utterly rejected the legitimacy of the PFDJ regime until it honours its promise. Instead, Diaspora Eritreans today are divided into four groups in relation to approving and disapproving the PFDJ regime. Some are PFDJ die-hards who only know black-and-white – they never attempt to discern between right and wrong; some support PFDJ against their conscience for various reasons; a great majority are unhappy with the status quo, but have chosen to remain silent; and finally a small group are doing under difficult circumstance what they can for a better change.
A great majority of Eritreans were complacent about the situation in the sense that they gave Isayas Afewerki enough time to establish himself as a full-fledged dictator that now we all are paying a high price for our complacency. It is similar to the concept that the cost of inaction on climate change is higher if the problem is left for the future generations to deal with. This doesn’t mean efforts have not been made to rectify the dire situation in Eritrea. The on-going resistance/opposition to the dictatorial regime; the army revolt in the early years of independence; the endeavours’ of G-13 and G-15 are well-known examples.
3. Kevin Rudd, rather than indulging in the past, he preferred to contribute positively and move forward. He called for harmony and reconciliation with those who brought his demise. The Eritrean opposition has remained locked in stalemate, as the majority of its leaders, unlike Kevin Rudd, are unwilling to move forward. Repeated failures of Eritrean opposition politicians to achieve tangible outcomes are attributed to the absence of a mood for a change and the desire for a fresh start! I hope they will carefully and thoughtfully think about the wisdom of Mr Rudd and learn the lesson that they are duty bound to promote the national interest of Eritrea before their own. They can break the stalemate if they stop political mudslinging, work for the big picture and move forward!
4. Negotiations in good faith always bear fruit like the case of the Australian independent MPs who negotiated with the two major parties and broke the political stalemate in a record time. Some may consider two weeks as a protracted period of time to resolve a political deadlock especially in a full-fledged democratic country like Australia. In my opinion it was not, considering the marginal outcome of the tightly contested election and the complexity surrounding the legitimacy and mandate of the party that forms the government. The MPs who controlled the power of balance needed time to carefully consider their options, as the responsibility of forming a stable government rested on their shoulder. Ultimately, the ‘resilient’ Australian democratic institutions together with constructive roles played by the independent MPs weathered the political storm. I urge Eritrean politicians to develop and improve their dialogue skills and learn to compromise when needed.
Eritreans who oppose totalitarianism and aspire to see a democratic and prosperous Eritrea must overcome their differences and work together to build democratic institutions; few of them are listed below:-
- Independent judicial system to guarantee due process and legal constraints on executive power
- Independent media to hold individuals and institutions accountable
- Strong civic organisations/professional associations/Unions/Foundations etc. to enrich democratic practices by pressurising the government of the day.
These institutions will safeguard the interests of Eritrea and its people. We shouldn’t reply on our political leaders who hold grudges and hatreds against each other, and who failed us many times. I hope they will change and move forward. It is a race against time that they must win if they want to earn the respect of the people.
 Australian population is small because Australia is the driest inhabited continent or the world’s second driest continent after Antarctica with desert or semi-arid land making by far the largest proportion of land.
 Small compared to its counterparts, for instance, the House of Commons in the British Parliament where the number of MPs is 650 or the members of Congress (435 plus 6 non-voting) in the United States House of Representative
 Australia has had several female Premiers – leaders of States and Territories. Currently, of the six States and two Territories, there are two serving female Premiers, one leading the biggest state (population-wise) and the other a mineral-rich state.
 UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon invited Kevin Rudd to the UN Headquarter after he was deposed as Prime Minister and according to a diplomatic source Ban Ki-moon “…is considering creating a role for Mr Rudd as a top-level adviser on climate change.” This is evidence of Mr Rudd’s capacity to serve the UN body.
 It is not indulgence but I beg the reader’s pardon because the story carries on before drawing important lessons and making recommendations.
 Australian Greens opposed Mr Rudd’s CPRS because, in their view, the scheme’s target didn’t go far enough to curve GHGs emissions effectively. The Greens demanded a stronger action on climate change before supporting the scheme. The Greens’ ETS can be found here or their amendments to Mr Rudd’s CPRS.
 This refers to Ms Gillard’s Government; probably Kevin Rudd didn’t want to mention the name Gillard because it is not easy to forget what has happened to him, but by declaring to work with Prime Minister Gillard, he showed the courage to move forward.
 Interested reader can find the whole article here.
 More on consensus democracy in future editions of ‘Harmony’