Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Editorial: In the Balance

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Colin Rubenstein

After what many commentators unfairly described as an uninspiring election campaign, Australia has ended up, as some poll-watchers predicted, with its second ever hung parliament.

At press time, it was unclear who would form Australia’s next government – only that it will almost certainly be a minority government, dependent on the votes of independents. Both Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott demonstrated energy, courage and competence in leading their respective campaigns. Yet, whoever ends up leading the nation, it is clear that voters have delivered a notable setback to the Rudd/Gillard-led Labor government, and that, given where they were less than a year ago, the Liberal/National Coalition led by Tony Abbott must be very pleased with the results.

The next prime minister of Australia should be whoever can more convincingly promise a stable coalition able to undertake the responsibilities of government more effectively.

Overseas and Australian state government experience demonstrates that stable, effective minority government is possible given the proper attitude of seriousness, sobriety and responsibility on the part of all the relevant political actors.

Yet, the success of the Greens Party in obtaining both the balance of power in the Senate and their first lower house seat in a regular election raises serious issues in this regard. Frankly, seriousness and sobriety have not been a hallmark of many Greens’ policies. On foreign affairs, including on the Middle East and Israel in particular, on the balance between public and private schools in Australia, on the tradeoffs between economic development and the environment, on taxes and the public budget, the Greens have been not only well to the left of Labor, but often in a realm where it is possible to promise almost anything, ignoring both costs and consequences, knowing that one will never have to deliver. Hopefully, their increased power will bring with it more responsibility and also invite greater public scrutiny of their claims and probing analysis of the consequences of their policies in all these areas.

More positively, this election has certainly seen the return of many good friends of the Australian Jewish community and Israel, on both sides of politics. Most notably, the election of Josh Frydenberg in the seat of Kooyong sees the first Jewish member of the House of Representatives on the Coalition side – joining Labor colleagues Michael Danby and Mark Dreyfus. Further, while his victory was not completely secure at press time, the possible election of Ken Wyatt in the seat of Hasluck would see the first Indigenous Australian seated in the House of Representatives, a welcome landmark.

Whatever the next government, it will have to tackle several challenges, most of concern not just to the Australian Jewish community, but the broader polity:

The Iranian nuclear program is the most pressing foreign policy challenge to governments throughout the Middle East and around the world. An Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons – with the resulting increase in instability, terrorism, regional nuclear arms proliferation and the price of oil – will also very much detrimentally impact Australians.

Containing terrorism and Islamist extremism will remain essential responsibilities for any Australian government. We commend Tony Abbott’s suggestion during the campaign that a ban on the antisemitic Islamist group Hezb u-Tahrir needs to be again considered, given the group’s history of serving as a conveyer-belt to violent terrorism.

On immigration and population, the campaign was marked by somewhat sceptical negative calls from both sides for merely a “sustainable Australia.” Yet, immigration is the way to an even more productive and qualitatively enhanced Australia, and it is to be hoped that the new government will revert to the more confident, long-held bipartisan view that immigration is a positive for Australia, while ensuring the integrity, control and cohesion of the policy is maintained.

Australian Multiculturalism has been the policy successive federal and state Australian governments have pursued – for well over 30 years – to both embrace diverse cultures, and encourage them to respect and comply with Australian laws and core values. It is the key to both discouraging terrorist extremists, and successfully integrating immigrants and ethnic communities. While both sides of politics support the concept in principle, it needs to be a assume more salience for creative policymaking.

Education and schools policy is essential not only to the future success and productivity of the nation, but also to Australian Multiculturalism, with various ethnic and religious communities, including the Jewish community, maintaining schools which allow them to strengthen their identity while integrating into the wider Australian social mosaic. Clearly, the Greens factor will strain bipartisan commitment to funding arrangements that ensure both the public and private sectors remain both viable and vibrant – perhaps more of a problem for a Labor government if it emerges.

Meanwhile, as we go to print, it looks like direct Israeli-Palestinian talks will finally resume for the first time in almost two years in September. While this is very welcome, actual progress towards peace deserves above all sober realism about what is currently achievable – with Hamas still rejectionist and still controlling Gaza, and Palestinian Authority President Abbas so weak or reluctant that he refused to even talk up until this point, and is being dragged to the table.

While its role is not central, we expect any Australian government to continue to offer all possible support toward peace progress which would benefit all actors of goodwill concerned about the Middle East, including Australia. One thing it should do is to attempt to mitigate the often destructive role of UN bodies for peacemaking. For example, Australia’s voting position on the Middle East at the UN should be very simple – opposing any and all General Assembly resolutions that don’t contribute to Israeli-Palestinian peace.

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