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Australian Elections a Bore Compared to US

FILE - This combination of file photos from April 15, 2016, and July 8, 2014, shows Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, left, and Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten.
FILE - This combination of file photos from April 15, 2016, and July 8, 2014, shows Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, left, and Australian opposition leader Bill Shorten.

The election campaign underway in Australia is often summed up by the local media with the following words: “A marathon.” “Endless.” “Exhausting.” That endless, exhausting marathon lasts a whopping eight weeks - an eternity for Australians who cannot conceive of the years-long campaigning Americans are subjected to by their presidential candidates.

The length of the campaigns is hardly the only difference between the two countries' electoral processes, which are unfolding simultaneously on opposite sides of the globe to vastly different effect.

While the U.S. campaign could be characterized by its loudness, the Australian campaign could be characterized by its listlessness. There have been no scandals. No major gaffes. No soundbite-friendly fireworks between the leaders of the two major parties. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and opposition leader Bill Shorten don't even differ much when it comes to many of their policies.

Australian independent Sen. Nick Xenophon compared his country's contest to a certain 1990s American sitcom known as a “show about nothing.”

“This is almost a ‘Seinfeld' election - it's an election about not much at all,” Xenophon said with a chuckle during a recent interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “I really think people are disconnected and disenchanted.”

Part of that is almost certainly due to voter fatigue. The July 2 ballot, which pits the conservative government against the center-left Labor Party, caps off one of the most volatile political periods in the nation's history. In Australia, parties can change their leaders under certain conditions - an option exercised with stunning frequency in recent times as internal party squabbling and fears over sagging poll ratings prompted five changes of prime minister in as many years.

“Australia has been through some very tumultuous times politically and I think there's a little bit of exhaustion out there,” says Simon Jackman, CEO of the U.S. Studies Center at the University of Sydney.

The length of the campaign, which is indeed the longest Australia has seen in decades, is another factor. Generally campaigns in Australia run for about a month. While the public was probably less inclined to pay attention at the outset, the intensity and interest is likely to pick up now that the race has entered its second half, Jackman says.

But even if the intensity picks up Down Under, it will never match the all-encompassing election fever in America, where the candidates' personalities - particularly Donald Trump's - have dominated the national conversation.

In Australia, personality has had little to do with the campaign; The Sydney Morning Herald dubbed the race “a contest between a faceless man and a shapeless man,” describing Shorten (the faceless man) as a charisma-deficient leader who is relying on voters to look at his ideas rather than him. Turnbull, the paper opined, has abandoned many of the relatively progressive views that made him stand out amid his conservative colleagues, losing his political identity and becoming shapeless.

The comparably greater emphasis on personality in American elections can be chalked up to the country's love affair with showmanship, coupled with a massive media market that dwarfs Australia's, says Andy Ruddock, senior lecturer of media studies at Australia's Monash University.

In America, party nominees are crowned amid a shower of confetti and screaming delegates at celebrity-studded conventions that are broadcast live on TV. In Australia, the major parties vote for their leaders in ballots that take place behind closed doors.

“There's kind of a spectacular political culture that's very much about putting on a bit of a show,” Ruddock says of the U.S.

That doesn't mean Australia lacks charismatic or outlandish politicians, Ruddock says. It's just that those politicians don't have access to the same volume and variety of media outlets as their American counterparts. Think Trump and Hillary Clinton's recent appearances on “Saturday Night Live.” Or then-presidential candidate Barack Obama reading the Top 10 list on the “Late Show with David Letterman” in 2008. Or then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton playing the saxophone on Arsenio Hall's show in 1992.

“I think what you've kind of got is an incredibly sophisticated media ecology where politicians have all kinds of outlets for their political messages that cross the gamut from conventional political news to entertainment,” Ruddock says. “And we haven't got quite that far in Australia.”

Australia's major parties also lack the sharp ideological divide that has emerged between the Democrats and Republicans - a divide that has both energized and infuriated American voters. On many issues, from asylum-seekers to universal health care, both Australia's Liberal and Labor parties are largely aligned.

“Conservatives around the English-speaking world look different from their American conservative cousins; they are not at war with the institutions of the state in a way that their American conservative cousins are almost as an article of faith,” Jackman says. “If you were to plunk yourself down in another English-speaking country... the people that call themselves conservatives there, at least on average, look way more moderate than a randomly drawn conservative in the United States.”

Australia's somewhat unique policy of mandatory voting also contributes to the country's comparatively reserved campaigns. In the U.S., candidates have to find a way to rally their base to the polls. In Australia, everyone is required to vote, meaning that turnout will be roughly uniform across demographics and political alignments.

“It really emphasizes the importance of the center,” Jackman says. “It means political competition is decided, elections are decided, at the center - not by who can mobilize their base better than the other side.”

Not that Australians necessarily dislike the dullness. As Australian journalist Richard Glover wrote in a recent column for The Sydney Morning Herald, boring beats the alternative. America's election is more exciting, he noted, but it also features candidates with radical and divisive proposals. Britain's upcoming vote on whether to leave the European Union is also more exciting, but it has the potential for serious consequences.

“And so we are back with our boring campaign. Two decent people - Turnbull and Shorten.... Both dedicated to winning the middle ground; to finding policies that most of us can live with,” he wrote. “I don't like everything they stand for; you don't like everything they stand for. But it's not a winner-takes-all contest. Australia will still be there, enjoying the things we've enjoyed under both sides of politics: 25 years of continuous economic growth, a mostly achieved balance between freedom and fairness, the rule of law, multiculturalism, a fondness for each other.

“Boring? Yes. Lucky, aren't we?”