Jim O’Neill sends a missive from the southern hemisphere, highlighting sharp differences in how politics is conducted firth of Scotland.


Spending a month in Australia, and being a political animal, political discourse in the Commonwealth never ceases to amaze me.

The Commonwealth of Australia consists of 6 states and two territories, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory. They are reflected on the Aussie flag by 6 large stars and 2 small ones. The country is federal with the powers remaining with the states, some of which they cede to the federal government. Below state level there are local councils. The states have powers over the councils that the centralising SNP government would die for.

For instance, after a number of scandals in four councils, the Queensland government took powers to suspend any councillor charged with serious offences, which led to the suspension of four mayors and one councillor, causing a level of chaos in those councils. Unfortunately the Labor state government sent out the press release before the Governor had signed the legislation. Taking lessons from us, perhaps.

The error was quickly resolved, but not before the opposition Liberal/National Coalition leader claimed that this was an example of how Labor was failing to run the state effectively.

This robust exchange is only a small example of the interchanges between, for instance, the Liberal/National Coalition Premier, Malcolm Turnbull, and the Labor opposition leader, Bill Shorten. Parliamentary questions happen every day the House of Representatives sits, and any Minister, including the Premier, can be questioned. The two main groups, the Coalition and Labor, heavily whip the questions, so that each questioner asks a question which is very related to the issue of the day.

For instance, questions are currently focusing on the budget which happened two weeks ago. Coalition questioners have been asking questions, oddly similar ones every day, all of which end with “and do you know of any other approaches”. This allows Premier Turnbull to spend a little time name-checking the area represented by the MP and then attacking Labor’s response to the budget. There seems to be no such thing as unparliamentary language, as I counted five occasions in one answer in which he referred to the Labor approach as lying, or to Bill Shorten as a liar.

Labor, for their part, regularly refer to the Premier as “incompetent”, “useless” or “stubborn” at the start of their questions, which created a manufactured complaint from the Leader of the House. This was rejected by the Speaker on the grounds that the Premier often used personal insults in his response.

Mind you if you think this is bad you should hear Turnbull and Shorten doing press conferences on the road. These stump speeches don’t so much emphasise their own policies and the other Party’s faults as batter the issues to death.

All that said, the federal system seems to work very well. The states have enormous power and emphasise their independence from each other and from the Canberra government. For instance, if a criminal is caught in another state, they have to be extradited back to the state where the crime was committed. There is no NHS, with people having health insurance, although there is a Medicare system for the poor and for certain procedures.

All in all this is a very different political environment from what we are used to in Scotland, although it is a great example of a federal system. As Scottish Labour promotes the idea of a federal UK, and moves towards convincing the UK party, Australia shows that it can work.