What can Australians learn from the German elections?

Tom Joyner thinks Australia should take some cues from European politics

After the tumultuous political jamboree of recent months in which we’ve seen Clive Palmer announce plans to build the Titanic II, the Rudd government turn ‘fuck off, we’re full’ from a bumper sticker into a nightmarish reality, and the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party likely to find representation in the Senate, it’s easy to be disillusioned by the wearisome circle-jerk of Australian politics. Among international coverage, German weekly Der Spiegel and broadsheet Die Welt in particular have oddly designated PM-elect Tony Abbott the fond moniker Verrückte Mönch – the “Mad Monk” – possibly a nod to Russian mystic Grigori Rasputin, but more probably a dig at Abbott’s brief stint at a Sydney seminary in the 1980s (the ‘mad’ part is yet to be seen). Germans themselves will go to the polls for their own federal elections to be held on September 22nd.

Why do the German elections matter?

Not only do they offer a model of democratic and electoral process for Australians, they also have major implications for the future of the European Union at large. Where Euroscepticism hangs like a black cloud over the popular British outlook (and Scottish independence too rests precariously on a September 2014 referendum date), German chancellor Angela Merkel’s staunch commitment to European cooperation and prudential economic policy has pushed conservative coalitions like her own CDU/CSU (the “Union”) to the top of the polls (where she has stayed for some time). And yet she doesn’t seem to be campaigning – at least not the way we know it in Australia.

While we’re used to the awkward baby-kissing and red-faced ‘selfies’ of our own political campaigns, Germans are inhabiting very different territory in the leadup to this weekend. Der Spiegel recently characterized Merkel’s campaign by the chancellor’s ‘smugness’, and her refusal to tackle major issues. Perhaps indicative of her all-around disinterest on the campaign trail, a televised debate between Merkel and Steinbrück (the only one planned between the two heads of party) was ultimately scrutinized more for Merkel’s choice of necklace than its political implications.

The same certainly couldn’t be said of Australia. On the surface, populism and a drift towards closing the ‘centre-gap’ has brought reactionary politics and turgid public debate to the fore. This, among other things, has been largely absent from the German campaign. On a basic level, this could be due to two things. First, a far stronger inclination towards coalition-building across a German political landscape essentially in continuous realignment. Take for example Merkel’s CDU. While likely to win a number of seats, it’s success hinges on that of the Union’s junior coalition partner, the centre-right FDP. If they can’t secure a 5% threshold of the popular vote, they risk dropping out, leaving Merkel’s party in the difficult position of minority government. Merkel is left to court the possibility of recruiting other, more minor parties to the Union should this happen. What would happen if we saw this in Australia? Almost certainly we’d see a more balanced ballot card, perhaps even a more moderate Labor/Greens coalition emerge. A second factor is compulsory voting (unlike the German system) between what has largely been in essence two major parties.

What viable platform are German politicians then left with to win a majority? Merkel in particular, who is a strong contender to continue her eight-year career as head of federal government, has avoided any unwanted attention on her own campaign. She’s not interested in swing because she needn’t be, she just needs to keep what votes she already has to maintain a steady majority – something called ‘asymmetric demobilization’ – keeping opponent, leftist SDP leader Peer Steinbrück, from rallying new voters to the polls is expedited by a dull and uneventful campaign in the first instance. It seems like a rort of their democratic system, but it’s a powerful and evidently effective strategy that has allowed figures from both sides of the fence to stand their ground, without the need for the frustrating to-and-fro of retaliative policy (read: Operation Sovereign Borders) and chest-plumping that so torturously coloured the Australian election campaign.

German politicians though face a significant problem in the country’s largest and most fickle political demographic – non-voters. A target of Steinbrück’s campaigning, they exist across all age groups, but find greatest representation in the elderly. This poses a significant challenge to Steinbrück, as he must mobilize the least politically active to gain any kind of foothold against the Union, leaving Merkel to focus on the signature of her chancellery – Euro policy. This is a challenge yet unseen in Australian politics, where an ageing population is increasingly compounds demands on health and aged-care infrastructure with a simultaneous reduction in tax revenue.

But what about the electoral system itself? Crikey on Monday last week speculated about the composition of the Australian House of Representatives based on last weekend’s election results, had we the same electoral system as Germany – the numbers were interesting to say the least. By German rules, the Coalition would have 73 seats, Labor 54, Greens 17, and Palmer United Party a whopping nine. These figures, we are reminded, are based on no change to the major parties’ campaign structure or existing support-base nationally, and might arguably reflect a better representation of Australian diversity and interests, essentially mitigating a significant tension in our democratic system – that government should be directly formed from a majority of popularly elected single-member constituencies.

For a nation whose leader has been voted second in the Forbes list of the world’s most powerful people, whose national press demonstrates a greater diversity and plurality of political views, whose republicanism has long spurred a strong and independent national character, whose leadership has proven pivotal in the decision-making of the EU, and whose electoral system would seem a robust model for the world to follow, does the German model offer something for Australia to aspire to? We are left with the next three years of our Abbott-led government and Merkel’s looming re-election to decide.