American politics has long been mired in the familiar dichotomy between two extremes. The deadlock in Congress is now legendary after the government shutdown, but in pure entertainment value, that was the last time America’s politics was well and truly interesting. Australian politics, on the other hand, is far more fun than American politics ever was, and lately that fact has been ratcheted up to full volume as Parliament takes on movie-like aspects.
For Americans who have never paid much attention to the Land-Down-Under’s political process, a short introduction is necessary to explain just how great it actually is. For starters, Australia has a parliamentary system radically different from America’s democratic one. There are actually more than two parties represented in Parliament. The main two are the Liberal party, also called the Coalition, which is currently in control of the government, and the Labor party. Since the Labor party is the next largest party that isn’t actually controlling the government, they are called the Opposition.
These two parties could be stand-ins for the Republicans and Democrats respectively, despite the word “liberal” in one of their names. Liberal means something very different in Australia, proof that more than just their geography can be considered Down Under. Despite the rather backwards-land air of it all, an American looking at this sunny continent’s politics would easily identify how the parties work against each other, mostly because they’re familiar with how it works in America.
Where things really get interesting is when you look at what happens during a session of Parliament. Members of Parliament are yelling at each other, insulting each other, interrupting each other, and laughing at each other seemingly without stopping. It seems as disorderly a process as any. There are, however, certain rules to this chaos, called standing orders, which are enforced by a supposedly impartial speaker of the house. Unlike John Boehner, who is firmly entrenched in Republican politics, the speaker of the house in Australia is obliged to be as impartial as possible, regardless of any previous or present political affiliation.
The current speaker is Bronwyn Bishop, a formidable Liberal party member with a record of being tough and resilient. She is an imposing woman by all accounts. When the Parliament convened for the first time after the 2013 election, Bishop was elected as speaker. She was tapped by incoming Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who expressed his admiration for her, calling her his ideological co-parent, citing a former Liberal prime minister as the other.
When she was elected, there were questions raised about how impartial she would be in executing her duties. The impartiality of the speaker is crucial to the working of Parliament because on her shoulders depends the orderliness and fair hearing of all sides involved. If the speaker shows bias towards one side or the other, that tips the political scales in favor of that side and ruins the fair and balanced approach to governance that the Outback country has always prized.
To understand completely why Australian politics is more fun than American politics, one need only look at Star Wars Episode One. A diehard Star Wars fan (or just anyone who has watched the movie) will recall that Princess Amidala, future wife of Darth Vader, was going to the Senate in order to plead her case for help. Her people were being overrun and killed and only that illustrious governing body could help them. Through some clever manipulation, however, no help was forthcoming and Princess Amidala was forced to move for a vote of no confidence in the Senate’s Chancellor.
It is a dramatic moment where in near silence the Princess makes her motion, causing an uproar. Everyone watching the movie suddenly leaned forward in their seats, even kids who had no idea what all that politics meant. Somehow, Star Wars made a political process seem really interesting.
Australian politics recently did the same thing. Speaker Bishop, the real-world chancellor in this story, is being accused of bias towards the Liberal party, her chosen affiliate. In all 99 instances where a member of Parliament was kicked out of the room (which happens quite a lot), the member was from the opposing Labor party. Standing-order violations have been racking up quickly under Bishop’s direction and finally it came to the point where the Labor party felt it could no longer function under such bias. A Labor member of Parliament stood up and called for a vote of no confidence in the Madame Speaker.
If Parliament had theme music it would have gone, “dun dun dun” right at that moment. Votes of no confidence are rare in Australian politics, the last one being called by an opposition party in 1949. More than 50 years after that moment, it has happened again. Unlike Star Wars, however, Bishop retained her position as speaker. There will be no dramatic removal, no change in leadership, and no Sith Lord who will eventually create an empire that will rule the galaxy and eventually “strike back.”
As interesting as this all is, it was rather anticlimactic in real world terms. Still, for Australians, it was exceptionally fun to watch. It was also, apparently, very funny. At one point, the Opposition was called out for outright laughing when Prime Minister Tony Abbott was speaking. The rather dry, stilted politician is not known for being a comedian, but something about the irony of his statements created a rash of infectious laughter for the Opposition members.
Bishop, who doesn’t seem all that humorous herself, warned the Opposition about the inappropriateness of their laughter. Admittedly, laughing in a house of government is not really considered okay in any country, even Australia. What was laugh-worthy, however, was the fact that Bishop labeled the outburst as a tactic, as if by laughing the Opposition intended to make some political maneuver. She then called out one particular member, who could not contain her jollity, and was summarily kicked out of the room. A picture taken just as she reached the door to leave shows her with a wide smile on her face, apparently still finding the incident hilarious.
This rather draconian and odd incident is just one of the 99 times Bishop kicked a Labor party member out of the Parliament and, thus, part of the argument for her complete lack of impartiality. It is also an example of why Bishop has been given a nickname that is particularly odious to Harry Potter fans – Dolores Umbridge. Banning laughter? It does seem a bit reminiscent of the pink-clad witch who ruled Hogwarts with an iron fist and made any sort of fun basically illegal on school grounds. Tellingly, Dolores Umbridge is one of the most hated Harry Potter villains, showing just how much Bishop’s bias has affected the country’s politics.
Will Australia get rid of its own odious headmistress? Will she be carried off by a rampaging band of centaurs, causing multitudes to cheer about justice finally being served? If J.K. Rowling were writing the script for real life, maybe that would actually happen. For now, the Labor party’s Star Wars stunt has failed, and this real-world Dolores Umbridge is still in control. Nevertheless, one thing is absolutely certain in all of this. Australian politics, with its movie parallels and cartoonish political villains, is far more fun and interesting than staid, civilized American politics. And, as the kids say these days, it is still a better story than Twilight.
Opinion By Lydia Webb