US-style politics Down Under

Candidates for prime minister in Saturday's election were influenced by operatives trained in the US.

The Americanization of Saturday's Australian general election became evident when journalists began asking each other if the Labor Party's Mark Latham was looking "presidential" yet.

They were only half joking. It's no longer good enough for an aspiring prime minister to be just the leader of a bunch of parliamentarians. He has to stand head and shoulders above every one else - in other words, be more like the president of the United States.

A general globalization of politics coincides with the increased use of US political consultants by Western democracies in the past 20 years.

Denver-based consultant Rick Ridder, a former president of the International Association of Political Consultants, who also advised the Clinton campaign and the Labor Party in Australia in the late 1990s, says the use of foreign consultants has led to a certain "homogenizing" of campaigns.

"It's no longer just taking American techniques across borders, but the Brits, the Swedes, as well as others are also taking their expertise to other countries to further internationalize this business," says Mr. Ridder, who has worked with political parties in 17 countries.

But there is no question, he adds, that Australians look more to the US for help in running campaigns than they do to any other country. Campaign operatives from across the spectrum of Australian politics head to Washington every year to learn how to manage budgets, articulate messages, and develop poll-driven communication strategies.

Even Prime Minister John Howard, who is seeking reelection as head of the conservative Liberal Party, has sent his son to work on the Bush campaign in the hopes of picking up trade secrets. The two main parties here have also imported American consultants to advise on everything from developing public policy to fundraising.

With the rapid development of broadcast journalism in the 1980s and 1990s, the need for a quicker and effective way to reach the people made Australian politicians turn to the US. "The United States is a natural choice because [its politicos] have expertise in elections and broadcasting," says Ridder.

In fact, it's the Labor Party in Australia that has been most adept at incorporating US campaign techniques like the use of direct mail, albeit on a much smaller scale.

"I once collected a whole box load of mail asking me for money, votes, what have you, while I was living in Wisconsin, but here, even though it's only a couple of days to the election, I have only collected a handful of this sort of nuisance mail - and most of the stuff here is hand delivered by actual people," says Ben Kerkvliet, a former American academic who now teaches at the Australian National University.

Indeed, slick campaigning here can rub people the wrong way. The latest example of this is a prerecorded phone solicitation from the prime minister. Australians have a distaste for being "dragooned" into doing something and are known to have a strong streak of "larrikanism" (a tendency to reject authority), which makes them difficult to mold, says John Uhr, politics professor at the Australian National University.

Public funding also limits big-budget American tactics. Because parties rely on public funding to recover their advertising cost, much less is spent. In Australia during the 2001 elections the advertising expenses totaled $5.7 million for the Liberal Party and $6.5 million for Labor. In contrast, spending on political ads during the 2000 US presidential campaign was estimated at between $606 million and $771 million.

The parliamentary system also necessitates a different kind of sensitivity toward the electorate because party members need to stay in tune with local needs. But Sue and Ron Clark, who immigrated from England more than 30 years ago and now live in a village two hours south of Sydney, say they no longer know who their local members are. "It used to be very community oriented even 10 years ago - we discussed local issues like traffic lights, schools, and the dangerous spread of McMansions," says Sue Clark.

While this might not matter in areas where politicians are sure of their base of appeal in a country where voting is compulsory, it does matter in marginal seats that make or break the election.

And it's not just the medium but also the message by the current Australian leader that has strong American overtones. Howard has been one of the staunchest supporters of the war in Iraq in the face of domestic opposition.

His interventionist policies in East Timor and the Solomon Islands earned him domestic and international praise. Howard has not ruled out using the Bush policy of preemption in the region, even at the risk of alienating leaders in Southeast Asia.

Analysts say the 25th prime minister of Australia has, in the last eight years, relished his "tough" moments, which gave him a statesmanlike, and dare one say, presidential image.

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