The American election: a view from Down Under

As a somewhat reluctant member of the American orbit in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia carefully watches the election – amused but slightly worried by its "cranks and crazies" (as the Australian treasurer recently called the Tea Party).

The showbiz sizzle of American politics has always looked a little overdone for Australian tastes – politicians invoking God’s blessings here, wrapping themselves in the star–spangled banner there, and generally preaching American ‘exceptionalism’ are usually observed with a mixture of amusement and discomfiture. Yet as President Obama is judged for his first term’s achievements, or lack thereof, the deeper divergence in history, values and foundation myths is evident.

The most puzzling flashpoints of the contemporary American political dynamic for Australian onlookers are instances where the practical benefits of reform collide with abstract principles of liberty. Of course, both are ‘new world’ nations settled by fringe–elements of Old England, but where Australia was a creative solution to a prison accommodation crisis, America was, for the Puritans, a political experiment from the off. This fierce political identity, with individual liberty as its centerpiece, is alien to the Australian psyche which has no revolution, civil war or even civil rights movement to call upon. Thus, the concept of a ‘freedom to be uninsured’, implicit in Republican opposition to Obamacare, is not widely understood in Australia where bipartisan support exists for a medical safety net. The sacrosanct status of the right to bear arms is another feature of the American political reality frequently subjected to satire or ridicule.

As for the Australian national interest, the consensus is that the alliance will roll on regardless of which combination of leaders are shaking hands and smiling for the cameras. Even so, America is at least one half of the equation in two geopolitical tests for Australia: a suppression of economic demand spreading from America to China and Japan, and a looming confrontation between the world’s superpower and its heir apparent.

If the Republican party starts believing its own hype and heaves the USA over the ‘fiscal cliff’, the resultant worldwide downturn would likely plunge the Australian economy into a belated recession. This year, in an unprecedented (and scripted) outburst, the Australian Treasurer decried the “cranks and crazies” of the Tea Party as the greatest threat to the American (and world) economy. As the Prime Minister said in support of her deputy, “what happens in the US economy matters to the world economy and it matters to us”. Most Australian commentators prefer Obama as a safe, if not necessarily inspired, set of hands at the wheel of the lurching American economy. Certainly, his approach to cutting the deficit is a more familiar solution than the ‘trickle–down’ tax cuts proposed by Governor Romney. 

In foreign policy, the Obama Administration has demonstrated increasing awareness of the Asia–Pacific region, with Hilary Clinton attending the ever–colourful Pacific Islands Forum on the microscopic Cook Islands to declare the opening of the “Pacific century”. This is a subtle variation in terminology from the Australian Government’s rather more specifically termed ‘Asian Century’ White Paper, released last week, but it does at least indicate a renewed interest in the region, whatever the nomenclature. Romney’s campaign has largely ignored the Asia–Pacific, instead dwelling hawkishly on the Middle East. He has, however insisted that he would declare China a ‘currency manipulator’ on his first morning in the Oval Office, a provocative move which would leave the Australian diplomatic corps fidgeting nervously and the many resources companies trading almost exclusively with China counting their yuans. Australian foreign policy in recent decades has managed to combine clutching at American military synchronisation and security alliances with clinging on to profit from the rapid rise of the Chinese economy. As Hugh White makes clear in ‘The China Choice’, an increase in Sino–American tension could tie these competing interests in knots. Ultimately, Australia wants to see America back on its feet and punching its weight again – just so long as they aren’t aiming any jabs at our Chinese customers.

This article is part of the 'How it looks from here' openDemocracy feature on the 2012 US elections. For more worldwide perspectives on the presidential race, click here.

About the author

Liam O'Brien is currently studying law and arts at Monash University, Melbourne.