Dr Daniel Woker is the former Swiss Ambassador to Australia and now a Senior Lecturer at the University of St Gallen.
'Die Wahl zwischen Dr Death und Dr No' ('The choice between Dr Death [Kevin Rudd] and Dr No [Tony Abbott]') was the headline of an article in a Swiss newspaper.
It is a short-hand version of how the Australian election was seen here in Europe. Both before and after 7 September, the reporting, with few exceptions, was either superficial or short or both. This reflects the fact that political Australia, in contrast to Down Under as a dream destination for tourists and immigrants, remains largely unknown and thus under-reported in continental Europe.
Germany's leading serious daily, Frankfurter Allgemeine, reported well and in depth through its Singapore-based correspondent. The print edition of Le Monde, contrary to its name, didn't cover the election at all, just like its cousin on the right side of the French political spectrum, Le Figaro (both did carry short items in their online editions which are pure news compilations without comment or analysis). The Sydney correspondent of Switzerland's leading daily, Neue Zürcher Zeitung, might well be the only on-shore media representative reporting on Australian politics on a day-to-day basis for a continental European audience.
Other than the lack of real knowledge about Australia, the second reason for the dearth of election coverage was puzzlement. Why would a country want to change a winning team responsible for an excellent economic performance as reflected in the OECD statistics?
Interestingly enough, a similar question has hung over a European national election in recent times. The electorate in Norway has just turned out of office its successful socialist government. Very far apart, the two countries share some common features. Both have sailed through the world economic crisis relatively unscathed thanks to their immense treasure trove of natural resources, apparently leaving somewhat bored and restless voters in the wake.
Thus in both cases the main point was what Tony Abbott called a change of management in the national store. The political optimist might conclude that all's well as every democracy needs change occasionally to stay vibrant. The political pessimist however will see a dangerous slide into politics as infotainment with regular cast changes necessary to hold the public's attention in increasingly rich and thus politically lethargic countries.
The obligation to vote in Australia was commented on with surprise, as voting in most European countries is not compulsory. And in London's Financial Times as well as some European outlets, commentators also argued that Labor basically defeated itself through fratricide (or would the word be 'sororicide' in this instance?) and corruption in its ranks.
Another repeated comment highlighted the importance of Rupert Murdoch in the defeat of Labor and Kevin Rudd. This outsized role of just one person with deeply conservative and often divisive opinions in the print and audiovisual media of a country has one European equivalent: Italy's finally tottering demon Silvio Berlusconi.
Not even the FT, let alone other European media or voices, touched on the real challenge laying ahead for the Abbott Government, indeed any Australian government at present: how and where to place Australia on the geopolitical chessboard in the Asia Pacific. The furthest anybody ventured were blunt election comments indicating that Abbott was facing a far bumpier road ahead in big power politics than during his smooth run to power as attack dog of the Opposition. His traditional affinity for the US will have to be carefully balanced against the necessity for good neighbourly relations and against economic constraints within Australia's region.
As a sympathetic and somewhat seasoned Australia watcher, I might be permitted a concluding personal remark in the light of the just reported lack of mutual political understanding between Europe and Australia. Even though Australians have just voted out their former 'Diplomat Number 1', the necessity of a powerful Australian voice and brand abroad will not go away, both for the country itself but also the region. As an important Asia Pacific member of the G20, Australia should continue as a voice of reason to further the building of durable structures in a region still dangerously devoid of means for conflict resolution. With the glory of economic ascent comes the burden of increased responsibility for the functioning of the system.
Photo by Flickr user dibaer.