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Burdett Loomis: U.S. could learn from Australia

  • Published Sunday, Oct. 6, 2013, at 12 a.m.

A month ago, voters in Australia overwhelmingly elected a conservative government, the Coalition of Liberal (trust me) and National parties. Within a week, the defeated Labor Party had handed over the reins of government, regrouping to fight another day.

After spending five months watching the Australian election from my Fulbright perch at Adelaide’s Flinders University, I was scarcely surprised by the results; the Australian Labor Party has been tearing itself apart for years, and the Coalition’s Tony Abbott ran a tight, safe campaign for prime minister.

Most remarkable to me, as an American, was that the stakes of the campaign were so low. Oh, there were some divisive issues, such as asylum for refugees and mining taxes, along with a proposed repeal of a poorly designed carbon tax.

Still, the issues were modest, and subsequent changes will be scarcely noticed by average Aussies, whose distaste for politics rivals that of most Americans.

But what sets Aussies apart is their overall consensus on many major issues that continue to bedevil Americans.

Let’s take just three: health care, the minimum wage and gun control.

Americans cannot have a coherent discussion about health care, as many pundits and partisans demonize a system that isn’t even in place. We putter along with a minimum wage ($7.25) that condemns to poverty those workers who receive it. And we continue to put up with 31,000 gun fatalities a year, the highest total of any nation not at war.

What has Australia done on these explosive issues? First, on health care, in the 1970s and 1980s those independent-minded Aussies adopted a comprehensive public-private system of health care (eventually labeled Medicare), funded largely by general revenues, that has become an important part of the country’s social fabric.

As for the minimum wage, Australia boasts the world’s highest, at a remarkable $16.88 per hour, more than twice that of the United States. Economic doomsters here would argue that such a rate is unsustainable and that small businesses would close in droves. Yet Australia was the only major industrialized country to come through the recent worldwide downturn without falling into recession.

Aussie workers at McDonald’s and coffee shops earn a living wage, and their purchasing power helps keep the Australian economy in gear. Are prices higher there? A bit. But Australians widely support this policy, which produces far more economic equality than the U.S. enjoys.

Finally, guns. In 1996, 35 people were killed in the Port Arthur massacre, and the conservative Coalition government enacted substantial controls on owning firearms, especially handguns. Although overall gun-related deaths have not changed since then, there have been no significant large-scale incidents. Gun control remains an issue for some Australians, but the public consensus has favored the policy, which produces a firearms death rate that is one-tenth of the rate in the United States.

So, a month ago the conservative opposition battled it out with the Labor government and won control of the government. Power shifted, yet these basic societal agreements constitute a solid core of the day-to-day Australian existence.

We should be so lucky.

Burdett Loomis is a political science professor at the University of Kansas.

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