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SPOTLIGHT
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The lands of Oz are worlds apart

Published on -10/6/2013, 7:20 PM

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A month ago, voters in Australia, that other Oz, 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 scarcely was surprised by the results. After all, the Australian Labor Party had 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 the stakes of the campaign were so low. Oh, there were some divisive issues, including asylum for refugees and taxes for mining interests, along with a proposed repeal of a poorly designed carbon tax and marginal differences over subsidies for Australia's dying domestic auto industry.

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

Indeed, when we actually think of Australians, which is not often, we see them as a nation of Crocodile Dundees: irrepressible, irreverent and independent.

There's something to that, but just a bit. Rather, 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 Aussies adopted a comprehensive public/private system of health care (eventually labeled Medicare), funded largely by general revenues, which 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, well over twice that of the U.S. Economic doomsters here would argue such a rate is unsustainable and 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 exists in the United States.

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 firearms death rate that is a 10th that of the United States.

To be sure, with 23 million people and a relatively homogeneous population, Australians might be able to address contentious policies in a more civil manner than we can in the U.S. The down-under Oz also demonstrates alternate polices can be enacted, with none of the alleged disastrous effects that are claimed here. Universal health care works; a very high minimum wage does not short-circuit the economy; and serious gun control can be enacted because overall public safety was balanced against individual rights.

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 social agreements remain a solid core of the day-to-day Australian existence.

We should be so lucky.

Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas, recently returned from five months as the Australian-American Distinguished Chair in American Politics at Flinders University, in Adelaide, Australia.

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