US presidential elections: the view from Australia

Barack Obama is running for his second and final term as US President - but what do Australian experts make of his presidency so far and the election to come? EPA/Jason Reed

Ahead of the US presidential election in November, five prominent Australian thinkers give us their view on what they would like to come out of the contest.

Joshua Gans, Professor of Strategic Management, University of Toronto

The Republican National Convention has just been held. What is incredible is that for a party that extols the benefits of wealth and the desire for it, so many of the speakers came from extreme poverty. You might think that familial wealth is not in fact a driver of success, even for people who would stake their political future on protecting other families’ financial assets.

But many were also the offspring of immigrants. If you ignored their policies, you might think that the GOP is a party for immigration. Again and again, they noted those who took the challenge to move to the US in search of a better life and greater freedom. To be sure, free movement of people is a cornerstone of libertarian, free market ideals and until recently had been championed more by the right than the left. Indeed, our most reliable means of transitioning people from poverty is to allow them to move.

Despite this, the Democrat-sponsored DREAM Act lies as unpassed legislation. The DREAM Act would provide a path to citizenship for millions of children of illegal immigrants for those who migrated as children themselves such as Pulitzer prize winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas. It would unlock a city-sized population from regulation that keeps them from social and economic mobility. What policy do I hope to see enacted? The DREAM Act.

At the Republican convention, Mario Rubio, a senator from Florida, introduced the presidential nominee. His family background was not just poverty but also illegal immigration. But whereas for so many Republicans being just a generation removed from immigration (Mitt Romney, for example), Rubio sees it differently. Unlike his colleagues, he supports moves towards immigration reform to allow children to undertake higher education and to be rewarded for military service. It is not support for the DREAM Act, but it is a glimmer of hope.

Cheryl Kernot, Director of Social Business, Centre for Social Impact, University of New South Wales

I hope to see a fine weather day so that there will be a good turnout for non-compulsory voting! That constitutes a de facto mandate.

I hope to see Barack Obama resist the trend to go nastily personal in attack ads and still be re-elected to use the authority of a second and final term. I want to see the Democrats win the house as well to enable President Obama to pursue a proactive policy agenda such as action on global warming befitting one of the world’s largest polluters with the capacity to have a huge positive influence on the global debate, and to enact serious banking reform in his second term. I particularly hope he’ll be able to implement the immensely creative JOBS Act that will make it easier for start-ups to access crowd-funding and reduce their tax burden at the start-up stage.

Most of all I’d like to see democratic reform. An end to the super-PACs, currently receiving seven and eight-figure undisclosed donations and an end to the obscene amount of money spent on the hoopla of elections generally; and an end to the Tea Party infiltration of the GOP resulting in the extremism of opposition to everything a government proposes. Reform too to routinely bringing the basic supply of finances to keep the government running to the brink: tactics that have infected other Western democracies like ours.

And finally, I’d like to see an end to the swooning reverence of many Australian male MPs for a system that is much less democratic than ours.

Peter Doherty, Laureate Professor, University of Melbourne

Though I spend much of my year in Melbourne I’m still, with appropriate levels of “effort”, part of two big US National Institutes of Health (NIH) contracts on influenza virus research and immunity. The US budget process is complex, but NIH funding for the 2013 financial year will likely come out close to the President’s proposal. At least for science, the amounts are massive ($US32 billion, about $100 per citizen) but the level has essentially flat-lined since 2009. In constant dollar terms, in 2013 the amount will be $4 billion less than the 2003 peak. Despite this being a time of enormous opportunity, the pressures on the existing system are enormous and the cracks are widening.

Republican candidates Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney wave to supporters at the party convention last month. EPA/Andrew Gombert

Historically, while there was a doubling through the Clinton years, the Republicans have been strong supporters of biomedical research. They are much less interested in funding welfare, and they see basic science as a strong economic driver. But with the rise of the Tea Party and the focus on cutting public spending, this may not be the same in the future. Though there is no major hostility to this area of science, scientific research is an easy target, and it would be a big surprise if they take on the egregious distortions that come from fossil fuel subsidies, agriculture support systems and all those programs that do so much damage to both the environment and free trade. As it stands, the US academic/research community awaits this election with a sense of immense foreboding.

Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor, School of Science at Griffith University

The forthcoming US election is critical for determining whether the US will join the global community in responding to climate change. While President Obama has not taken a strong lead on the issue, he has had limited capacity to act with the Republican Party controlling Congress. At least Obama has not tried to restrain the states that are taking action, including such major economies as California.

By contrast, the Republican Party as an institution is in denial about the science. All the serious presidential candidates toed that line. The GOP platform actually promises to “take quick action to prohibit the EPA from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations that will harm the nation’s economy and threaten millions of jobs over the next quarter century”.

So a Mitt Romney presidency, especially if supported by a Congressional majority, would probably see a great leap backwards to a 19th century approach of environmental irresponsibility. The Republican platform also includes the remarkable statement: “the most powerful environmental policy is liberty, the central organizing principle of the American Republic and its people”. In other words, their environmental policy is to have no policy, allowing corporations free rein to pollute. This would seriously harm global efforts to slow climate change.

Gustav Nossal, Professor Emeritus, Walter and Eliza Hall Institute

By far the most important policy decision after the election will be that which addresses the mammoth deficit. Unpopular though it is to say it, this MUST mean raising taxes, where of course I would like to see more of the burden on the rich (a la Warren Buffett) and less on the poor. The situation is so dire that it will have to be accompanied by spending restraint and, sad to say, that will probably mean attacking sacrosanct entitlements. In those, I believe there is room to reduce some middle-class welfare.

Secondly, I would like to see more emphasis on the official development assistance, or aid. The US currently stands at 0.2% of gross national income going to aid, one of the lowest percentages in the OECD. I admire their contribution to some of the multilateral programmes such as PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) but here more money is required.

Currently there are 34 million people living with HIV; 15 million of these have reached the degree of impairment of immunity to require anti-retroviral therapy: but with PEPFAR and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria combined, we are managing to reach only eight million of these. Another urgent area needing attention is multidrug resistant and extreme drug resistant tuberculosis.