FEDERAL ELECTION 2: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Howard's opportunity, Labor's challenge
, October 23, 2004
The Coalition's election victory and the prospect of a majority in the Senate is a triumph for John Howard, and a disaster for Mark Latham whose political ambitions have been perhaps irreparably damaged.
While Labor leaders, on election night, were unanimous in praise of Mr Latham, in the cold light of day, Michael Costello, the one-time chief-of-staff to former Labor leader Kim Beazley, conceded that Latham had failed.
He told ABC's Radio National
, that Labor's campaign was "a complete train wreck" and added, "Its Medicare Gold was a strategic disaster. Its last week was the campaign from hell. There was hardly a mistake they didn't make."
The election also marked the effective end of the power of the Democrats, who lost three Senate seats, and was a serious setback for the Greens, who fell far short of their target of a million votes and their ambition to become the kingmakers of federal politics.
The size of the Government's victory was quite unexpected, and the result was a patchwork quilt of swings influenced by both national and local issues.Manager
Overall, the campaign line by the Liberals that Howard was an effective economic manager, but Latham could not be trusted, seemed to swing voters late in the campaign.
At a time of high mortgages, there was real concern that higher interest rates would create great hardship for families. On economic issues, Latham failed to challenge the Coalition's record or articulate an alternative program.
John Howard's nationally televised meeting with timber workers in Tasmania, at which he said he would save their jobs, had a dramatic effect in the last days of the campaign.
It showed that Howard would protect jobs of blue-collar workers, while Latham would trade workers' jobs for the Greens' preferences.
The ALP's loss of seats in Tasmania was directly a result of its deal with the Greens. Greens were unable to deliver any significant number of seats to Labor. Effectively, the ALP legitimised the Greens, but the Greens discredited Labor.
Despite its renewed mandate, the Government faces some immediate problems. In the months ahead, the Howard Government will have to deal with a more difficult economic situation, caused by rising oil prices and pressure to lift interest rates.
Beyond that, after the new Senate takes office in mid-2005, Mr Howard has the opportunity to advance several causes which have long been part of his political agenda, but have been frustrated in the Senate, including the full sale of Telstra, labour market reform, and cross-media cross-ownership rules, a favourite of the large media interests associated with Kerry Packer, News Ltd and the Fairfax Press.
We can also expect the Federal Government to push ahead with a free trade agreement with China and APEC, following the agreements reached with the US and Thailand.
This represents the continuation of the Government's economic agenda, which also involves replacing awards with individual workplace agreements, reforming unfair dismissal laws for small business, cutting company tax rates from the present 30 per cent towards 20 per cent, and deregulation of the business environment.
All this is designed to keep downward pressure on interest rates by restricting wage increases, and keeping prices down through import competition.
The problem with these policies is that they ignore the fact that Australia's economic growth over the past 15 years has been largely built on foreign debt, and that unrestrained imports of goods and money have caused a dramatic decline in Australia's primary and secondary industries.Decline
The decline of secondary industry can be measured by the fact that Australia's manufacturing sector is now almost the smallest in the developed world. The decline in agriculture has seen a continuing drift to the cities, and the decline in the number of farmers and people living in country towns.
This, in turn, has created a pool of unemployed and underemployed, despite the fall in the official unemployment rate. Many of the unemployed are now hidden in part-time and casual labour, and in the growth of disability beneficiaries, particularly in the over-50s.
Around 300,000 Australian males of working age currently receive disability or sickness benefits. This is about six per cent of the working-age population, compared to less than two per cent in the late 1960s.
In the not-too-distant future, the issues neither side addressed - the foreign debt, unemployment, the future of Australia's primary and secondary industries, and the ageing of the population - will come to a head.
At present, neither side has a solution. The future belongs to whoever can articulate an alternative vision for Australia.
- Peter Westmore is president of the National Civic Council.