September 11th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Battle lines drawn for October 9 Federal poll

EDITORIAL: Issues for the Federal Election

FAMILY: Better deal demanded for families

NOT SO DRY CONTINENT: Australia has water options

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Taiwan faces continuing threats from Beijing

POPULATION: Falling birth-rates stir action in Taiwan, Singapore

INDIA: The economic test for India's new government

PEACE-KEEPING: Sudan and the progressive mind

OPINION: The case for new states in Australia

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Howard versus New Class Labor / Tap Tap. Who's there?

CINEMA: Bus 174 - A jolting, two-hour masterpiece

CLIMATE: Global warming - the sceptics have won

DEMOCRACY: Lay your hammer down

Labor's foot-soldiers (letter)

Mondragon: a rejoinder (letter)

The West and Islam (letter)

BOOKS: The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French defeat in Vietnam

BOOKS: 7 Myths of Working Mothers, by Suzanne Venker

Books promotion page

Battle lines drawn for October 9 Federal poll

by Peter Westmore

News Weekly, September 11, 2004
The battle lines have finally been drawn in what is shaping up as one of the closest elections in recent memory, with interest rates, trustworthiness and government services to be the dominant election deciders.

John Howard has gone to the polls in full knowledge he may well no longer be Prime Minister after October 9, but quietly has banked on Australia's love affair with property to get him over the line.

Polls show Labor with either a narrow lead or with a sufficiently high vote to win with Green preferences.

It will be up to Mr Howard to take the election from a revitalised Labor Party headed by Mark Latham, who has done a remarkable job in injecting discipline and enthusiasm back into his team in less than eight months.


But Mr Howard is banking on his own 30 years of political experience and his intimate knowledge of 11 federal election campaigns to be sufficiently convinced that the Australian people will not take the risk on Labor with a new 43-year-old untried leader at the helm.

It is almost, but not quite, as big as the risk Mr Howard took in 1998 when he became the only political leader in the Western world to win an election after introducing a new tax.

And, in an even bolder move, Mr Howard is also prepared to campaign on the one issue that has dogged him in recent months - his own trustworthiness. Mr Howard said the coming election would be about which party could be trusted to run the country, to defend the country and to make the tough decisions.

Despite his credibility being exposed over the decision to go to war against Iraq and the children overboard affair, the Prime Minister believes the people will still trust him and his Government against the Labor Party, which has at best a spotty record on economic management.

It appears Mr Latham will run Labor's campaign on more close-to-home issues which the party thinks have greater impact on people's lives: Medicare, dental services, school funding, childcare services and the like.

The ALP leader also says Labor will endeavour to run a positive campaign - except to focus on the Prime Minister's perceived lack of honesty and candour about his own future.

But the Coalition already has the more potent campaign theme - the spectre of rising interest rates under Labor.

The Coalition cannot guarantee that interest rates will not rise if it gains another term because interest rates are heading upward around the world.

But Mr Howard has already cleverly argued that, even in such a climate, interest rates would not rise as much under the Coalition as they would under Labor.

And he has backed his claim with historic evidence that interest rates have always risen more under Labor governments.

Mr Latham has pledged to be a responsible economic manager and to keep the Budget in surplus, but has also been reluctant to release his policies for full scrutiny.

Of course, the PM neglected to point out that the reason interest rates are so important to Australian households is because of the extraordinary debt binge which has occurred under his Government and which has been fuelled by his own policies, such as the first home-owner grants, generous tax treatment for negatively geared properties and tax-free capital gains on the family home.

Economy vulnerable

Australians are indeed extremely vulnerable to any rises in interest rates and even a small rise could inflict untold damage on the economy.

Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Australians on modest incomes and little financial knowledge have become mini property speculators over recent years.

While Liberal MPs argue this property bonanza has helped transform the nation into home-owning capitalists, the inevitable correction of this boom will create considerable grief.

Not too long ago hundreds of Australian farmers were roped into what appeared to be safe and inexpensive foreign exchange loans, but when the market turned they fell heavily into debt causing enormous distress.

That scenario could be on a much larger scale were the property market to collapse amid rising interest rates and unemployment.

The question will be: which party will be in power to pick up the pieces?

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