EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Howard and Rudd - the Coke vs. Pepsi election?
, November 10, 2007
Kevin Rudd has tried to convince the electorate of his credibility by adopting the policies of the Howard Government. But will his tactic work?In the history of Australian election campaigns, I can think of no occasion when the Opposition tried to convince the electorate of its credibility by adopting the policies of the Government. In the course of the present election campaign, it has been done repeatedly.
Perhaps, with only a little exaggeration, one observer wrote, "In a matter of weeks, Australian voters will face the ultimate Coke versus Pepsi challenge. In this challenge, the similarities are baffling and the stakes nail-bitingly high. They look the same, taste the same and have fundamentally similar economic policies."
There are differences between the Coalition and Labor, notably on the Iraq war, nuclear power and WorkChoices. But even here the differences are not as great as they might at first appear. With British withdrawal from Iraq expected in 2008, and the Democratic Party in the US committed to withdrawal as soon as possible, Australia is likely to withdraw from Iraq within 18 months, whoever is in government.
Similarly, while Mr Howard has opposed signing the Kyoto Protocol, he has committed Australia to signing the next round of a comprehensive multilateral climate treaty. If, unlike Kyoto, such a treaty imposes commitments on developing countries such as China, the Liberals will happily sign, as will a Democrat President of the United States.
While there are sharp differences on nuclear power, neither party is likely to develop a nuclear power industry in Australia over the next decade.
On a whole range of other issues, from taxation to immigration, the policies of the major parties are surprisingly similar.WorkChoices
That leaves WorkChoices as the only issue on which there is a fundamental policy divide, with Labor's pledge to scrap the law, and the Liberals asserting that this shows the power of the unions.
If the opinion polls are anything to go by, the tactic has worked a treat for Kevin Rudd, putting him ahead of John Howard as preferred Prime Minister, and giving Labor what appears to be a substantial lead.
Mr Rudd's tactics may be electorally successful, but they have already caused severe stress inside his own ranks, as the Opposition leader has carpeted his foreign affairs spokesman, Robert McClelland, for expressing his opposition to the death penalty for prisoners in Asia on the anniversary of the 2002 Bali bombings; endorsed the new Gunn's pulp mill in Tasmania; and endorsed the Howard Government's detention of Dr Mohammed Haneef.
As Professor David Flint recently said, "How Caucus must have hated it when Rudd and Swan lifted most of the Coalition's tax policy. They kept quiet because they think Rudd will get them over the line."
Whether these tensions surface will depend on the election outcome; but there can be little doubt that Mr Rudd has made a rod for his own back some time down the track.
The real difference between the parties may emerge not on the policy front, but rather from the preference swap which Mr Rudd has done with the Greens, designed to give Labor seats in the House of Representatives, and deliver Greens seats in the Senate.
According to Newspoll, published in The Australian
(October 30), support for Labor was 48 per cent, for the Coalition nationally was 42 per cent, for the Greens 4 per cent.
If reflected in the election, it means that Labor would form a government with Green preferences, and in the Senate, the Coalition would lose its majority to Labor and the Greens.
The effect is that on every issue on which the Coalition and Labor disagreed, Kevin Rudd would have to negotiate with Senator Bob Brown to get his legislation through, giving the Greens the balance of power in the Senate.
Far-left environmentalists inside the ALP such as Anthony Albanese and Peter Garrett would no longer be silent. In key areas, Labor policy would be beholden to the Greens, whose policies extend far beyond environmental issues like the construction of new reservoirs, coal and uranium exports (which they want to stop), and forest policy.
The Greens also support the decriminalisation of drug use, are anti-marriage, anti-business, and support curbs on agriculture, as well as the timber and coal industries.
When Mr Rudd has been presented with a policy challenge, his response has largely been either to follow the Government, as he did on climate change recently, or to announce a new inquiry or bureaucracy to handle it.
According to the Liberals, who keep tabs on these things, Mr Rudd has promised to establish a grand total of 67 new bureaucracies and 96 reviews.
This approach marginalises Parliament, where issues should be debated and decided, with a maze of appointed bureaucracies answerable only to the Government. This was a characteristic of the disastrous Whitlam Government in the 1970s, which lasted just three years, but had an enduring damaging impact on public life in Australia.- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.