EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Key issues that could determine the election outcome
, October 27, 2007
Why are the "Howard battlers" - working-class Australians who swung to the Liberals after the Hawke/Keating years - now turning back to Labor?If the opinion polls can be believed, Kevin Rudd will be the next Prime Minister of Australia after the federal election on November 24, and Labor will secure an overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives.
Despite the lowest level of official unemployment for over 30 years and an economy enjoying an unprecedented economic boom which has now gone on for over 15 years - the longest period of sustained economic growth in the country's history - the Coalition starts the campaign far behind Labor.
However, opinion polls cannot fully reflect state issues, and in this election, the deep unpopularity of state Labor governments in Queensland and Western Australia will help John Howard, as will his $34 billion tax cuts for middle Australia.
Whether these factors are sufficient to counter the large Labor majority in the opinion polls, only time will tell.
It is important to try to analyse what has happened, as it points to what might be done to stave off what seems to be an inevitability.Attacks
Mr Rudd has made himself a credible alternative Prime Minister by his attacks on government mistakes, and by a willingness to back John Howard over a wide range of issues, including the intervention in NT Aboriginal communities, the response to the US sub-prime mortgage meltdown, the death penalty for the Bali bombers, approval of Gunn's new pulp-mill in Tasmania, and the takeover of the Murray-Darling Basin's water assets, even where these positions conflict with established Labor policy.
Mr Howard's consistent efforts to force a differentiation between himself and the Labor leader - as he did with Simon Crean, Kim Beazley and Mark Latham - have failed, due to Mr Rudd's tactics. The popular attitude to Mr Rudd is to "give him a go".
Over recent months, Mr Howard has tried the opposite tack: to embrace some of Mr Rudd's positions. He has proposed a new referendum which would write the Aboriginal people into the preamble to the Australian Constitution; endorsed an economic partnership with the communist regime in China; accepted the inevitability of climate change by proposing a carbon-trading system for Australia; and agreed to adopt the post-Kyoto climate-change agreement, sight unseen.
The new policy has been no more successful than the previous one, in failing to dent Mr Rudd's electoral popularity. Arguably, it has merely confused the Government's remaining supporters and suggested that there is little real difference between Government and Opposition.
John Howard's endorsement of Peter Costello as his anointed successor has also failed to stem the tide. In contrast to John Howard, Mr Costello has supported Australia becoming a republic, the abortion drug RU-486 and Aboriginal Reconciliation, further emphasising the lack of difference between the major parties.
Despite changes to the Government's WorkChoices legislation, particularly the application of the fairness test to soften the impact of the Government's workplace agreements, the legislation substantially erodes the role of unions and the rights of employees on issues such as working hours, job security and unfair dismissal.
When an economic downturn comes, employees will be the first to suffer. These issues impact on the "Howard battlers", working-class Australians who swung to the Liberals after the Hawke/Keating years, and are now turning back to Labor.Rural crisis
In rural Australia, which is facing the impact of serious drought, the Howard Government's deregulationist policies have forced Australian farmers to compete on export markets against heavily subsidised producers from the United States and the European Union, and on domestic markets against cheap produce from Asia. Despite the political rhetoric, there is a widespread perception that governments do not care.
When asked to nominate the differences between Government policies and the Opposition's, Mr Rudd pointed to industrial relations, education and Labor's commitment to fund a high-speed broadband network around the country, a vital part of the national infrastructure. On each of these issues, the Government has fumbled the ball, but only workplace relations is likely to be decisive.
If Mr Howard wants to turn it around, he will have to act in ways which show that he is committed to working families, embattled farming families, and the marginalised who constitute the large welfare underclass in Australia today.
He should immediately commit to a new deal for Australian families, which would include amendments to his IR laws to protect employees' job security and conditions, mandated ISP internet-filtering, and offer a new deal - including mandated ethanol and a ban on permanent water-trading - to reverse the economic rationalist policies which have devastated Australian agriculture.- Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.