Canberra Observed: Election outcome - reality and dreamland
, December 1, 2001
Despite the appearance of a status quo election result on November 10, the political landscape has been radically altered and the balance has swung decisively toward conservatism in Australia.
Prime Minister John Howard’s third election win against the odds, against early predictions of an anti-Liberal rout, and following the introduction of a highly unpopular new tax, will go down as one of the most extraordinary results in Australian politics.
Howard has cemented his place in history, has secured an unassailable position as leader, and will have the rare chance in politics of choosing a retirement date on his own terms.
While he was widely criticised in the media for having no third term agenda, the exact opposite is likely to be the case, with Howard likely to push ahead vigorously with reforms in the areas of health, education and welfare. The third term will be Howard’s great opportunity to dismantle much of what can loosely be termed the "Whitlam social agenda" which has been blindly accepted by both sides of politics for the past 30 years.
The only thing standing in the way of Howard’s goals to reshape Australia for decades to come will be a sudden preoccupation with a rapidly deteriorating economy, and possibly an intransigent Senate. However, Simon Crean has already hinted at a change in heart by the Opposition Labor Party to bloody-minded intransigence and troublemaking in the upper house.
Partly this is because Crean is keen to shake off his own image as a carping, negative politician.
Crean has also secured a younger, and he hopes, more energetic frontbench, cutting out a lot of dead wood in the process, and has put the party and the union movement on notice that he wants wholesale structural reform.
In fact, Crean has been able to do more in a few days as the "leader-elect" than Kim Beazley was able to do in five years as Opposition Leader. Beazley’s period as leader of the Federal Labor Party has very rapidly become an open target for critics as more and more Labor figureheads blast his "small target" strategy and poor advisers.
This is not surprising after any major loss, but the fact that Labor’s primary vote fell to levels not seen since the Great Depression, it has compounded the distress; and the message is finally causing deep soul-searching in the party.
Crean will perform better than most people in the community imagine. He is professional, hard-working, competent and able to use the current parlous state of the party to demand almost everything he wants. Whether he becomes Prime Minister, though, depends on two things, only one of which he can control.
If the economy turns to mud and the Howard Government slips back into its old sins of ministerial mismanagement (as in aged care and tax administration), Crean will become Prime Minister almost by default.
On the other hand, if Crean wants to become PM on his own terms, he will have to supervise policy changes which are appealing to the great mass of ordinary Australian families, most of whom voted for Howard this election, as they did in 1996.
If Crean chooses to handcuff himself (like Beazley) with what may loosely be described as the "Keating élites" on all the tired issues of Republicanism, the ABC, treaties with Aborigines and the like, he will go the same way as both his predecessors.
Finally, the election has serious consequences for the junior partner of the Coalition, the Nationals, who (as predicted in News Weekly
) suffered a worse result than any other party except One Nation.
The Nationals lost two more seats (one to an Independent and one to the Liberals), while failing to defeat defector Bob Katter in Queensland. They could have lost more, but an outbreak of Labor Party factional madness in the seat of Richmond saved Larry Anthony’s bacon. Rather than this being a particular concern to the Nationals, the party hierarchy instead was ecstatic over the success of Queensland Senator Ron Boswell in securing another term.
The Nationals’ vote was up slightly on its disastrous 1998 vote, from 5.3 to 5.6 per cent, while the overall swing to the Coalition was just over 2 per cent.
The significance of this is that the Nationals not only failed to pick up any of the pro-Howard swing, but even failed to win back the One Nation vote which abandoned them last time.
Incredibly, after such an abysmal vote, there was not even a challenge to John Anderson or Mark Vaile in the party room. Both were re-elected unanimously. Mr Anderson blamed the party’s poor result on the State branches and agreed with those MPs who said it had pre-selected the wrong candidates in key seats (by wrong he meant they were too old).
At least Labor is showing some signs of learning from past mistakes; the Nationals are still living in dreamland.