CANBERRA OBSERVED: by national correspondentNews Weekly
Australia's future in the balance
, August 21, 2010
When just over 14 million Australians prepare to cast their votes at the August 21 election, they will have a simple decision to make.
This choice involves whether to dispose of a troubled and trouble-prone Labor Government after just one term and elect a fairly unimaginative, steady-as-she-goes but competent Coalition team, or to take the risk of giving the Labor Party another chance.
Inexperience and incompetence have resulted in a raft of scandals and blunders over the past three years, just one of which cost the lives of four people and destroyed 100 or more homes.
Others resulted in the waste of billions of dollars of taxpayers' money, which has driven up the nation's debt.
Then, of course, there were the extraordinary policy reversals and timidity on climate change and tax reform.
And, finally, there has been the outright treachery and shenanigans of the last two months, not seen since the last days of the Whitlam Government.
We now know that consultation with Cabinet, which underpins the Westminster system of government, was relegated to an afterthought. The two most important people in the government, former Prime Minister Rudd and his then deputy Julia Gillard, did not take national security meetings with the utmost seriousness they demand.
In its sole defence, the Rudd Government can lay claim to having helped avoid the worst excesses of the global economic downturn by maintaining the level of the nation's spending when other countries were in panic causing their economies to freeze up.
But the reality is the Rudd Government's spendathon was in itself excessive, going well beyond advice from the Federal Treasury to "go early, go hard and go households". And the real behind-the-scenes saviours were China and India, which continued to buy our resources.
Voters on August 21 will have the option to offer Labor's new leader, Julia Gillard, a second chance to reform this same government in a second term of office.
Normally, voters would be taking the second option.
Plenty of mistakes were made by the first Hawke Government, the first Howard Government and the first Whitlam Government.
All three were permitted by the people to try to restore their credentials following a shaky start.
The fair-mindedness of Australians to cut their governments some slack is an historic trait. Perhaps they take into consideration the fact that parties after having been out of office for an extended period need time to settle in.
This time, however, the Labor Party has already done the job of executing the Prime Minister who won the last election, suggesting that the party itself had decided it was not up to scratch and had to be seen to be renewing itself before the election.
Voters are now being challenged to weigh up whether the new face of Julia Gillard is the same face of the old Rudd Government and whether or not anything in fact is likely to improve under her leadership a second time around.
The Labor Party has run a most bizarre campaign where the self-indulgent antics of former leaders Kevin Rudd and Mark Latham have left even the most world-weary journalist gobsmacked.
But at a deeper level the Labor Party machine has engaged in a deeply cynical and dangerous exercise in attempting to manipulate public opinion. If successful, politics in Australia will be permanently altered.
Consider the scenario which took place over the past eight weeks.
First, right-wing Labor power-brokers deposed their own leader and introduced a new one in the form of a hitherto left-wing militant feminist lawyer who has seemingly undertaken an ideological and personal makeover for the purpose of becoming leader. The same methodology was used to install Kristina Keneally in New South Wales.
Announcing the election, Ms Gillard chose to dress in a crisp white suit and pearls, looking more like a Margaret Thatcher or a Bronwyn Bishop than a Labor leader.
Two dozen times she told the Australian people the Labor Party was "moving forward".
After a fortnight of being trussed up and packaged in this fashion - an image which apparently was not being bought by voters - Ms Gillard decided to throw off the manufactured Julia and reveal the "real Julia" underneath, begging the question of which version will emerge if she wins the election.
At the same time, Ms Gillard has brazenly moved to the right on several key issues - stating her apparent support for traditional marriage, offering a quadrupling of funding to more than $200 million for chaplains in schools, giving school principals a say in how their schools are run, and backing a call for Muslim women to remove their burqas when giving evidence in court.
Meanwhile, her deposed predecessor has been resurrected and voters are asked to believe that the pair (Ms Gillard and Mr Rudd) are pals again and determined to campaign against Mr Abbott, whom Labor is portraying as an extremist and economic illiterate with a secret plan to re-introduce WorkChoices.
By contrast, Mr Abbott is offering a return to normalcy in government, a wind-back of government spending and excesses, incremental reform, and the promise of being able to do the basics on border control and national security.
In fact, his policy launch was notable for being the first such speech in modern Australian political history to offer no new spending measures whatsoever.
Where Ms Gillard's campaign has been erratic and unpredictable, Mr Abbott's has been consistent and solid.
It is a big decision to throw out a government. The polls show enormous disenchantment with the Rudd-Gillard Government, but as yet no clear intention to throw it out.