CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
WA result shows Coalition's dilemma
, February 24, 2001
Extraordinary as it may seem, Prime Minister John Howard may have been done a small favour by the poor showing of his coalition colleagues in the Western Australian and Queensland state elections.
The re-emergence of One Nation as a political force and its capacity to play the wrecker role in elections has brought forward the inevitable choice voters will have to make between a Beazley- or Howard-led government.
The initial responses from political commentators suggested Kim Beazley would receive an enormous lift from the state election results, particularly in Western Australia where his close friend Dr Geoff Gallop trounced the Coalition on the back of One Nation and Green preferences.
With the Federal Government in serious trouble over the BAS, which is nothing less than an unmitigated disaster thanks to the genuises in the Tax Office, pundits sympathetic to Labor were hyperventilating that One Nation would now deliver the knockout blow to the Coalition. However, within a few days Labor's hard heads were thinking much differently.
The state results fast-forwarded the very real prospect that Kim Beazley could be Prime Minister by the end of the year, but by default rather than the positive choice of voters.
For Labor's more sober tacticians, it is far too early in the political cycle to be focussing on Beazley and what he may or may have to offer - especially when the ALP is going to hold back on its policies until the official election campaign is underway.
Labor would have preferred to keep the heat on the Government's handling of petrol, the GST, the dreaded BAS and other niggling issues which would wear away at those rusted onto the Coalition. However, the inevitable critical analysis of Beazley, his team and his policies or policy vacuum will now come much earlier than anticipated. And this was always the ground Howard wanted to play on, believing that if the people were to take a hard look at the Labor Opposition they would realise they were soft, "lazy", and largely bereft of ideas.
Howard has already been pushing the line that "at least people know what I stand for" in contrast with Beazley who, he says, is still largely a mystery figure despite having spent more years as a government minister than Howard himself.
Howard will also be able to build on his own social conservatism over the coming months which is much more in tune with ordinary Australians than most commentators care to admit.
Nevertheless whatever tactical advantage Howard has in being able to out Beazley early, in no way diminishes the enormous task he has ahead of him to win a third term.
Now after the WA shock result every MP outside the leafy and trendy electorates of Sydney and Melbourne faces the prospect of a swing of 10 per cent or more - courtesy of One Nation. With most marginal seats in rural and regional Australia the Coalition is theoretically in more trouble than the Labor Party.
And after continuing if not accelerating the economic policies pursued by the Labor Party for 13 years in deregulating the sugar and dairy industries and in its careless attitude to threats of wipeout in the apple and pear industries, this should come as no surprise. While many of the ideas behind Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party are muddle-headed and incoherent, on one important issue alone One Nation is on solid ground.
When it comes to the big policy questions, particularly economics, globalisation, deregulation and competition policy, there is very little difference between the major parties (the National Party included). Apart from perhaps the full sale of Telstra, the Labor Party will surely continue along the same path of economic "reform" if it wins power.
For a significant proportion of the Australian community this policy simply represents the planned handing over of the national economy and national sovereignty to international interests with all its disastrous social results. Howard still has a brief window of opportunity to change tack on some fronts, although it may already be too late to undo the damage done to small business over the BAS.
There are already hints that he may intervene in Dutch Shell's takeover bid for Woodside Petroleum - government intervention which would have been anathema a couple of years ago.
There is also talk of a Howard "social contract" with the bush, whatever that means. It will certainly take much more than a billion dollars worth of road funding to hose down the smouldering fire of anger in regional Australia. People will no longer be fooled by politicians "listening" to their concerns or by stunts such as the Beazley magical mystery bus tour into regional Australia.
Whole regions have been decimated by the policies of economic rationalism, towns and communities impoverished by massive population shifts and thousands of farmers and their families forced off the land.
It is hardly a surprise that two decades of such policies are now having their political consequences.