EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
A time bomb under the Howard Government
, February 24, 2001
This comment was written after the surprise defeat of the Court Government in Western Australia, but before Queensland went to the polls.
Even before the Queensland election, it was obvious that the re-emergence of One Nation will have major repercussions for all the main parties, and more generally, for the direction of future government in Australia.
Labor's decisive win in WA was a result of the fact that preferences from One Nation flowed principally to it.
While Coalition leaders denounced One Nation for its preferences, there is little doubt that had Richard Court followed his first instinct, and arranged a preference swap with One Nation, he would today be Premier.
There has been considerable debate on whether the swing against the Liberals was the result of state or federal factors.
Voters disillusioned with the WA Liberal Government would have been expected to vote for the official Opposition, particularly in view of the persistent campaign by Perth's only daily newspaper, The West Australian, against the Court Government. But Labor's primary vote rose by less than two per cent.
As One Nation secured about 9.5 per cent of the vote, despite running a low-key campaign in the state, it seems clear that federal rather than state issues were dominant.
There can be no doubt that the large vote for One Nation reflects continuing disillusionment with the Federal Government's policies, particularly as they affect rural and regional Australia.
The issues which concern voters are principally social and economic, but extend to a whole range of other areas as well. Foremost among them is the desperate cost-squeeze being felt by many people living in rural and regional areas, both on farms and the towns which are dependent on them.
When the Federal Government led by John Howard was elected in a landslide in 1996, the expectation was that the Coalition would reverse the policies which Labor had pursued over the years. In fact, it has been more of the same.
Rural family incomes have continued to fall, while the Coalition pushed ahead with National Competition Policy, deregulated the dairy, sugar and other industries; imposed the Goods and Services Tax; stood by as hundreds of bank branches, medical centres, post offices and schools were closed; weakened Australia's quarantine laws; pushed ahead with the continued sale of Telstra despite its second class service outside the capital cities; and continued to permit the dumping of cheap imports into Australia.
The Coalition firmly espoused financial deregulation and globalism, while telling Australians that they had never had it so good.
The sense of desperation in regional areas is seen in the depopulation of many country towns; families walking off the land; high suicide, accident and mortality rates, among both the young and old; high levels of unemployment; and for many, a low standard of living.
All this led to the protest vote for One Nation.
The consequences of this mood of disillusionment will be profound. The Queensland Nationals have been shaken by the decision of many of their candidates to exchange preferences with One Nation, in defiance of both state and federal officials of the party.
This will be compounded by the decision of the Victorian Liberals to stand against the Nationals in all seats in the next Victorian election. This action could see the demise of the National Party in Victoria - although it is difficult to see how the Victorian Liberals could win government without National Party support.
The effects on the Federal Coalition of the troubles in Queensland, WA and Victoria are unpredictable; but will undoubtedly make John Howard's job even more difficult. In fact, if the state results are repeated at the federal level, the Howard Government could not survive.
Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party, which just a year ago seemed to have no future, could win some Senate seats at the next election, and depending on preferences, could determine who forms government. Yet despite its electoral support, One Nation still represents a protest against the main parties, rather than a statement of policy.
On the other side of the fence, the WA election saw the collapse in support for the Australian Democrats, perhaps due to the Democrats' role in pushing through the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
The state election results highlight the deep sense of disillusionment many people feel about the fact that the major parties no longer represent their interests.
The challenge in the months ahead is to try to win support for a credible alternative program, such as that outlined recently in the Special Edition of News Weekly, titled, "A Manifesto for Australia" (January 13, 2001).
What was put forward in that issue remains true today: "What is urgently needed is the development of a sufficient body of Australians - a critical mass - who understand the problem, can articulate the practical solutions, and can build an electoral-based organisation capable of running practical campaigns on a wide range of issues."