Canberra Observed: The year of the electionsby News WeeklyNews Weekly
, January 27, 2001
With five, possibly six, elections due to be held around the country this year, Australian voters are going to be bombarded with promises on an unprecedented scale.
Western Australia is the first state to go to the polls, most likely to be followed soon after by Queensland, with the Northern Territory, ACT and possibly South Australian governments all to face the voters over the next 12 months.
Most interest will be on the Federal election, however, which will easily be the most drawn-out election campaign in recent memory.
Prime Minister John Howard took just a fortnight's leave so he could begin preparations and mark out his strategy for the Coalition's re-election campaign which will coincide with the year-long celebrations and commemorations marking the first 100 years of Federation.Certain departure
The 2001 election will certainly see the immediate departure of either Howard or Kim Beazley from Australian politics, Howard after 27 years in the Federal Parliament, Beazley after 21.
Psychologically, Howard will be at a distinct advantage over his Labor opponent, and having succeeded twice, has already begun playing down the likelihood of his party winning a third term.
But while he seeks to be seen as the underdog, Howard knows that win or lose he will have achieved practically everything he ever dreamt of in politics including overhauling the taxation system, fighting off the Republican push, and leading the nation during a period when Australian troops were deployed overseas.
He knows he will be remembered by the Liberal Party, which is not exactly sentimental about its past leaders, as a reformer who was prepared to risk all to implement his political agenda.
Should he lose he will probably be remembered as second only to Menzies as the best of the Liberal Prime Ministers.
At the same time as an instinctive political fighter hardened by years of disappointment and bitter internal and external battles, Howard also knows that Beazley is at best fatalistic and at worst ambivalent about becoming Prime Minister. And Beazley, who has had in contrast an armchair ride through politics, has much more to lose.
After the 1998 capital gains tax debacle Beazley will not be forgiven for any policy blunders as policies are unveiled this year, and there will be enormous pressure on him to deliver victory after five years in Opposition.
None of this in any way suggests Beazley has little hope of winning. In fact, the first polls of 2001 show Labor with a comfortable lead in both crucial marginal seats and in the key states of Queensland and Victoria.
Howard will be portrayed by Labor as a stop-gap leader and the Opposition will run the line that a vote for Howard is really a vote for the less popular Peter Costello who would move into the Lodge sometime during the Government's next term.Different campaign
Beazley attracts few strong feelings. Despite a tendency to waffle and the recent strategy by his minders to keep him under wraps, he is a good campaigner. But the 2001 election will be quite a different affair to the 1998 poll at which Beazley was given no chance of winning.
Beazley then had plenty of ammunition - the first Coalition Government was inexperienced, accident prone and Howard decided to gamble all on a new tax system with the hated Goods and Services Tax.
The 1998 poll gave Labor strategists the ultimate scare campaign in the GST, and most expected Labor would simply rebuild its stocks in Opposition after the 1996 wipeout.
This time there is likely to be no major scare campaign, but a giant auction at which Labor and the Coalition will try to outdo each other with promises on who will be the more generous with taxpayer's money.
It will be an election about which party and leader has the most credibility.
Up until now Beazley has had a dream run as far as the media is concerned, but his political and leadership skills are going to come under much greater scrutiny.
For Howard the biggest problem will be the spectre of the US economy which is already beginning to taper off at an alarming rate.
If the Australian economy begins to unravel at the same time and unemployment begins to rise - Kim Beazley could end up as Australia's 26th Prime Minister ... whether he likes it or not.