EDITORIAL: by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
The message from Aston
, July 28, 2001
For Governments, by-elections are always risky, as they give the electorate the opportunity to vote against the Government, without bringing about its defeat. With the Federal Coalition having a narrow majority in the House of Representatives, this was doubly so in the recent by-election in the marginal Victorian seat of Aston, caused by the sudden death of the popular local Member, Peter Nugent. Why did the Liberals win, when its primary vote declined?
After the State elections in Western Australia and Queensland early this year, then the Federal by-election in the formerly safe Liberal seat of Ryan - in all of which Labor scored convincing victories - the Coalition faced the future with great trepidation.
Since then, the Prime Minister, John Howard, has softened the hard edge of the Government’s policies, particularly as it affects rural and regional Australia, where disenchantment with the Government has been most strongly felt.
Apart from a budget which directed benefits to several key constituencies, including first home buyers and the elderly, the full sell-off of Telstra has been put on ice, the standard of telecommunication services has been improved, national competition policy - which had an adverse impact on employment in rural Australia - has been softened, the foreign takeover of one of Australia’s major resource companies, Woodside Petroleum, has been stopped on national interest grounds, and interest rates have been kept far lower than under the former Labor Government.Growing economy
The Government has pump-primed the economy, giving signs that by the end of the year economic growth should recover, and employment in Australia will be on the increase.
Yet the long-running and deepening structural problems in Australia have still to be addressed. Relatively high levels of unemployment indicate that little is being done to encourage investment in Australian manufacturing which, as a proportion of national output, is among the lowest in the industrialised world. Rural Australia, which provides the lion’s share of the country’s export income, suffers chronically high levels of unemployment, has average lower incomes and has poorer services than those enjoyed by other Australians, with damaging effects on the social fabric. Both manufacturing and agriculture are suffering from dumped imports.
As a nation, Australia is no longer paying its way, running chronic balance of payments deficits, which result in foreign takeovers of large Australian companies, the blow-out of the foreign debt - now above $317 billion - and the fall in value of the Australian dollar.
With all this, it is surprising is that Labor did so poorly in Aston, given the fact that the State Labor Government is still enjoying a "honeymoon" period after the defeat of the Kennett Government, and the by-election was clearly not going to change the Government.
It is clear that many voters just don’t trust Labor. Labor’s campaign in Aston combined rhetorical attacks on the Government, with a collection of platitudes in place of policies.
Labor’s health policy promises rebuilding Medicare and the public hospitals; and its education policy promises quality education for all Australians, "not just the rich" - an appeal to the politics of envy. Significantly, there is no evidence as to what a "quality education" really is - other than to imply that it is what the children of rich parents get. But whether it means smaller classes, the 3Rs (which have been largely abandoned in many government schools), reintroduction of examinations, better equipped libraries, or more sporting fields, we are left to guess.
The ALP also promised "better living standards for everyone, whether they live in the country or the city", and "building a knowledge nation, building on the skills and knowledge of all our people".
It offers nothing about rebuilding Australia’s manufacturing industry, or policies to support the family, or deal with the drugs crisis, or even defending Australia. Even the odious National Competition Council, which administers National Competition Policy - a creation of the last Keating Government - will not be abandoned, but merely "reformed". No difference
Despite Mr Beazley’s profile, there is no evidence that Labor would make any difference to the economic direction of the country, revitalise Australian industry, rebuild the nation’s threadbare defences, or adopt a more family-oriented social policy.
With around 20 per cent of votes going to minor parties or Independents, Aston may be a pointer to what was predicted recently by Dr Peter Brain of the National Institute for Economic and Industry Research. He cautiously warned that that primary vote against the major political parties was rising to the point where the two-party system may not survive volatile voters in rural and regional electorates.
The prospect of Independents holding the balance of power in the House of Representatives will send shudders through the major parties, but it may force them to address the issues which concern ordinary Australians.