March 10th 2001

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Nationals: the last hurrah?

EDITORIAL: Government embraces the politics of panic

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Competition Policy the next to go?

INDONESIA: Borneo violence further weakens Wahid

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Why refugees are a soft target

Help needed for North Queensland farmers

DRUGS: Drug policy criticised by international board

Straws in the Wind

Letter: Kim Beazley - look at the record

Senate inquiry attacks NZ apple import proposal

ECONOMICS: Trade blocs - where will Australia fit?


HUMAN RIGHTS: Amnesty Report may sink China's Olympic bid

HEALTH: Lessons of SA abortion experience

COMMENT: Paul Lyneham - Australia's H. L. Mencken

Teen books gone from "honest" to "offensive"

Letter: Refugees - coarsening of attitudes

Letter: Alice Springs - Darwin railway

Letter: One Nation

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by John Styles

News Weekly, March 10, 2001
The electoral price of petrol

In the wake of Labor's victories in Western Australia and Queensland, and with the Howard Government running on empty over petrol prices, was ABC morning radio presenter Jon Faine being kind to Treasurer Peter Costello?

When Faine interviewed Mr Costello three days after the Queensland poll, the ABC presenter had some fun with the suggestion that a consultant had been hired to turn the Treasurer's smirk into a smile (denied by Costello). Faine tried to pin Mr Costello down on family trusts and went in hard on the complexities of BAS and a Victorian beef about Commonwealth state grants. But when it came to petrol prices and fuel excise, Faine let the Treasurer get away with a half-truth.

"You won't interfere in the current [excise] arrangements in order to bring the price of fuel down by the amount that is within your control?" Jon Faine asked the Treasurer.

Peter Costello replied: "Well, Jon, the reason the fuel excise has gone up, is the world oil price. You want to bring the petrol price down, you have to get the world oil price down, that is the key determinant of all this."

Not all of the Government's critics are being as accommodating as Jon Faine. The newly installed political editor of ABC television's The 7.30 Report, Fran Kelly (previously of Radio National), recently delved into the archives and ran 1998 clips of Mr Howard and Mr Costello delivering their rock solid guarantees that the petrol price would not increase as a result of the GST.

In the same week, ABC Radio National had no trouble putting to air an interest group representative who was more than happy to attack the Prime Minister over the issue. The PM and Treasurer can expect a lot more of it. And if, as reported, Howard Government strategists believe that the ABC is their enemy talking to their friends, a lot of that talk will continue to reach sensitive and receptive rural and regional ears.

Everyone knows that if the Howard Government had kept its original GST fuel excise promise, the price of petrol would be about 3 cents per litre lower than it is today. Perhaps that is the point. Jon Faine did not have to make a comment about Mr Costello's unsatisfactory response because everybody is well aware that the Government is misleading the electorate when it claims that world oil prices alone are responsible for current petrol prices.

Arrogance or stubbornness has led the Government to risk much voter odium by treating a large segment of society - all those who pay for their petrol - with blatant contempt.

A motorist travelling 20,000 km a year in a 6-cylinder sedan would be only about $1.50 a week better off if the Government had kept its promise. But petrol pricing is an emotive issue.

The recent state election results suggest that it has also become a symbolic one. After the core and non-core promises, and the GST that would never, ever be, the petrol excise issue seems to have effectively crystallised an image of the Howard Government as mean, tight-fisted, even dishonest.

That's why commentators are starting to suggest that even if at this late hour the government relented and reduced the excise, electorally the self-inflicted damage may be permanent.

Double standards

On the issue of One Nation preferences, the journalistic consensus appears to be simple. A preference allocation strategy that helps Labor and damages the Coalition is ideal; one that merely disadvantages the Coalition, however, is acceptable.

The day before the Queensland election, National Party federal leader John Anderson pleaded with journalists: "How about a bit of focus on the other side here, why are they let off the hook? Why does everybody want to focus on us and no-one on Mr Beattie while Mr Beazley, his federal leader, continues to parade around the place thumping his chest, saying only the ALP knows how to deal morally with this issue?"

The Nationals' leader was right. Peter Beattie's mid-campaign backflip, when he jettisoned the "put One Nation last" policy in favour of the "Vote 1 Labor" no-preference strategy, was described by various journalists as a masterstroke. But Beattie's strategy drew no moral distinction between the other parties. That the official ALP how-to-vote card carried a small disclaimer advising voters who intended to preference other candidates to put One Nation last is of little significance.

The ready acceptance by journalists of the Beattie tactic also prompted comment from The Sydney Morning Herald's Canberra correspondent, Michelle Grattan. On ABC radio she said:

"It is interesting, however I think, that Peter Beattie has not got more criticism over this 'just vote 1' strategy, given that people have been very focused, and commentators very critically focused, on One Nation. He's been able to slip through and really take a quite neutral position in the area that it counts, and I think certainly [that] federally the Liberals feel that they are the ones, and the Nats, that always get the focus when it comes to One Nation preferences. And, of course, that the Beattie decision gives Labor a very great advantage and it seems to be working."

In Queensland, the ALP did not win on One Nation preferences. But in the federal election they may be more crucial. Here Michelle Grattan sounded an ominous warning for John Anderson and his party. "Federally decisions must be made and in that case the Nats are certainly going to be again, as in the last election, a focus of criticism," she said.

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