by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Editorial: Why the ALP could win by default
, November 3, 2001
As the major parties move into the last fortnight of the campaign, the outcome of the election is quite uncertain - not only due to the complex interaction of the war in Afghanistan with domestic issues, but also the different voting patterns between WA and Queensland, on one hand, and the south-eastern states on the other; and complex preference deals involving the minor parties.
Contrary to the opinion polls, the Federal Coalition always faced an uphill battle to win the 2001 Federal Election. "Third election syndrome" is the term used to describe the fact that political parties find it extremely difficult to win three successive terms in office - at either the state or federal levels.
Over the past 50 years, the only exceptions to this have been at times of discord in the opposition parties - defeating Labor in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Liberals in the 1980s.Support base
In the case of the Federal Coalition, its difficulties have been magnified by policies which antagonised key sections of its own bases of support.
Whatever other Australians may think about these issues, gun control, privatisation of government services and national competition policy, along with the impact of financial deregulation of the banking system, aroused fierce resentment in rural and regional Australia; while the tax reform package, particularly the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax, upset many small businesses and farmers.
The sense of rural disenchantment is likely to be exacerbated by the recent slide in commodity prices for exports such as sugar, beef, cotton and wool - which the major parties have studiously ignored.
The Coalition could be defeated as a result of a preference deal between the ALP and the Australian Democrats, and the blind hostility of One Nation and other minor parties in putting Coalition MPs last.
Labor is campaigning mainly on health and education, in both cases, pursuing policies which probably achieve exactly the opposite of what the ALP expects.
In relation to health care, ALP policy of increasing expenditure on the public health system to reduce hospital waiting lists will lead to a reduction in the number of people taking private health insurance, ultimately, placing more pressure on public hospitals.
On education, its "hit list" of non-government schools will simply force more parents to send their children to government schools, requiring even greater expenditure in the public education sector.
In both areas, the real issues have been largely ignored. It was the Australian Medical Association that questioned the impact of privatisation of the hospital and medical system on those suffering chronic illnesses.
On the two main international issues, there is a bipartisan consensus. Both sides supported deployment of units of the Australian army, naval and air force to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which has provided aid and comfort to Osama bin Laden's al Qaida terror network.
Despite point scoring, both have pursued a common policy against entry of boat people coming to Australia from Indonesia, including special legislation to remove Christmas and Cocos Islands, and Ashmore Reef, from Australia's migration zone, and the use of naval vessels to ship boat people to Nauru and other islands in the Pacific.
Neither party has seriously addressed the need for a substantial increase in Australia's defence forces to meet the growing challenges Australia faces as a major power in the South Pacific region, quite apart from its international commitments to the war on terror.
Nor have they addressed the steady erosion of Australia's international financial position, evident in the collapse of the value of the Australian dollar, the surging foreign debt (now over $317 billion), the decline of Australia's manufacturing industry (down from 25 per cent of GDP 30 years ago to just 13 per cent of GDP today), and an excessive reliance on service industries such as tourism.
One consequence of this has been the continued takeover of Australian businesses, including highly profitable mining companies such as BHP, Ashton Mining, CRA, and now WMC Holdings, whose assets seem certain to be carved up among a handful of major global mining houses.
One area of significant difference is social policy, where the social conservatism of the Prime Minister on issues such as marriage and the family, cloning and IVF contrast with the libertarian policies of the ALP.
Many people strongly prefer Mr Howard's position on these questions; but for whatever reason, he has chosen to say little or nothing about them.
Neither party has grasped the depth of the crisis in rural or regional areas. The proposal by former ANZ chief, Will Bailey, for a new People's Bank, would be a good starting point, and good policy for either party to win key marginal seats.
It may be that the Coalition's failure to differentiate itself from the ALP on these issues, and the loss of its traditional bases of support, will cost it government.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council.