Editorial :Winning elections ... or governing the country?
by Peter Westmore
News Weekly, June 30, 2001
For the first four years after its election in 1996, the Howard Government's program was dominated by the pursuit of free market economics, continuing the former Labor Government's sell-off of public utilities like Telstra, Qantas and government railways; deregulating industrial relations and industries such as dairying and wool; pushing ahead with National Competition Policy; and introducing a new tax system built around the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
At the same time, State Governments - of both Liberal and Labor persuasions - pursued similar policies, in many cases privatising their electricity industries, ports, government insurance offices, and public transport services, among others.
Federally, the National Party strongly supported this agenda, despite widespread and growing opposition from rural areas and some of its back bench members, who see the crisis in rural Australia with farm aggregation, declining rural incomes and declining population.
Rural resentment against government has been growing for many years, fuelled by the perception that most governments could not care less whether family farms, small businesses and small country towns survived or disappeared.
Not surprisingly, the National Party felt the blowtorch, with a collapse in support in country areas. Much of it went to Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party which articulated their grievances, but offered no credible solutions, instead targeting immigrants and Aborigines.
When the Liberal and National Parties lost State elections in Western Australia and Queensland early this year, and then the formerly safe Liberal seat of Ryan fell to the ALP in a by-election, the warning bells were ringing in John Howard's ears. His response has been to change direction.
Despite previous statements from the Minister for Communications supporting the full sale of Telstra, unequivocal commitments have been given that Telstra will not be further privatised - at least until service standards for people in rural and regional Australia are substantially improved.
Small business compliance costs for the Goods and Services Tax have been eased. Over $1 billion is to be spent over several years on rural infrastructure. Telstra has announced major improvements in service to customers in rural and outer metropolitan areas. The Federal Budget eased tax rates for some low-income retirees, and made a one-off payment to surviving World War II prisoners of war.
For some primary producers, there has been a simultaneous turnaround in commodity prices, which have risen over the past six months, particularly in beef, cattle, wool, pork and wheat. Others, including sugar cane growers, cotton farmers and the dairy industry, are still struggling to survive.
As a result, through a combination of good luck and good management, the Coalition now has a chance of winning the next election. Even the billion-dollar collapse of HIH Insurance, and the subsequent melt-down of one of Australia's largest telecommunications providers, One.Tel, do not seem to have dinted the Government's fortunes.
The ALP has marginalised itself from these developments, with Kim Beazley making almost no impact in relation to widespread public opposition to the GST, or recent large corporate collapses, or the rural crisis.
Mr Beazley's policies focus on rebuilding Medicare and the public hospital system; providing more money to public schools, while taking it from private schools; and expanding tertiary education to build "a Knowledge Nation".
Yet health and education are essentially State, rather than Commonwealth Government functions, and State Labor governments - now in office in all states except South Australia - have shown themselves ineffective in the very areas where Mr Beazley wants people to vote him into office!
The foundations on which the provision of all government services are based - thriving primary, manufacturing and service industries - are almost totally ignored.
On industry and trade policy, the ALP remains committed to the same deregulationist agenda which contributed to the defeat of the Keating Government in 1996.
Yet the problems facing Australia in 2001 remain, and await a response by politicians and parties.
Within Australia, the collapse of small business and farm closures continue unabated; the social consequences of drugs, unemployment, crime and family breakdown damage millions of people; while Australia's net foreign debt, which recently passed $300 billion, spirals upwards.
Other countries in Europe, North America and Asia, faced with similar problems, understand the importance of strong government policies to support the family unit so that mothers are not conscripted into the workforce; strengthen small business and agriculture through a range of support programs, appropriate banking institutions and taxation policies; uphold the law; and protect human life from its beginning to its natural end.
Surely it is not beyond the capability of Australians to do likewise.