The 2004 Australian Election

Article excerpt

JOHN HOWARD is the marathon runner of Australian politics. He has been an MP for thirty years and on 9 October he won a fourth term as Prime Minister. He is set to become the country's second longest serving Prime Minister (behind his hero Sir Robert Menzies, 1949-1965).

There was an overall swing to the Government but there were some local peculiarities. For example, a marginal western Sydney seat at Parramatta had been held by a Liberal (that is conservative) morals crusader, Ross Cameron, who admitted to having an affair while his wife was pregnant. Australians are not too fussed about the private lives of politicians (of whom they generally have a low opinion). But they do dislike religious humbug. His sordid sex life cost him the seat.

Meanwhile, Parliament has attracted two colourful persons from either end of the political spectrum. The Labor Party recruited Peter Garrett of the 'Midnight Oils' pop group and he is now an MP. His insertion into the constituency hurt a lot of local feelings from party loyalists, who believed that a candidate should work his way up through the ranks and not suddenly be imposed on them (there was even some doubt as to how often Garrett had bothered to vote, let alone had voted Labor).

Meanwhile, multi-millionaire lawyer and banker Malcolm Turnbull (who beat the Thatcher Government in the 'Spy Catcher' trial) waged a successful struggle to oust the sitting Liberal MP from one of the country's safest Liberal seats in one of the country's richest areas so that he could stand as the Liberal candidate. To oust the sitting MP, Turnbull had to sign up many of his rich friends to join the Liberal Party to stack the branch. The sitting MP retaliated with the same tactic. Suddenly this one branch had more Liberal Party members than any other location in the country.

The message from Garrett and Turnbull is that it pays to be rich and famous if you suddenly want to become an MP. But, then, wealth is the Howard legacy for Australia. The country has never been richer--and this creates its own new dynamics for the political parties.

The rest of this article examines the election's three themes: the economy; Iraq/national security/terrorism; and 'trust' in the Prime Minister. It concludes with an analysis of the changing nature of the electorate: the 'detribalization' of Australian politics.

The Economy

The economy continues as the 'wonder down under'. Since the 1991-92 recession, the economy has performed best of all the Western economies. Economic growth in the 1990s was underpinned by the strongest export expansion in Australian history.

The architects of the expansion were the Hawke/Keating Labor Governments (1983-1996). They introduced the biggest economic reforms in Australian history, with a greater commitment to the market, free trade, and privatization. The reforms were continued by the Howard Government. The downside to all the economic reforms was the rise of the 'politics of anger' (with spokespeople such as Pauline Hanson--who failed to get elected in the 2004 election). This came from blue collar workers who lost their jobs as their industries disappeared. Most of the industries that survived, managed to thrive. But there have been some losers.

The new Government has little left to sell off. The main item would be the government's holding in the national telecommunications giant (Telstra). Most of the rest of the 'family silver' has now gone.

The biggest concern for voters was the future of interest rates. With interest rates at the lowest level for three decades, Australia's booming house market has had a further expansion as people 'buy up' into larger homes or move into 'better' areas, or buy investment properties. The average home loan is A$202,700 (up more than 12 per cent from the year before). The share of a family income to pay for an average home loan is now 38.4 per cent (up from 35. …