The 2004 Australian Election
Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review
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 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 35.6 per cent a year ago). Even only a slight increase in the interest rate would put a great deal of pressure on borrowers.
The Australian Government does not control interest rates--the Reserve Bank does. The Bank took on that power in January 1990. However, owing to the low level of political literacy of most Australians, they do not understand how interest rates move and how politicians now have a reduced role in fixing the interest rate.
Howard counted on voters preferring to stick with the party whose time in office has coincided with the low interest rate. He appealed to the voters' sense of economic satisfaction. Howard may not be an exciting or charismatic speaker but he exudes stability. The new Labor leader, Mark Latham, is young and inexperienced and many voters were not sure whether he could be relied upon to keep interest rates low. In fact, of course, neither leader could determine interest rates--but most voters did not understand that.
The low interest rate has triggered a housing bubble. Australians have been prepared to spend far more on new homes. This means that they have been devoting (as a percentage) more of their income on mortgage repayment than when the rates were at their highest in the 1980s. This means that when the Reserve Bank wants to dampen down the economy it need not push the rates as high as they went in the 1980s. Meanwhile, Australians in their larger homes feel wealthier (even if they are heavier in debt) and they are buying more home appliances etc. Australians have never been as heavily indebted as they are now. Australian households have been spending more than they have earned for the past two years. The household savings rate is minus 3.2 per cent. Many people are living on a razor's edge and only a slight interest rate increase will drive them over the edge. They are living on borrowed time.
For a country with such a booming economy, there is a curious sense of unease. The problem is the fear--real or imagined--of terrorism. The Government's main fear (which it rarely mentioned) was a rerun of the March 2004 Madrid terrorist attack, which brought a young and inexperienced Socialist Party leader, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, to power as Spanish prime minister. He was pledged to withdraw 1300 Spanish troops from Iraq. Latham (like Zapatero) is also aged 43 and pledged to withdraw Australian troops from Iraq before Christmas. The current Australian military deployment is minute but its withdrawal would add to the impression that the US is losing its allies.
Australia's involvement in the 2003 war in Iraq (in which it was only the third country, behind the US and UK, to deploy forces) was a highly controversial activity within Australia. International lawyers were divided over the invasion's legality. Most Australians opposed the deployment, even if they could not follow all the varying legal arguments.
Public opinion changed once the Australian forces went in. There was support for the Australian forces--rather than any sudden belief that the war was right after all. (Australian veterans are very highly regarded in the community and enjoy their own separate government welfare services that duplicate those in the civilian sector.) President Bush is not widely admired in Australia and is, if anything, more a figure of ridicule. The continued lack of progress in Iraq throughout 2004 has added to public scepticism about the war. In July 2004, Bishop Tom Frame, the only Australian Anglican bishop to back the invasion, admitted that he was wrong in supporting it. But the public support for Australian personnel in Iraq remained high (even if the war, American foreign policy and Bush were not supported).
The Labor Opposition did not support the 2003 deployment. The then Labor leader, Simon Crean, on 18 March 2003 called Howard's deployment decision 'reckless and unnecessary'. Mark Latham on 5 February 2003 called Bush the 'most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory'. He claimed that 'President Bush's foreign policy looks more like American imperialism than a well thought-through and resourced strategy to eliminate terrorists' and he dismissed Howard as a 'yes-man to a flaky and dangerous American president'.
Simon Crean was not a popular Opposition leader and he was replaced in late 2003 by Mark Latham. Crean was seen as a colourless, ex-trade-union official who was not making inroads against Howard. Latham, a protege of Labor legend Gough Whitlam, was seen as a person who would be more aggressive towards Howard. He has, to say the least, a colourful style of speaking. His March 2003 remarks prompted the American Ambassador to Australia to enter briefly the Australian political fray to express disapproval of the Labor Party's language. This backfired--Australians resent foreigners telling them how to behave. But it was an indicator that the language of Latham and his colleagues was causing annoyance.
However, as soon as Latham became Labor leader he praised the US-Australian military alliance. Labor leaders know that the military alliance is the key to Australian foreign and defence policy. Labor leaders may ruffle feathers but they will not kill the goose that lays the golden defence eggs.
Overall, Iraq did not figure in the election as much as could have been expected. The economy--especially the interest rate--was the key factor. Thankfully no Australian soldiers have (as at this writing) been killed in Iraq.
Some of the biggest personal criticisms of Howard have come from members of the 'establishment', if not members (or ex-members) of his Liberal Party. They despise him and they do not trust him.
Indeed, there seemed to be two approaches to defining 'trust'. On the one hand, there is the honesty and integrity (which motivated the 'establishment's' concerns). On the other hand, there is a more pragmatic meaning of delivering what the voters want (even if you have to lie to do it).
Howard, when calling the election, made trust an issue. Voters could trust his experienced team to deliver what they want, whereas Latham and many of his colleagues would be new to government if elected. The irony here is that one of the major criticisms of Howard (not least from alienated Liberal voters) is that people do not trust him. Some voters have a long memory and are unforgiving. Howard in 1996 ran as 'Honest John' promising to tell the truth. But he has--like all politicians--had a problem with truth. His biggest lie was that he would not introduce a goods and service tax (VAT) but then he did so.
The current spate of problems goes back to the 2001 election. Howard was destined to lose the election if public opinion surveys are a guide. Then there were some attempted landings in Australia by asylum seekers. Howard rose to the occasion by deeming such people as 'queue jumpers' (even though there are no queues to jump) and a potential threat to national security. The numbers involved were minute by world standards and, ironically, more arrive by air than by boat. But Howard was brilliant in manipulating public anxiety, and he divided the Labor Party. (Most asylum seekers met international criteria and were allowed to stay--after the election).
One boat sank and some lives were lost. Photographs were taken of children in the water, with Australian sailors risking their own lives to rescue them. Allegations were made that the asylum-seekers had deliberately thrown their children overboard. Some naval personnel are angry that Howard and his colleagues misused the photographs to manipulate public anxiety. The children had not been thrown overboard.
'Truth overboard' is now a phrase in Australian politics. Howard's credibility has been damaged in other ways: no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq; the Government ignored professional Australian intelligence advice to follow Bush into Iraq; there has been no proven link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden; and the US Occupation of Iraq has not gone smoothly.
In August 2004, a 'Group of 43' ex-military and ex-diplomats (led by former chief of the defence forces General Peter Gration) issued a public statement criticising the Government's foreign and defence policy. They said that Australia is no safer as a result of its involvement in Iraq and that it went contrary to the UN to get involved. This type of statement is unprecedented. There have long been rumours that senior people were dissatisfied with Howard's foreign policy. They have not been able to go public--but retirees can. There is an erosion of trust in Howard among the elite.
For example, Richard Woolcott, form a distinguished Melbourne family, a former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs, whose son Peter is now the Australian Ambassador to Italy, said: 'John Howard is essentially a conservative domestic political tactician ... what in the Soviet Union used to be called an apparachik--a person whose actions are not related to any particular vision of the country's future but to a dogged pursuit of short-term personal and party political survival. What John Howard has been very good at is making statements which are not actually untrue, but which are deceptive and intended to mask the real truth'.
But if the Prime Minister lied, most of the voters could not care. The high-minded 'establishment' may fuss over such matters as 'children overboard' and the legality of the war in Iraq in 2003. But most voters figured that politicians lie anyway and so the ends justify the means. Howard himself refuses to discuss the 'children overboard' affair--that is 'history' he says and Australia has moved on. Most voters agreed.
The 'Detribalization' of Australian Politics
Australian politics have traditionally been divided into two main tribes: Liberal (conservative) and Labor (with some votes going to marginal parties). But something odd is happening in politics. This article has already examined the concerns of the upper end of society--the traditional Liberal end--about Howard.
But there is an even greater change occurring in the Labor end. Mark Latham holds Gough Whitlam's old constituency in western Sydney. When Whitlam was there, there were working-class families in poor houses, poor roads, few pavements, and poor public transport. Now there are homes worth A$600,000, good landscaping and public transport is not necessary because so many families have at least one car. Western Sydney represents 42 per cent of Sydney's 4 million population. It is traditionally Labor heartland. The joke used to be that they did not have to count Labor voters--they just weighed them.
Parramatta--the demographic centre of Sydney--is a sign of the new 'west'. It was the most multicultural seat held by the Howard Government, with nearly half the residents speaking a language other than English at home. The roughnecks and hooligans have gone and instead families on a Saturday night dine alfresco on the broad shrub-lined pavements as though they were in Paris. Former lawyer Ross Cameron captured this area for the Liberals in 1996 (in the anti-Keating, anti-Labor backlash that first brought Howard to power) and he managed to hold onto it until 2004. As noted above, he lost it through his personal behaviour rather than any dissatisfaction with the Liberal Government. Labor has it back but the trend is clear: Labor cannot count on 'working class' people faithfully voting Labor as they have traditionally done.
Another sign of the times is that trade union membership has fallen below 25 per cent of the workforce. Thanks to globalization and the reform process initiated by Hawke and Keating in the 1980s, many of Australia's traditional factory jobs have gone (often overseas). People in the newer industries (such as computing) do not bother to join unions. The unions themselves have a poor image: old, fat anti-feminist men looking after themselves. Women and young people are not interested in joining such men's clubs. Trade unions have traditionally been Labor's main source of financial support. Now Labor has to look to business for some support (and so needs to be careful about its policies affecting business).
Australia is today largely a middle-class country. Many people may have a working class background or occupation but they have middle-class aspirations. They have a smaller number of children but live in much larger homes ('McMansions') than they grew up in. Like the middle class everywhere, they value stability and steadiness. They are not interested in lofty visions and high-minded idealism. They have an almost a-political attitude: providing they are doing well out of the economy they are not much interested in what is happening in politics.
Labor has been a victim of its own success. Its policies over the decades have helped lift many poor Australians out of poverty. But they are ungrateful. They are now more inclined to vote Liberal because they have some wealth to protect (such as from 'boat people'). They no longer have any sense of working class solidarity, whereby communities would work together to confront common problems (such as the Depression). Now it is everyone for themselves. They are not willing to share their wealth with others.
Besides, they never get quite enough wealth. As soon as they have one home appliance, they need another. The Labor Party may have been slow to recognize the transformation in western Sydney but the big, up-market department stores of central Sydney were not. Branches of their stores have now appeared in the west, with their charge cards. The euphoria of affluence has been combined with rising household debt--all the more reason to vote for a stable leader like Howard, who will keep things on an even keel.
To conclude, Labor has a real problem. It needs to devise policies to appeal to both the newly enriched people but also to look after the poor people who have been its traditional supporters. Not every Australian has benefited from the 'wonder down under'. Jobless families are raising almost 20 per cent of the country's children under fifteen. Many children are growing up in homes with no role models of what it is to be employed and for whom even the basic necessities of life are a struggle. Charities specializing in foreign aid are now providing breakfasts for children in Australian schools to prevent them from fainting from hunger in class.
There has been the Americanization of Australia: a shift from the traditional egalitarian Australian society to one with a growing gap between rich and poor. 'Two Australias' are now emerging. There is a great deal of rust underneath Howard's society of gloss and glitter. But Labor has yet to find a way of addressing this new era.
Dr Keith Suter is a writer and broadcaster. He holds many positions including that of Executive Director of National Goals and Directions, a think tank planning Australia's future.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The 2004 Australian Election. Contributors: Suter, Keith - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 285. Issue: 1667 Publication date: December 2004. Page number: 321+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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