Australia: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Australia: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


AUSTRALIA'S conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, won a remarkable election victory on 10 November 2001, with a swing to his government of about two per cent. This is the greatest swing to a sitting government since 1966 and puts him on course to become Australia's second longest serving prime minister, behind his hero Sir Robert Menzies (1949-66). It is also a magnificent comeback by Mr Howard, who had been lagging behind the Labor party in the opinion polls until just before the election. In March 2001, the Howard Government received the lowest level of support ever recorded in nationwide opinion polls.

But the election victory came at considerable social cost. There was a great deal of division - even by the usual bruising standards of Australia's personality-based system of politics. The election was held without any great popular enthusiasm for any politician. The mood was more a matter of fear than hope. The country could now do with a period of healing but that is not in Mr Howard's style. It also needs a fresh sense of vision and excitement and Mr Howard cannot supply that either.

Why Did Howard Win?

There is continuing controversy over why Mr Howard did so well. He claims that the voters supported his strong leadership and wise stewardship of the economy, which continues to remain stable at a time of woe for other economies. But his critics claim that he won because of racism, xenophobia and war. They claim that his opportunistic use of Afghani asylum seekers, who sailed into Australian waters in August and who were rejected by the Prime Minister, enabled him to present a stem image against yet more 'boat people' (albeit a minute number compared with those who get into western Europe). Also, his critics claimed that the September 11 bombing and his commitment of Australian defence personnel to President Bush's war against terrorism enabled him to fight 'a khaki election'.

Second, the Labor party remains divided over whether its leader, Kim Beazley, had the right grand strategy. The Labor party deliberately avoided publishing its policies until the election season got underway. It was expecting to pick up the 0.8 per cent swing it needed to win power by capitalizing upon the widespread dislike for Mr Howard. It was expecting to use the Howard way to defeat Mr Howard.

A bit of history is essential. The Labor Party was elected to power in 1983 under Bob Hawke, who was then replaced by Paul Keating in 1991. Mr Keating, the Treasurer from 1983, was widely disliked as both Treasurer and then as Prime Minister. He lacked the friendly demeanour and matey style of Mr Hawke. The 1993 election saw Prime Minister Keating fight a challenge from the new Liberal Leader Dr John Hewson. (In Australia, the conservative party is known as the Liberal Party.) Dr Hewson, a former economics lecturer turned financier, produced a detailed tax reform package, which included a form of VAT: a Goods and Service Tax (GST). Mr Keating was brilliant in his attacks on the complexity of the GST and Dr Hewson was soon bogged down in explaining why, for example, a cold meat pie from one shop, would cost more when bought heated up in a cafe6. Dr Hewson lost the unlosable election and resigned.

Mr Howard returned in 1995 as Liberal Leader (a position he had held 1985-9). He decided to fight the 1996 election without any grand plans: his strategy was based on the simple fact that he was not Mr Keating and he left the voters' hatred for Mr Keating to push him over the line. The strategy worked. In so far as his policies were identified, Mr Howard subsequently abandoned many of them, calling them non-core promises. He added to the widespread cynicism felt about Australian politicians. Naturally, he soon became unpopular and he came within 0.8 per cent of losing the 1998 election against Mr Keating' s engaging successor Kim Beazley. Since clinging to power nationally in 1998, the Liberal Party lost power in almost every state and territory in their separate elections. …

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