Magazine article Contemporary Review

The 1996 Australian Federal Election

Magazine article Contemporary Review

The 1996 Australian Federal Election

Article excerpt

The Australian Labour Party's defeat in the March 1996 federal election was its worst defeat since 1931. This article, after a brief review of Australia's recent governments, examines the three main reasons for the defeat: the feeling that Labour had been in office for too long; the Liberal-National Party's eventual ability to provide an electorally appealing case; and the resentment felt by many Australians at the quick pace of economic change. It concludes with a comment on the increasing disillusionment felt by many voters about politics in general.

It is an irony of Australian politics that the Labour Party is the country's oldest party and yet rarely trusted by the voters with power. After the 1931 defeat, Labour was out of power until 1941. Its 1941-9 period saw the Labour Government victorious in wartime and it laid down much of the economic thinking that remained in Australian politics until the 1980s, that is, a vastly increased government role in running the economy as per the ideas of the British economist John Meynard Keynes. After 1949, Labour was out of power for 23 years.

Gough Whitlam led Labour's return to power in 1972 with the 'It's Time' slogan: a promise to make up for the way in which the country had apparently stood still under Sir Robert Menzies (1949-65) and his three lacklustre successors. Whitlam led the country through a dazzling array of reforms. The conservative opposition of the Liberal-National Party exploited the public's fears about the pace of change. On 11 November 1975, the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr, sacked the Whitlam Government. The precise circumstances for that decision remain controversial. Labour remained out of power for eight years.

Labour returned to power in 1983, led by Bob Hawke, formerly President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. The conservative Fraser Government (1975-83) had been marked by bitterness and strife and Hawke promised to 'bring Australia together'. After the turbulence of the Whitlam and Fraser years, this was an attractive promise. Labour's thirteen years in office was easily the longest period that any Labour Government had enjoyed nationally.

The first reason for Labour's defeat was the perception that it had been in power for too long. It was seen as too arrogant and too removed from the people. In effect, the Liberal-National Party could claim that 'it's time' for a change. But the Liberal leader, John Howard, was no charismatic Gough Whitlam, promising sweeping changes. On the contrary, the election was tedious, with no great drama. The first week of the campaign was dominated by a disagreement over which television presenter would be the moderator in the televised debates between the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition. By the fourth and final week, the election was overshadowed by a really crucial issue: how rugby matches were to be run.

Australians are rarely excited by politics. Australian participation in the Vietnam war in the 1960s (which required conscripting Australians) and the passions excited by the Whitlam era are exceptions to the trend. Most Australians agree on most issues, most of the time. The Liberal Party capitalized on this in 1996. Their policies were not greatly different from Labour's; they were simply promising a cleaner, more efficient government with new faces.

Bob Hawke was Australia's most popular politician throughout the 1980s. He had a record for being a drunken womaniser with a taste for gambling. But (unlike the more moralistic British and American voters), these are not automatic hindrances in Australian political life. He consistently won elections: 1983, 1984, 1987 and 1990. He was removed (on the second attempt) in 1991 by Paul Keating, the former Treasurer (1983-91), who decided that it was his turn to be Prime Minister. Keating's grab for power was supported by most of his colleagues, who believed that Hawke had been in office too long and was losing his political edge. …

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