Saturday, October 09, 2004
The Morning After

Well, I think it's fair to say that there are some surprised people in Australia this morning. The government of John Howard won a thumping great victory in yesterday's Federal Election, and on TV last night, even some of the Liberal Party commentators seemed somewhat taken aback that the government had actually increased its majority. Consider: this is a government that has been in office since 1996, so Howard has now won four elections on the trot (1996, 1998, 2001 and now this one.) Furthermore, this is the second time in two successive elections that Howard has actually increased his parliamentary majority. And - to make it even sweeter (for him) the ruling Liberal/National coalition look like they might even get control of the Senate for the first time.

So, yeah, it's surprising because it's far more usual for governments to lose support over time until eventually they're thrown from office. And it's surprising because as late as yesterday morning, the public opinion polls were predicting a very close result. One of the major public polls (Morgan, I think) was even tipping a Labor victory. They all got it wrong!

From the point of view of US observers, I don't think there's too much to read into this. Of course Howard's victory will give Bush a bit of comfort (after all, Little Johnny and W. are good mates - even hanging out together at the Crawford ranch), but the election issues were different here to what you're experiencing in the US, and hence the Australian result is not a big predictor of the US result.

Even though Australia is officially one of the glorious Coalition of the Willing, and has troops on the ground there, for many people here the Iraqi war was not a major issue. Our presence is not large - a few hundred troops - and Australians have been fortunate not to be amongst any of the casualties. May this remain so.

Instead, the big issue of the election campaign was the economy - and more precisely, which party managed to portray itself as the better economic manager. And it was here that the ruling Liberal Party (which, as you may remember, is really a conservative party ... Rule of thumb: in Australia, if the word "Liberal" has a capital L, then it means "conservative". If "liberal" has a small l, then it means "liberal". Confused? Yeah, so are most Liberals. Particularly the conservative Liberals.) ... where was I? Yes, it was on the subject of economic management that the Liberals managed to portray themselves in the best light, and basically wipe the floor with the Labor Party. In the final week of the campaign we were subjected to a barrage of attack ads, in every commercial break, from the Liberals, shrieking at us about how awful Labor would be, about how Latham would stuff everything up and about how interest rates inevitably rise under Labor governments. This may or may not be true - in Australia, as in the US, interest rates are set by the central bank, not by the government of the day, and most reputable economists disputed the government's claim that Labor = high interest rates. Nevertheless, the government's argument was a powerful one indeed in a country with record levels of personal indebtedness, at the tail end of a housing price boom. And it worked.

My own view? Well, yesterday was my first vote in an Australian election (only having become a naturalised citizen last year), so I have no history, but I can tell you this now - I'm certainly no Labor supporter. Based on my knowledge of their policies, and also the pretty impressive economic track record of the Liberals' eight and half years in office, I actually buy the argument that the economy will be in better shape under them. However, I voted Labor. Why? Because I am sick of being lied to by Howard. He's the guy who was bobbing up and down eighteen months ago justifying the Iraqi war on completely spurious grounds - grounds that he knew, or should have known were unsupported by the facts. I'm sickened by his preparedness to use the tactics of fear and vilification of certain groups (eg refugees) to further his own political ends.

Let me give you the best-known example of this. During the last election campaign, in 2001, there were reports of refugees sailing toward Australia, who apparently threw their babies into the sea in order to force the Australian Navy to rescue them, and thus bring them into the country. Howard and his ministers gleefully seized upon this report, as evidence that we don't want that kind of person in the country. The reports turned out to be false, and all the evidence suggests that Howard knew them to be false at the time - before the 2001 election. But he never corrected the story, adopting instead a position of plausible deniability to the suggestion that he knew it was wrong at the time, and instead allowed the story to run. This was three years ago, one whole electoral cycle ago ... but that's the kind of tactic that he is prepared to resort to for his own political gain.

Howard's a homophobe. Every year, the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras (one of the biggest regular events in Australia) invites a whole lot of dignitaries to write a message of welcome/support in the annual program. Every year there are short comments from persons such as the Lord Mayor of Sydney, the Premier of the state of New South Wales (where Sydney is), the Leader of the Opposition, the Federal Tourism Minister etc etc. Every year, the Prime Minister of Australia is invited to submit a brief paragraph, welcoming visitors and expressing support for a safe and happy time. No big deal, you would have thought. But, nope, every year, the Prime Minister of this country declines to comment. There's a whole raft of issues (such as same-sex marriage, pensions for surviving same-sex partners of defence force veterans, superannuation and adoption) where Howard has made his views quite clear. And he is quite clear that people who do not conform to his 1950s white-picket-fence, nuclear family model are not worthy of equitable consideration.

I could rant on for some time ... but I have taken enough real estate on this blog already. But this explains why I could not vote Liberal yesterday - even though I am not a Labor supporter. Even though I think it's probably right that the economy will be worse under Labor, that's the price we would have had to pay for getting rid of Howard.

It's all academic now.

7:41 PM ::
Mr Smithers :: permalink