It’s a funny thing about elections. On election eve, party leaders of all persuasions piously claim something like “complete confidence in the innate good sense of the Australian people”. After it’s all over, the loser always claims that those same Australian people were dumb enough to be conned by the dirty tricks and lies of the other side.
So, despite the usual biased media coverage, with the ABC and the Fairfax press descending to new depths, it seems that those same Australians who, on Friday possessed such good sense, had, by Sunday, become the victims of a deceitful campaign of lies by the Government. At least, that is the ALP’s story.
What this tells us is that there will never be any hope for Labor until it can face up to the fact that its party apparatchiks are completely out of touch with the way Australians think. After all, there has to be some reason why the ALP has only won government from opposition twice in the last sixty years. And in both those cases, Whitlam in 1972 and Hawke in 1983, it was the government of the day – led by Billy MacMahon and Malcolm Fraser respectively – that lost, rather than the Opposition that won.
So let us look at this campaign from the perspective of two key components – leadership and policy.
There can be no doubt that most Australians are weary of John Howard and the visionless performance of his Government. While they feel a grudging respect for his endurance and determination, they feel that a more multidimensional view of Australia and its needs is wanted. His Iraq adventure, whatever one thinks of it, has certainly cost him some support across party lines. But having said that, he is the devil we know and he presides over an economy that is booming, at least in the cities where most voters reside, although if he decides to honour his election promises, he will be putting all that at risk.
As to Latham, the electorate, throughout the campaign was endeavouring to ascertain the character of this man and trying to come to grips with his enigmatic personality. Thus, polls showed about 19% still undecided on Friday, leaving most pollsters predicting a 50/50 split. In the event, of course, the result was quite different and the Prime Minister has crowned his career with the outstanding achievement of four successive election victories, going on to overtake Bob Hawke as Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister after Bob Menzies.
Despite Latham’s ability to communicate, and the desire for change, the things that worried voters most were his class war paradigm of Australian society, his immaturity and his inexperience. In this last quality, the Coalition’s advertising of Mayor Latham of Liverpool was cruelly effective.
But Latham is his own worst enemy. His self-proclaimed status as a hater comes across throughout all his rhetoric and he is seen as a man who will bring unprecedented division to Australian society. His policies reflected that, particularly in health and education. The bottom line for Latham, and more particularly the ALP strategists, is that at the last election, Kim Beazley battled both the Tampa affair and the terrorist strike on the WTO headquarters and still won more seats than Latham. It begs the question why the ALP caucus preferred Latham to Beazley as Simon Crean’s replacement.
The policy war was enough to frighten the horses, with money being thrown around as can only happen when those not owning it are spending it. It is hard to recall an election in which the bribery was more profligate and undisguised. Both sides indulged in spending sprees that, if implemented, would be severely prejudicial to the national economic well-being. But it demonstrated one thing – the government is collecting far too much in taxation and should hand back great whacks of it.
Medicare Gold, aimed at Howard’s perceived strength with the grey vote, proved to be a lemon. The elderly were able to see that, without more doctors, hospitals and nurses, the arbitrary removal of waiting lists for over 75’s would only extend the queues for the under 75’s. Perhaps older Australians also have more integrity than Latham, preferring to see beds allocated on the basis of need, rather than age. The extent of the failure of this policy can be measured by looking at the seat of Dobell, located in the costa geriatrica – NSW’s Central Coast. The sitting Liberal member, Ken Ticehurst, although opposed by a Melbourne Cup field of candidates, enjoyed a 5% swing.
Similarly, the ALP’s education policy was a manifestation of the politics of class and ignored the fact that many parents make a considerable sacrifice to send their children to schools that reflect their values, in the process rescuing them from the New Class brainwashing of the public education system. If anything was going to turn middle Australia off, it was the prospect of throwing more money at public schools at the expense of taxpayers who choose to educate their children elsewhere.
There is a real dilemma here for Labor. Being beholden to unions brings with it the downside of being obliged to advocate irrational and plain stupid union-friendly policies, such as the employment of more teachers and nurses. But even blind Freddie knows that this is not going to fix the problems in health and education and indeed, will probably make them worse.
What is required is a completely new approach to the major expense portfolios of health, aged care and education. While medical science has advanced significantly over the last thirty years, our approach to managing health and health-related problems hasn’t.
For example, employing registered nurses as a key resource in aged care has whiskers on it. Old people in nursing homes and hostels aren’t sick; they’re dying, and all the nurses in the world will not alter that outcome. Aged residents of these facilities need love, personal care and assistance, companionship and conversation, not the high-tech clinical skills and services of registered nurses, which can be found in public hospitals when required. But governments have become captive to the emotional blackmail of self-interested nursing unions, whose aim is to maintain membership numbers, preserve union control of the employment conditions of nurses and maximise political influence.
In education, parents understand what governments don’t, and unions won’t – changes are needed to the training and monitoring of teachers and teaching standards. Until openness and public access to objective educational standards and curricula are introduced, public education will wallow in the morass of ignorance and irrelevance to which ideologically motivated union leaders and cowardly governments have brought it.
On the environment front, Labor’s Greens deal backfired, costing it two Tasmanian seats. The ALP strategy was to preserve Labor’s inner city strongholds such as Sydney, Grayndler and Melbourne and, in the event, Tanya Pilbersek, Anthony Albanese and Lindsay Tanner, respectively, all members of the ALP Left, were re-elected without much trouble. The expected Greens assault was exaggerated and Greens Leader Bob Brown was the second most disappointed figure – after the ABC’s Kerry “the Red” O’Brien – on election night.
For Labor, more than an election post-mortem is required – they need to have a strategic re-think of where they are going to pitch themselves in the political market place. If they continue to reach out to the Greens, they will alienate the middle ground of Australian politics, which better understands environmental issues than ALP strategists in Sydney and Canberra. Australians want environmental protection, but not of the sort advocated by the Greens.
The overriding determinant in this election was the economic prosperity enjoyed by most Australians. That was always going to require a carefully crafted pitch from the Opposition, if it was to win government. In the event, they reached back into history to run a campaign based on class envy, opting for the same old tired policies of rewarding public sector unions, while abandoning genuine workers. It was a campaign for a different generation.
Australians can only hope that the ALP will send its strategists out to talk with ordinary citizens, so that they might come to grips with what concerns them. Because Australia needs change, and I don’t mean from Howard to Costello.
Our nation has been lumbering along for over one hundred years. Our system of government has outlived its usefulness. Our democracy has been taken captive by a political class whose vital interests are quite different to those of ordinary Australians. There are four vital questions that Australians want answered;
How can we get decent people into Parliament under our present preferential two-party system?
How can we get the needed political reforms through in our present system?
How can we get government that represents citizens, rather than parties, in our present system?
How can we get the Constitutional reform that citizens, as opposed to political parties, want under our present system?