Asia-Pacific

Australian Elections 2004

Howard Government Wins Historic Fourth Term

Australian Prime Minister John Howard celebrates his election victory

Prime Minister John Howard celebrates his historic fourth election victory with his family in Sydney on Oct. 9, 2004. (Photo: Torsten Blackwood/AFP-Getty Images)

The Liberal-National Coalition government, led by Prime Minister John Howard, has been re-elected for a historic fourth term in the Australian general election held on Oct. 9. The Coalition increased their majority in the House of Representatives by picking up a nationwide swing of around 3.5 percent and will control the Upper House Senate either in its own right, or with the support of the religious right-wing Family First party.

The remarkable victory – governments very rarely increase their majority in Australian elections – has elated the Coalition faithful and will give Howard the opportunity of becoming the second-longest serving Australian prime minister should he stay on for the full term of his next government.

An emotional Howard acknowledged his victory in his acceptance speech at Sydney’s Wentworth Hotel: "I cannot muster words adequate enough to express my sense of gratitude and humility for the great honor that you have again given me to lead this great nation," he said before cheering supporters. Howard went on to re-dedicate himself and his government to the service of the Australian people saying, “this nation stands on the threshold of a new era of great achievement.”

In conceding defeat, a disappointed but dignified Opposition Leader Mark Latham congratulated Howard on his emphatic election victory and accepted the judgment of the people: “I said during the campaign, on behalf of the Australian Labor Party, that we always honor and respect the decisions of the Australian people, their democratic verdict. And of course tonight is no exception. We ran on principle, we ran on our positive beliefs about hope and opportunity in this country, we wanted to put forward hope and opportunity for the Australian people, and we'll continue to advance our beliefs and our policies in the parliament in the coming three years.”

Running on a platform of responsible economic management and benefiting from a successful Coalition scare campaign of rising interest rates should the Opposition Labor Party assume power – an assumption which had no backing amongst economic experts – the Liberals were able to convince the Australian electorate that a vote for the untried Latham was an economic risk. The government also highlighted its national security credentials during the election campaign claiming its pro-U.S. stance and hawkish defense policy made it the preferred party on security issues.

Chief Labor strategist and frontbencher Bob McMullan acknowledged that the government’s campaign to scare the public on interest rate hikes had hurt his party and was difficult to counter. Calling it “one of the great lies of modern politics,” McMullan agreed that the tactic had worked however Coalition frontbencher Nick Minchin, speaking on ABC television, countered by suggesting the real reason for Labor’s failure was a flaw in strategy: "In relation to Labor's strategy, I think their failure was not to address this issue of economic competence much earlier in Mark Latham's leadership. It was clearly their big weakness - Mark Latham didn't talk about the economy until the election really started and even then not until the final week.”

Throughout the six-week long campaign, neither party was able to articulate a clear-cut “vision” for the future, preferring instead to allocate vast amounts of money in ever-increasing spending programs for the sole purpose of gaining votes. More than one political commentator likened the campaign to an auction, as both sides appeared to be trying to outbid each other in important issues such as health, taxation policy and the environment. This plethora of spending was confusing to the Australian people and may have been a factor in the Coalition’s victory.

Important, too, was the ability of the government to counter Labor criticism of Howard’s unquestioning support for the flawed invasion of Iraq by portraying the Opposition as “soft on terrorism.” Criticizing Labor’s own policy of returning Australian troops from Iraq as a “cut and run” policy, Howard was able to neutralize Iraq as an issue throughout the campaign.

The swing to the Coalition of around 3.5 percent almost mirrored the drop in support for the ultra-conservative One Nation party whose electoral demise was precipitated by the adoption of many of the party’s hard-line policies by the Liberal/National government. With the Family First party gaining a chance to hold the balance of power in the Senate, thus giving the government an easier passage for its own agenda, the Australian political landscape has moved inexorably towards the right.

This polarization of the electorate was exemplified by the demise of the center-left Australian Democrats. Formed in 1977 as an antidote to the major parties, the socially progressive party at one stage held the balance of power in the Upper House and was seen by many as a credible third alternative in Australian politics. However the Democrats saw their share of the primary vote drop in this election from 4.3 percent to 1.1 percent and look likely to lose their three Senate seats up for re-election.

The Democrats were swamped by the increase in support for the environmental Greens party. Though losing their only Lower House seat, the Greens increased their Senate representation establishing themselves firmly as the credible third force in Australian politics. Greens leader Bob Brown told ABC that he was happy with the result and attacked the campaign against his party run by the Liberal government.

"The Greens are a values party," Brown said. "We're new of course and Australians have taken a liking to us despite an extraordinary vilification campaign including from the prime minister. Australians knew better than that and they've voted Green tonight."

Questioned on the AM radio program as to his view of what lies ahead for Australia over the course of the next government, Senator Brown replied: “I think we're going to see a nastier Australia, on the back of this vote and I think that the Australia that we all think of with pride…I mean Prime Minister Howard spoke about us being respected around the world. We're not. We're just not respected in the way we used to be, as a country of the fair go and the country of egalitarianism. It's just we're not in that category anymore. And I think this next coming period of Parliament is going to be very tough on those Australians who don't fall within the Liberal view of the way the world works.”

The Howard government, secure in its new mandate from the Australian people will now attempt to implement the more controversial aspects of its program previously stymied by an unsympathetic Senate. The first major issue may very well be the proposed full sale of Telstra, the government-owned communications conglomerate.

The Labor Party has previously vigorously opposed the privatization program and, with the support of the Greens and Democrats in the Senate, managed to prevent the controversial policy from becoming law. However with the government now having the numbers to control the Senate, the successful passing of this legislation may well be the catalyst for the implementation of other controversial government legislation previously opposed by the Senate such as anti-union industrial relations policy and the relaxing of media ownership laws.

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