Asia-Pacific

Australian Elections

Third Time’s a Charm

Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s Liberal-National Party Coalition federal government was re-elected with an increased majority on Nov. 10, giving him a historic third term in government. Labor Party Opposition Leader Kim Beazley will retire to the backbenches, and probably leave parliament in the new year. Beazley’s right-wing deputy, Simon Crean, the uncharismatic former president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, will succeed him—for the interim, anyway. Leftist Jenny Macklin, also from Melbourne, will become Labor’s first federal woman deputy leader.

Virtually eliminated was the right-wing and often racist One Nation Party of Pauline Hanson. Neither Hanson nor her party’s other Senate hopeful Graham Campbell in Western Australia will even come close to being elected. Most One Nation voters appear to have returned to the coalition.

Paul Kelly, international editor of Rupert Murdoch’s national daily The Australian, wrote on Nov. 12: “John Howard has achieved his third election victory by pulling off one of the most stunning recoveries in the nation’s political history. [But] he faces daunting challenges that point to a highly unpredictable three-year term—a boat-people policy under assault, a protracted war on terrorism, and a global economic downturn.”

Prime Minister Howard’s firm support for President George W. Bush’s war against terrorism, and Australia’s quick response with military support, shored up his leadership credentials with voters, according to most political commentators. But writing in the Sun-Herald on Nov. 4, Brian Toohey said: “The time has come for Labor to take some campaign risks. It could start by criticizing the bombing of Afghanistan for adding to the flood of refugees.” It didn’t.

A leading article in the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) on Nov. 3-4 linked the refugee crisis unequivocally to Australia’s diplomatic problems in its relations with Indonesia. In August, Howard controversially turned away Afghan refugees aboard the Tampa who were seeking asylum in Australia after being turned away from Indonesia. The paper said: “Mr. Howard’s demands that Indonesia take back boatloads of Iraqi and Afghan asylum-seekers and his statement that [Indonesia’s] President Megawati Sukarnoputri ‘must understand’ the need for a united front against terrorism, were counterproductive.”

The SMH spent most of the campaign deriding the prime minister and his coalition policies. Interestingly, Labor fared badly in New South Wales while the coalition vote increased by more than 6 percent.

The Age, which had advised its readers to vote Labor, said (Nov. 12): “The great paradox is that the government has won a mandate to pursue policies that are unsustainable. We cannot continue shelving our responsibilities for assessing asylum-seekers by pushing them on to impoverished Pacific nations. We cannot ignore the damage these actions are doing to our reputation in the region and further afield.”

Fans of the ubiquitous cult of psephology were pleased to note that the two main opinion polls published on Election Day—Sol Lebovic’s Newspoll for the Murdoch stable and A.C. Nielsen’s for the Fairfax papers—got close to predicting the right result, apart from underestimating the rise of the Greens.

But the Gary Morgan poll for Kerry Packer’s Bulletin said Labor was well in front, especially in the marginal seats. Morgan could not have been too happy with Bulletin editor in chief Paul Bailey’s estimate of his own pollster’s conclusions. Bailey wrote that he expected this week’s Morgan poll “to raise some eyebrows among political watchers who feel the Coalition is still substantially ahead in this last week.”

Writing in the nation’s leading business magazine, Business Review Weekly (Nov. 8-14), Nicholas Way said, “As much as Beazley and his close coterie of minders will blame electoral defeat on the Tampa and Sept. 11, this will not stop a policy and strategy debate erupting....Labor continues to underestimate Prime Minister John Howard,” Way stated. But they will not do so anymore.

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