Narrow Defeat

Australia’s conservative federal government is reeling after three punishing blows to its coalition parties this year from a volatile electorate. Prime Minister John Howard’s Liberal-National Party government, which has been in power in Canberra for nearly six years, narrowly lost a crucial House of Representatives by-election on March 17.

The election was held in the suburbs of Brisbane, capital of the northern state of Queensland, which is home to One Nation Party founder Pauline Hanson. Hanson had caused anger and dismay throughout Australia—and also in Southeast Asia—for publicly expressing extremist views, especially on Asian migration (she wanted it severely cut back), government assistance to Aborigines, and national gun control.

The losing candidate, Bob Tucker, a former Liberal state president, was responsible for withdrawing Hanson’s endorsement as a Liberal candidate in her home town of Ipswich before the 1996 federal election.

Prime Minister Howard campaigned with Tucker in the affluent suburbs of Ryan, but Labor Party candidate Leonie Short won by 100 votes in a recount. If translated nationally, the ruling coalition’s loss in Ryan would put the Labor Party under Kim Beazley into government. Howard admitted it was “a bad result” but added: “I reject completely any suggestion that it spells inevitable the general election.” Maybe. But the result will inevitably affect government policies leading up to the general elections, probably in October.

Like the prime minister, Beazley also maintained a high profile in Ryan. But his critics say he produced few alternative policies and rode to victory on the government’s unpopularity. Sydney’s centrist The Australian was blunt on March 20: “Mr. Beazley should realize that voters are starting to look for him to flesh out his agenda.”

But Fia Cumming observed in the centrist Sun-Herald of Sydney on March 18 that the Ryan results showed that public resentment toward the government was “deep and wide, and extends even to the Liberal heartland.”

Last year when Howard set the by-election date—ironically, for the ides of March—his government was confident of a safe win. Then disaster struck for the coalition parties. A state election in normally conservative West Australia, Beazley’s home state, saw the Liberal government resoundingly defeated.

But worse was to come—in Queensland, where the state government under Premier Peter Beattie was hanging on by a thread after allegations of electoral irregularities by MPs in several Labor Party electorates. Beattie called a snap election. With a weak and divided opposition, the government recorded a landslide victory. Prime Minister Howard claimed that state issues had determined the Western Australia and Queensland results, but few believed him. Analysts attributed the anti-coalition sentiment to steady increases in gas prices and the free fall of the Australian dollar.

Then there was the Pauline Hanson factor. Hanson’s lethal weapon in the state elections was to allocate One Nation preferences away from sitting coalition MPs, thus handing a number of marginal seats to the Labor opposition. Hell hath no fury like a woman disendorsed.

No one knows quite what to expect of a Beazley government, since until now, it’s been largely a hypothetical question.