WORLD

A clash of visions

Two opposites fight a close election over the nation’s identity

EAN HIGGINS March 4 1996
WORLD

A clash of visions

Two opposites fight a close election over the nation’s identity

EAN HIGGINS March 4 1996

A clash of visions

AUSTRALIA

Two opposites fight a close election over the nation’s identity

In the golden age of rock ’n’ roll, most Australian teenagers were content just to cruise down to the pub, chug a few beers and watch the band. But not a workingclass kid from Sydney named Paul Keating. Determined to be the greatest rock entrepreneur in the world, Keating sidled up to The Ramrods, offered to manage them, and cemented a partnership. “I could pick a commercial song in a fog a mile away,” Keating boasted many years later. The Ramrods never quite made the 1960s big time, but the sort of arrogant confidence and killer instinct Keating demonstrated in those early days took him on to a political career, which in 1991 made him prime minister of Australia. On March 2, after what is proving to be the most desperate election fight of his career, Keating, 52, will find out whether those same qualities will ultimately save or defeat him.

Australians will cast their ballots in a federal election in which Keating hopes bold charismatic leadership—including a grand vision of turning Australia from a Europe-oriented constitutional monarchy into an Asian-oriented republic—will win yet another term of office for his Labor party. Keating is, however, facing an electorate for whom 13 years of Labor’s “vision thing” is starting to wear thin. He is under attack from a conservative opposition determined to highlight that while he has been strutting the world stage, many Australians remain out of a job. “Keating’s style, if you were to draw a parallel with Canadian political history, would be someone like Pierre Trudeau,” says the head of the political science faculty at the Australian National University, John Warhurst, a specialist in Canadian and Australian politics. “Rather than fighting on the nitty-gritty issues, you try to be the bigpicture man.”

Personality features strongly in what political observers have described as Australia’s most presidential election campaign. Keating is up against his diametric opposite in John Howard, the leader of the Opposition. Around the same time that Keating was getting into the groove with The Ramrods, Howard was campaigning vigorously for the Liberal party in support of Australia’s participation in the Vietnam war. Newsreels of the period show Howard, with his diminutive stature, heavy glasses and starched white shirt, looking the ultimate square. Now, he parades his conservative style as a virtue.

During the campaign, Howard has repeatedly stressed the Methodist values he learned

in the middle-class Sydney of the 1950s, where his father started up a garage business. “The last thing you ever did was work for the government: you started your own business or you worked for a firm. You looked after your family,” Howard, 56, told an interviewer recently. A cartoon in The Sydney Morning Herald depicted him sporting rear-view mirrors mounted above his shoulders; in the background was a plaque marked 1950. If the public opinion surveys are correct, the Australian electorate is glancing in the same direction.

As of last week, the polls showed Howard ahead in his bid to form a government as leader of the long-standing conservative Coalition between the Liberal and National parties. The Coalition needs a swing of only 0.5 per cent to win a majority in the House of Representatives, the lower house of Parliament equivalent to Canada’s House of Commons. It was leading by about five to six

percentage points according to most polls— but Labor had halved the gap since the start of the campaign. In the Senate, which is elected by proportional representation and can block or amend legislation, neither side is likely to hold a majority. A collection of independents and minor parties, including leftleaning Greens and Democrats, is expected to continue to hold the balance of power.

While on paper the odds may seem against Keating, few pundits last week were prepared to call the election with any degree of confidence. “I think it’s going to be much closer than the polls are indicating,” said pollster Gary Morgan, executive chairman of the Roy Morgan Research Centre. The Coalition has started to stumble both literally and symbolically: Howard seriously twisted his ankle the same day he admitted he misrepresented a key element of his family tax-relief policy (it would, it turned out, benefit the rich as well as

ordinary folk). The Coalition has also been badly embarrassed by the racial outbursts of politicians from the conservative, rural-based National Party. After one Queensland candidate referred to Australia’s citizenship swearing-in as “de-wogging ceremonies,” a prominent MP flayed “slanty-eyed ideologues” for raising a storm about it. Howard disowned the remarks, but they did nothing to help his eight-year-long effort to rebuild bridges with Australia’s ethnic communities after he questioned the rate of Asian immigration. Three decades after the end of the notorious White Australia policy, which restricted nonEuropean immigration, the country is now about five per cent ethnic Asian. Gerard Henderson, head of the conservative thinktank The Sydney Institute, said the political damage from the racial jibes could hit undecided voters throughout Australia’s generally tolerant populace. “People just feel uncomfortable with that sort of thing,” he said.

For all of Australia’s 18 million citizens, the election will mark a turning point, with the nation poised to choose between two very different pictures of its place in the world. During the campaign, Keating has promoted the aggressive, outward-looking vision he championed in office, first as treasurer and then as prime minister after a leadership coup against his erstwhile mentor, Bob Hawke. Under Keating, Australia engaged in a whirlwind program of financial deregulation, tariff reduction and public asset sales more reminiscent of a conservative government. He has led a push to integrate Australia with Asia, promoting the Asia-Pacific Econo-

mic Co-operation forum, which groups Pacific Rim nations including Canada. Just before calling the election, Keating revealed he had secretly negotiated a security pact with the nation previously seen as Australia’s most immediate threat—neighboring, militaryrun Indonesia. Earlier in his term, he stunned Australians by launching a controversial campaign to break once and for all the nation’s links with Britain, proposing that the Queen be replaced as head of state by an Australian president.

Howard, by contrast, remains a staunch supporter of the monarchy, and in his campaign launch made dithering on Asia something of a virtue. “That region is very important to us, but it is not important to us to the exclusion of our other associations,” he said. “As a nation we, of course, carry with us a projection of Western civilization, of our relationships with so many of the nations of Europe and, of course, we have deep historical ties with the nations of North America.” Howard has also homed in on the fact that Keating’s economic transformation, while leaving Australia generally in better shape than when Labor took office in 1983, has not benefited everyone. Keating claims to have turned around the budget deficit, with a forecast surplus of $3.7 billion in the coming year, though many economists doubt it will be achieved. Annual economic growth is currently 3.3 per cent and rising, while inflation is mild, but both factors reflect Australia coming off the bottom of a recession three years ago. The overall unemployment rate stands at 8.6 per cent

m COMMON WEALTH l+l

Australia and Canada have much in common, given their vast land areas and their historical ties with Britain. Both have generous social programs, and both worry about American influence. Each promotes multiculturalism while encouraging global immigration. Even their currencies are nearly at par. But these days, Australia’s economy is in better shape than Canada’s.

AUSTRALIA CANADA

Area 3,072,920 sq. mi. 3,681,284 sq. mi.

Population 18 million 30 million

Foreign-born 22% 17%

Economic growth 3.3% 1.9%

Per capita income $23,000 $26,000

Inflation 3.3% 2.1%

Unemployment 8.6% 9.6%

Budget deficit $4.5 billion $32 billion

National debt $181 billion $573 billion

and youth unemployment is what Howard described as a national shame at 28 per cent With Keating himself having opened up the economy the same way a conservative government would, room to manoeuvre in that realm is limited. “Like Canada, we are increasingly part of the international economy, so you are not going to see much difference in economic policy,” Henderson said. Rather, Howard’s solution to unemployment goes right back to his roots in his father’s garage—to “liberate the small business sector” by reducing red tape and freeing up labor laws. Industrial relations is one of the few real policy differences in the election. Howard proposes to replace unfair dismissal laws, which he says hamper employers, and to ensure that membership in unions is voluntary. He would also encourage individual labor contracts as an alternative to Australia’s century-old system of industry-wide, unionnegotiated “awards” governing nearly everyone’s pay and conditions. In response, unions have threatened industrial turmoil if the Coalition wins.

On most other issues, the two competitors have moderated their policies or stolen each other’s. The Liberals have learned from the last election in 1993, when then-Opposition leader John Hewson took the extraordinary step of being up front with the electorate, announcing plans well in advance to introduce a Goods and Services tax and much more radical labor reform. That gave Labor plenty of time to attack his policies, notably by citing the widespread Canadian hatred of the GST. Keating went on to win the election—defying pollsters, journalists and even his own advisers who said Labor was finished. This time, Howard refused to release his program before the election was called, and removed most of the controversial elements, including the GST.

With policy issues blurred, the party campaigns have turned to American-style TV attack ads. Coalition advertisements have highlighted unemployment and Keating’s arrogance; one replayed news footage in which he told a young protester to “go get a job,” preceded by another clip of Keating denying making the remark. Labor has championed Keating’s leadership, and asks whether Howard, having abandoned so many of his long-held policy positions, stands for anything. Some voters may have been put off by Keating’s combative style, which has included calling the Senate “unrepresentative swill” and his political opponents “scum bags” or “perfumed gigolos.” But as Ann Capling, a Canadian who teaches political science at the University of Melbourne, pointed out, the Trudeau analogy may again apply to Keating. “You either love him or hate him, but even if you hate him, people have a grudging respect for him,” she said. On election night, Labor will be hoping that Keating remains the leader Australia loves to hate.

EAN HIGGINS