It is time for this miserable government to go.
Australia is a very different nation from what it was prior to John Howard's election in 1996. It has not been a change for the better.
Ask Australians what good this government has done and see what they say. Most of us are hard-pressed to think of anything beyond the uniform National Gun Laws. But even these were only instituted after the horror of the Port Arthur shootings and with the full support of the ALP against the resistance of some elements of the coalition. The Liberal and National parties have spent years opposing gun control in the various state parliaments. Two years after Port Arthur, the Howard government sat on its hands as some of the states attempted to water down the laws.
Some people will parrot the government's cry of sound economic management as its greatest achievement, but where is the evidence for this? Inflation and interest rates are low, but this was the case before the last election. Only the most blinkered conservative would seriously suggest that the egregious Peter Costello has engineered this conjunction of favourable economic indicators.
The budget is in surplus, some will argue. Yes, but at what cost? Public services have been attacked. Health funding has been cut. Nursing homes have been treated as just another commodity to be traded. Legal Aid has been slashed. Universities have been led even further down the corporate path to the detriment of teaching and research. The nation's assets are under threat of privatisation. Industrial Relations has become a dog-eat-dog world of survival, aided and abetted by a government that provokes confrontation and encourages its friends to use armed guards and dogs against working Australians. The unemployed have been attacked and victimised by this government's changes to employment services.
Unemployment remains intractably high and youth unemployment particularly so. What has been the government's solution? A band-aid "work for the dole" scheme, allowing Howard to show television commercials of himself surrounded by grateful young people who have been sold the cynical message that they are developing a work ethic. Meanwhile, Howard and his economically rationalist supporters in the media ridicule Kim Beazley's unemployment targets and defend their botched "reforms" of the Commonwealth Employment Service.
And what does this government offer us as a "great adventure" for the next century? A new tax. Paul Keating never spoke a truer word when he said that a GST was a fifth-order issue. It's not as if the government is proposing to collect less tax. All we have is an argument over the way in which tax is collected. Worse, the government acknowledges that a consumption tax is a regressive tax that has a greater adverse impact on low income earners. We'll compensate them, they cry! So what we get are income tax cuts that favour the highest income earners.
Economic management is not the only, and certainly not the main criterion by which governments should be assessed. We should prefer to judge a government by what it says and does in those areas that don't cost money. Governments committed to the democratic process, to constitutional reform, the independence of the judiciary, anti-discrimination, race relations and progressive foreign policy are the governments that ought to capture our imaginations. History will judge them and us not by the size of an income tax cut but by the breadth of our vision and our compassion for those less fortunate than ourselves.
This government has reduced everything to a bottom line dollar equation. It has embraced the age of user-pays with a vengeance. It refused to endorse an historic greenhouse emissions agreement. It has proposed nothing in the way of electoral reform, other than a dubious plan by the cynical Senator Nick Minchin to make voting optional. It has proposed no changes to our out-moded constitution. The Prime Minister has clung pathetically to the English monarchy, preferring an overseas hereditary queen as Head of State over an Australian, however chosen.
This is a government that has attacked the High Court over its decisions, particularly in relation to native title. The Deputy Prime Minister has been rebuked by the Chief Justice of the Court for threatening its independence. Daryl Williams has refused to perform the usual role of the nation's Attorney-General to defend the judiciary. Howard has appointed hard-line conservatives to the High Court bench, including one judge whose own integrity and professional conduct is under question.
It has been a government that has seen more ministers sacked or forced to resign than any in our history. And they have not been forced out because of any great moral issue that requires courageous ministers to take a stand. No, they all went because they were either caught with their hands in the travel rorts till or because they showed no comprehension of the concept of conflict of interest between their private affairs and their public duties. One of their number has survived the most outrageous conflict of interest claims simply because he is a friend of Howard's and because Howard could not afford to lose another body.
This government has been mean-minded and obsessive in its determination to wipe away any vestige of the Labor years. Howard's personal friend is appointed Chairman of the ABC and the national broadcaster's budget is slashed in successive budgets. None of this stops Liberals from attacking the ABC for bias, but the corporation's chairman is able to lavish praise on Howard at a Liberal Party fundraiser. At the same function, one of the nation's largest media proprietors gives public support to Howard. In return, the government refuses to rule out changes to the media cross-ownership rules. A prominent Liberal and ABC director, Michael Kroger, attacks the ABC for bias and then takes up his regular election night spot on Channel 9, the network owned by the man who once retained Kroger to lobby his cause in Canberra.
But it is on that great moral issue of our time that this government has so openly revealed the hardness at its core. From the moment the coalition members of parliament all voted together in 1993 to oppose the passage of the Native Title Act, they have sought to attack the very concept of native title, refusing to concede its validity. This government has sought to deny indigenous Australians their common law property rights through the disgraceful Wik 10-Point Plan. A renegade Labor senator and a posturing Tasmanian independent connived in the legislation of this travesty of justice.
And so we face an election where these wretched people, if the polls can be believed, are confronting a disillusioned electorate that will certainly censure it, but not necessarily defeat it.
They should defeat it.
They should elect Kim Beazley because he is manifestly a man of character and compassion. We do not have to be embarrassed listening to Beazley talk about issues. We do not have to cringe at the suburban provinciality when Beazley speaks. We can have much confidence that here is a man who has a grasp of the issues relevant to Australia, but who also has an abiding interest in the rest of the world.
We can have confidence that a Labor government will take heed of the cries from disparate sections of the Australian community for a more humanitarian approach to government. We know that historically it is only Labor governments who will truly care for the dispossessed and disadvantaged. We know that it is Labor governments who believe in health care for all, better education and public services. We know that it is Labor governments who gave us social security, racial and sexual discrimination laws and a democratic electoral system.
We know that Labor governments will act within a framework of belief that government can do much good. Indeed, it is only Labor governments in Australia that today understand that the people need hard-nosed compassionate government to safeguard them from the ravages of the "market". Whatever the sins of the Hawke and Keating years in taking us down the path of economic rationalism, we can be confident that a Labor government will not see government as something to be downsized for its own sake, as something to be privatised for the commercial advantage of its friends and supporters.
Most of all, we can have confidence that Beazley will bring to the job a sense and knowledge of history. The incumbent brings little more than an over-weening ambition and the prejudices of a man who yearns for a time that never was.
Undoubtedly, John Howard's greatest failure in the last 30 months has been his attitude to Pauline Hanson. He may well be right when he says that it is foolish to believe that a speech from him in September 1996 would have stopped her campaign in its tracks. But the point is that he never even attempted to do so. No doubt this professional politician intuitively understood the strength of her message to the disaffected in many parts of Australia, particularly the rural and urban fringe areas. He understood that she appealed in the main to the natural constituency of the Liberal and National parties, a constituency whose support he will be relying on this Saturday. So he extolled the virtues of free speech and only attacked her when he was forced to by the strength of public opinion and electoral reality. Even now, he continues to tout openly for her support as the polls indicate he will need One Nation preferences to survive. Even now, he attacks her opponents instead of Hanson and her sinister organisers.
It has not been an edifying experience. We should all be embarrassed and outraged at the performance of this political double act: the cynical prime minister and the ignorant Hanson have together taken us all on a degrading trip into the darkest and most disturbing recesses of the Australian psyche. Under Howard, racism has stalked the land.
But we should not be surprised by any of this. Whilst even the most partisan Labor supporters know that Liberal leaders like Malcolm Fraser would never have tolerated or condoned what Howard has tolerated and condoned, there is a larger view of the two sides of Australian politics. John Howard is just the latest in a long line of Liberal leaders who adopted the political tactic of division and hatred. His political ancestors painted their Labor opponents as communists in the 1950s. They depicted Labor as traitors whilst they dragged us into the cynicism of Vietnam. They demonised Gough Whitlam as a dictator in the 1970s and then mis-used the constitution to destroy him.
And now the latest incumbent seeks re-election after two and a half years of shoddy government and vindictive policies.
We should vote them out on Saturday.
© Malcolm Farnsworth
30 September 1998