Press "Enter" to skip to content 1998 Federal Election – Week 3

Labor Government Elected in Tasmania

BaconTwo weeks after the election, the result has finally been declared in Tasmania. Liberal Premier, Tony Rundle, conceded defeat yesterday and Labor leader, Jim Bacon, will be sworn in as Premier tomorrow. Bacon will head a majority government, the ALP having captured 14 of the 25 seats in the House of Assembly.

The ALP was last in government between 1989 and 1992, when Michael Field formed a minority government with the support of the Greens. The alliance with the Greens collapsed in acrimony and in 1992 the Liberals under Ray Groom were elected with an absolute majority. At the 1996 election, they lost this majority, Groom resigned, and Tony Rundle formed a minority Liberal administration. The election on August 29 was called early after the Liberals and Labor joined together in Parliament to reduce the size of the lower house from 35 to 25 members. Under the Hare-Clark system of proportional voting used in Tasmania, this increased the quota required to win a seat and effectively eliminated the Greens as a political force. The poll also saw the election of the youngest member of any parliament in Australia, Matt Smith, aged 20, who won a Liberal seat in the electorate of Franklin.

The ALP’s win in Tasmania brings to 3 the number of Labor governments in Australia. The ALP gained office in Queensland on June 13 under Peter Beattie, although its hold on power is threatened by possible sex charges against a Labor backbencher and a challenge in the Court of Disputed Returns to the result in the seat of Mansfield. The other Labor government in New South Wales goes to the polls in March next year.

Election news this weekend centres around the allocation of preferences and the TV debate tonight. One Nation has alleged that Belinda Neal, the ALP candidate for Robertson in NSW, approached them about a preference deal. Neal denies the allegation. In Queensland, Pauline Hanson has been placed last on the how-to-vote cards of Labor, Liberal and National parties, severely diminishing her chances of winning Blair. The Queensland National Party Director, Ken Crooke, has claimed that One Nation sought a deal in which they would give preferences to Tim Fischer in his NSW seat of Farrer in return for National Party preferences in Blair. In Western Australia, the Liberal Party has decided to place One Nation last, easing the pressure on Kim Beazley in Brand.

The television debate between Prime Minister Howard and Opposition Leader Beazley takes place tonight at 7.30pm. It will be hosted by Ray Martin and shown simultaneously on Channel 9 and the ABC.

Whilst Beazley said yesterday that he was nervous about the debate, Howard reminded Beazley of his own words about his long ministerial experience. Beazley was elected to the Perth seat of Swan in 1980, having been beaten for pre-selection for Fremantle by John Dawkins in 1977. Throughout the 1980s, Beazley retained the seat by narrow margins. In 1996, he transferred to Brand following the retirement of Wendy Machin. He won that seat by 387 votes, whilst Swan was lost to the Liberals. Beazley was a minister for every day of the 13 years the ALP was in government between 1983 and 1996, a record of ministerial service seldom equalled.

Howard was first elected to the House of Representatives electorate of Bennelong in 1974 and has held the seat ever since. He was first appointed to the ministry by Malcolm Fraser in 1975, becoming Minister for Business and Consumer Affairs. He became Treasurer during the election campaign in 1977, taking over from Phillip Lynch who had become embroiled in a Victorian land deals scandal. Howard remained Treasurer until the defeat of the Fraser government at the 1983 election. He became Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party under Andrew Peacock and took the leadership from Peacock in 1985 after he rebuffed an attempt by Peacock to remove him as Deputy. Howard lost the 1987 election against Hawke and was toppled by Andrew Peacock in 1989. Following the election losses of 1990, 1993 and 1996, Howard was eventually returned to the leadership following the disastrous 8 months when Alexander Downer led the Oppposition. Howard won the 1996 election in one of the biggest landslide victories in Australian political history.

So the debate tonight is undoubtedly between two men with a vast amount of political experience. A Real Audio broadcast of the debate will be available on this page later tonight.

This web site has been listed as semi-finalist in the Telstra/Australian Financial Review Australian Internet Awards. The site is one of 21 semi-finalists in the Educational category. Click here to see a full list of the semi-finalists. My thanks to whoever is responsible for the nomination of the site. You can also cast a vote for as the most popular Australian web site (well, it is election time and we might be able to outpoll last year’s winner, the Melbourne Football Club…!)

Howard and Beazley Meet In Televised Debate

BeazleyThe Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader debated each other for one hour last night on national television in a meeting that ranks as one of the better election debates of recent times. Neither leader stumbled significantly and the encounter was notable for its lack of rancour, but also for its passion. It is a pity that a debate of this quality will only be a single event during this election campaign.

From the outset, Howard promoted himself as a leader with the courage to make difficult policy decisions in the best interests of the nation. In response to a similar question about his “ticker”, Beazley offered a passionate view of a society in need of more security, stability and opportunity. Beazley’s strong and aggressive performance in the debate should quell discussion in recent days about his desire to be Prime Minister. At one point, Beazley raised all of the ALP’s campaign themes in terms of why he believed he needed to be Prime Minister.

HowardHoward talked of the need for his tax package to be implemented to provide incentive in the economy, whilst Beazley described it as “desperately unfair”. Beazley emphasised Howard’s previous commitment to “never ever” introduce a goods and services tax and talked at length about the need for the major parties to become “credible” again. On three separate occasions, Beazley talked of the “humble pie” he has eaten in the the past few years, developing a theme that the ALP has learned and changed since it last held office. Howard talked of the deficit he inherited from Labor, whilst Beazley reminded Howard of the high inflation, unemployment and budget deficit that existed when the Fraser government left office in 1983.

The debate was notable for the relative non-involvement of the moderator, Ray Martin, who allowed both men a degree of latitude. The only hiccup came at the end when Martin appeared to deny Beazley the final say in the debate in line with an earlier agreement. Amidst Martin’s confusion, Howard clarified the situation and spoke before Beazley.

Overall, Beazley presented forcefully and it was clear that he had Howard on the backfoot on a number of occasions. When Howard spoke of how the proposed GST would go to the States and give them access to a growth tax that would not allow them to make excuses for not providing hospital facilities and other services, Beazley accused the Prime Minister of introducing a new paradigm into the debate. He spoke of the importance of the Federal government not abdicating its responsibilities in key areas such as health, dental care and public hospitals.

Beazley claimed that the GST was a new tax that would rip and tear into small business and act against job creation. He repeatedly derided Howard’s claim of having a “plan”, saying that the only real plan was for a new tax. Howard was clearly uncomfortable with questioning about the lack of reduction of youth unemployment, citing the ALP’s refusal to support the Unfair Dismissal Law. Beazley asserted the success of the Working Nation program introduced under the Labor government and claimed it was now a model for other countries in how to produce jobs. He said jobs were not created by introducing work for the dole schemes and suppressing wages.

By contrast, Howard refused to back away from his tax package, repeatedly defending the GST and promoting the idea that middle income earners would receive significant income tax cuts, coupled with health insurance rebates. Health was debated at some length, with Howard supporting the concept of public and private hospital care, whilst Beazley claimed that more resources had to be provided for the public health system.

The debate was notable for what was not discussed. Unless this viewer missed it, there was no discussion of the privatisation of Telstra, or of some of the issues that are of most concern in the suburbs and country areas, namely the closure of Medicare offices, Post Offices, Tax Offices, banks and the like. These issues are at the core of support for Pauline Hanson. In respect of One Nation, Howard reiterated that he would not do deals with One Nation, whilst Beazley acknowledged that disenchantment was rife in the community and the major parties had to take more notice of these concerns.

Industrial Relations was not mentioned in the debate, except when Beazley responded to Howard’s claim that someone on $30,000 would be able to do $18,000 of overtime without being caught in a higher tax bracket. Beazley dismissed the idea as unlikely in the industrial relations regime promoted by the government.

An interesting moment in the debate came when Martin posed a question from a viewer who wanted to know why it was necessary to introduce Howard’s plan if the government had in fact been so successful in recent years in reducing the budget deficit and generally managing the economy. Caught off-guard, Howard spoke of the need to continue the process of reform.

Asked about the republic, Beazley spoke of the importance of an Australian Head of State being in place to open the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Howard has agreed to hold a referendum in the second half of 1999 to consider the proposal that emanated from the Constitutional Convention last February, but January 1, 2001 is the date usually spoken of as the starting date for a republic.

Howard also spoke in favour of a document that recognised the prior occupation of Australia by indigenous people and their place in the Australian community as well as their right to preserve their distinctive identity.

Debate Footnote: At the outset of the debate, host Ray Martin purported to ask the price of a loaf of bread, a joking reference to a question he put to Howard and Keating in the 1996 election. As Howard laughed, Beazley offered up $1-40 as the price. Where does he buy his bread?

Lost: One Election Campaign

The Federal Election campaign all but disappeared yesterday in a media orgy of sports coverage. Attention was focused on Pat Rafter’s victory in the US Tennis Open, the “gold rush” (save us, someone, from media cliches!) at the Commonwealth Games in Kuala Lumpur and the aftermath of the AFL weekend elimination finals. Rumour even had it here in Melbourne that Sydney-siders were pre-occupied by a minor code of football all of their own. Coupled with the continuing coverage of the Clinton saga, the election was relegated to the end of most electronic news programs.

Channel 9’s A Current Affair resurrected the “worm” from previous campaigns, but only after they’d subjected their viewers to the self-indulgent Rafter and an expose on the health dangers posed by tooth brushes. The worm, a people-meter device that allows hand-picked viewers to express approval or disapproval on a continuous basis throughout the debate, awarded the debate to Beazley, but only narrowly. It was difficult to avoid the impression that not even the appalling Paul Lyneham really believed in this sophisticated means of measuring public opinion. Graham Richardson and Andrew Robb, presumably invited to give some political credibility to this travesty of analysis, simply looked as if they wished they were somewhere else.

John Howard remained fairly much out of sight yesterday, giving only a couple of radio interviews. Kim Beazley was out eating mango for the cameras and the other leaders were not heard from at all.

The ALP launched its women candidates at a function in Melbourne last night, finally propelling Cheryl Kernot to the forefront of their campaign. Kernot faces a very difficult job to win the Brisbane seat of Dickson, yet she is in many ways crucial to the ALP’s campaign. She is widely seen as having restored credibility to the ALP following its defeat in 1996. In fact, Kim Beazley has said that she made the ALP competitive again.

A Newspoll published today shows the ALP jumping ahead to 44% of the primary vote and the coalition on 42%. This translates into a clear two-party-preferred lead to the ALP. In The Bulletin, another poll shows the coalition surging ahead. In the current climate, caution should be taken in assessing the polls, but Newspoll has a long and consistent record of accuracy.

Debate Footnote: Thinking about Sunday night’s debate and the shameless way in which Channel 9 promotes these occasions as just another part of their publicity campaign, it seems to me that we could do a lot worse than adopt the American presidential debating system. An independent organisation, The Commission on Presidential Debates, administers a series of debates which are made available to any television network that wishes to telecast them. The debates have been moderated in recent times by Jim Lehrer of the PBS program, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, shown here on SBS television at 5pm Monday-Friday. A panel of journalists chosen independently questions the candidates. The debates are respected and an important part of the presidential campaigns every four years.

Election Campaign Reaches Half Way Mark

There was a discernible change of mood in the election campaign yesterday. Despite the media obsession with a host of sporting events, the election contenders were cranking up their campaigns for the last 17 days of what is starting to become a closer contest than many at first thought.

The opinion polls, as always, formed the basis of this mood. Whilst the Newspoll showed the ALP leading the coalition by 53% to 47% on a two-party-preferred basis, this was contradicted by the Liberal Party’s Textor poll which showed the coalition opening up a 10% lead on primary votes. Few people with any political understanding or knowledge of electoral history view this poll as credible since it shows the ALP’s primary vote slipping to 34%, way below anything in the party’s history. Newspoll, by contrast, has considerable respect amongst the political practitioners. It is now beginning to show a race that is much more competitive.

This may account for the increasing attacks coming from the government against Kim Beazley. Howard yesterday branded Beazley as the minister who will be remembered for having presided over the highest unemployment since the Great Depression of the 1930s. This came as a response to Beazley’s claim that he wanted to be remembered as the Education Prime Minister. Beazley was launching the ALP’s education policy which proposes an injection of new funds into schools, abolition of upfront fees for university undergraduates, and a revamping of the Higher Education Contributions Scheme. Beazley spoke of how the nation’s future depended not on people living in fear of their job security, but on a highly educated workforce.

The government continued its campaign to discredit the Opposition’s economic credentials. They seized on reports that the former Governor of the Reserve Bank, Bernie Fraser, was working on a report on tax reform for the pro-Labor Evatt Foundation. Howard claimed, somewhat lamely, that the Opposition has a “secret tax policy”. The claim was ridiculed by Beazley who said that “what you see is what you get”. In similar vein, the Employment Minister, David Kemp, claimed to have information about the ALP’s “secret” plans to reform higher education funding.

The focus of the campaign also turned yesterday to issues deemed relevant to women voters. Following the ALP’s launch of its female candidates – read Cheryl Kernot – Howard spoke of how it is patronising to suggest that there are special womens issue. He then claimed that his national gun laws were of particular interest to women. Like Beazley, Howard was photographed with the Liberal Party’s female candidates. In the evening, Kernot appeared on television debating the Minister for the Status of Women, Judi Moylan. Kernot claimed the government has ripped the heart out of child-care funding and the like, whilst Moylan pushed the argument that funding is now better targeted and that the ALP had 13 years in government to deal with these issues. The public reaction to child-care, aged care, breast cancer research and similar issues may well be important in the campaign as the ALP attempts to focus attention on the social implications of the government’s expenditure cutbacks over the past 30 months.

Government Steps Up Attack On Beazley

In a sign that the election is becoming a real contest, Howard government ministers yesterday began a more strident attack on Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley. In public statements and television advertising, Beazley is now being portrayed variously as the minister who presided over unemployment during the Hawke/Keating years, as the Finance Minister who created the so-called “black hole”, or as a leader with a secret policy agenda, particularly on tax.

The ALP, however, has brought forward some of its anti-GST advertising, perhaps suggesting that it believes this issue is now beginning to bite in the electorate. As more groups come out and either support or denounce the Howard tax “plan”, the broad shape of the negative campaigns both parties will wage over the next 2 weeks is now fairly clear. The government talks tax reform and claims the GST as the key element of this. Indeed, in last Sunday’s debate, Howard claimed that the presence of the GST is what gives the package credibility. The ALP asserts that the plan is merely a plan for a new tax.

Other issues are now coming to share the spotlight with tax. The government spent much of yesterday dealing with negative reaction to its revamped employment services. A number of companies have now indicated that they find the new Jobs Network program cumbersome, inefficient and expensive. Safeway has pulled the plug on its involvement, whilst Woolworths was the focus of counter-claims for much of the day after it was reported that the retailer was disenchanted with the scheme. This could be a significant “sleeper” issue in the campaign.

Deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fischer, was heckled and jeered at an agricultural show in Yass yesterday. Television reports indicated that One Nation’s NSW Senate candidate, David Oldfield, was given a sympathetic hearing, whilst Fischer was accosted by irate locals even before he mounted the podium. Concerns about interest rates, imports, foreign aid and rural services were prominent. Yass is part of the Federal electorate of Hume, held by retiring National Party MP, John Sharp. Sharp was a minister in the Howard government who fell victim to the travel rorts fiasco. He polled 57% of the primary vote in 1996 and nearly 62% of the two-party-preferred vote, yet this may be a seat where One Nation preferences will decide the result.

A pattern is now emerging in the opinion polls that suggest the coalition and ALP are fairly even on primary votes. This is a remarkable achievement in itself, that an Opposition that was trounced in the last election can now be seen as both viable and competitive only 30 months later. Alan Ramsey, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, asserts that the government has squandered most of its political capital since the beginning of last year and that Howard’s leadership is principally responsible for this.

About 40% of all seats in the last electorate required the distribution of preferences for a winner to be confirmed, so it is clear that minor party preferences will be similarly vital in this election. The Australian Democrats will be officially launching their campaign tomorrow. Senator Meg Lees claims the party has a chance of winning up to 10 or 12 Senate seats. The party’s prospects in the Australian Capital Territory remain of interest. New recruit, Rick Farley, is rated a good chance of picking up a Senate seat off the Liberals’ Margaret Reid.

In an interview on the ABC last night, Howard said that his 40 seat majority was an “illusory” picture and that the government faced an increasingly volatile electorate. He pointed out that a uniform swing of just over 3.5% will deliver government to the ALP.

Perhaps it was for this reason that the government did its best to stoke rumours of a leadership problem in the Opposition, suggesting that Simon Crean has considered challenged Gareth Evans for the deputy leadership in recent months. Beazley responded by saying that the question was not who his Treasurer would be after the election, but whether Costello would have Howard as his leader.

Still constructing: The National Party’s web site remains under construction, a situation that has now existed for two weeks. Given Tim Fischer’s promise of better Internet links in the country and the use of the medium by One Nation, you have to wonder why this situation has been allowed to continue.

Howard Tangles With the ABC – New Poll Shows Government Struggling

BolkusIn an extraordinary interview on ABC radio yesterday with Verity James, Prime Minister Howard was challenged on a number of grounds and then confronted with a bizarre question about the price of heroin under a GST.

The government planned to use yesterday to announce another stage of its strategy to combat illegal drug use, so Opposition spokesman, Senator Nick Bolkus, issued a media statement accusing the government of having allowed the importation of heroin through its cuts to the Federal Police and other law enforcement agencies. Bolkus said that as a result the price of heroin had dropped from around $40 to $5. The ABC announcer’s producer typed in details of the Bolkus statement using the initials “GVT” for “government”. James apparently read this as “GST” and asked Howard a garbled question about whether heroin was cheaper. She then cut him off for the hourly news and a furious Howard accused her of “outrageous” behaviour and promptly sought a meeting with her producer at which he demanded an apology. He got one broadcast later in the day.

The government immediately demanded that Beazley reprimand Bolkus, but the Opposition pushed the argument that budget cuts had led to the increased availablity of drugs and criticised the government’s drugs strategy as “one step forward, two steps back”. Bolkus made a statement withdrawing any personal imputation against Howard, but maintained the general line of attack.

What was most interesting about the interview, shown at some length on The 7.30 Report, was Howard’s testiness and irritability with hostile questions. He reprimanded one young caller protesting his attitude to Jabiluka, accusing her of not respecting the process of political debate. He again accused the ABC of political bias in its coverage of the campaign. After appearing to lose concentration whilst being asked another question, he denied that the pressure of the campaign was getting to him. Throughout all this, he sipped furiously from his cup of tea.

A new Nielsen poll published in the Fairfax papers today has the ALP polling 43% of the primary vote to the coalition’s 42%. This is in line with the Newspoll published earlier this week and suggests that the ALP is making up ground in the election campaign. The Sydney Morning Herald’s commentator, Alan Ramsey, argues that this campaign is now 5 weeks old, not 3 weeks, dating its commencement from the day Howard and Costello announced their tax package. Ramsey argues that the government has been struggling ever since and that whilst the sheer weight of numbers – namely the 27 seats Beazley needs to win across the nation – still points to a government win, a victory for the ALP cannot be ruled out.

Has Monica Gone Down..Under?

LewinskyThe commercial media salivated yesterday at the speculation that Monica Lewinsky was in Port Douglas in Queensland. Was she sunning herself near the white waters? Was she checking out the holiday location also visited by you-know-who when he visited Australia in November 1996?

Camera crews were dispatched to the holiday resort to interview locals who, despite knowing nothing about the matter, jumped at the chance to trot out Lewinsky jokes. She was here, said one man, but had to go home because she had a stain on her dress. There is a Monica Lewinsky web site here.

Democrats Support GST, Want Food Exempt

LeesThe Australian Democrats launched their tax policy yesterday with party leader, Senator Meg Lees, continuing to offer qualified support for a Goods and Services Tax. Senator Lees called for the government to exempt food from the proposed tax and to pay for that by modifying its $85-a-week tax cuts for high income earners. Lees said the Democrats would never support a tax on food, but would be prepared to accept a European-style tax that exempts food. She said that 19 out of 23 Western countries either had a consumption tax that exempted food or taxed it at a lower rate.

Lees and Howard also engaged in a debate about the concept of an electoral mandate. Lees said that the Democrats would use their numbers in the Senate to block a GST on food and asserted the right of the party to do that in a two-house parliament. She said that “if we are successful and we have the balance of power in the Senate, then we will have a very clear mandate for what we propose to do.”

Howard claimed that his was the only government since World War II which has had the courage to present such a comprehensive and visionary economic reform plan and said that “if mandates mean anything, a coalition victory on 3 October will give to that new government, led by me, a mandate to implement that change.” He criticised Lees, saying that she seemed to think that the only mandate an elected government had “was the right to drive to Yarralumba and be sworn in as Prime Minister.” It was an odd assertion from a man who first became a minister following the destruction by the Senate and the Governor-General of the twice-elected Prime Minister Gough Whitlam in 1975.

National Party web site found!

National Party of AustraliaThe running joke on this page over the past two weeks has been ended with the discovery of the National Party’s web site. Housed on the Ozemail server, the site can be found here. As yet, no redirection is offered from the official party site.

The National Party also launched its campaign yesterday. Tim Fischer told his audience in Wagga Wagga that the party was facing its greatest challenge since its formation 80 years ago. Fischer backed away from the government’s competition policy in recognition of resistance to the closure of bank branches, Medicare, Tax and Social Security offices and other government services in rural areas. The policy speech also promised more money for traffic accident black spots, community legal centres, student boarding allowances and Internet access.

As the third week of the campaign ends, it seems clear that the government is now worried about its progress in this election campaign. The release of the AC Nielsen poll showing the ALP capturing 43% of the primary vote and the coalition 42% seems to have confirmed a trend that began at least the week before. It is clear that opposition to the GST is firming. Prime Minister Howard will deliver his official policy launch tomorrow morning and this will be followed by a 30 minute television broadcast tomorrow evening. Commentators seem to agree that Howard will need to give his campaign a significant boost from this event and that he needs to focus the election back on to the government’s perceived strengths.

There continues to be discussion about the leadership qualities of the two main contenders. Kim Beazley is now widely credited with having won last Sunday’s debate and consolidated his image as an agreeable and compassionate alternative Prime Minister. Howard continues to suffer from a negative image that sees him as a man of small and limited vision, even if he is credited with being a competent economic manager.

AC Neilsen polls released today also show Cheryl Kernot polling well in Dickson on 46% of the primary vote. Her Liberal opponent, Rod Henshaw, has 34% of the primary vote. Neilson also shows the Democrats polling 9% in the Senate, compared to 3% in the House, whilst One Nation is on 8% in both houses. The Senate polls shows Labor heading for 3 seats in Tasmania, the Liberals 2 and the final seat a contest between Brian Harradine and the Greens. The Greens are also polling strongly in Western Australia, whilst One Nation is likely to win only one seat in Queensland.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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