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A Time To Look Ahead, Not Back: The Age Election Editorial

The Age newspaper has called for a change of government in its election-eve editorial

The paper says Prime Minister Howard “has pandered to fear” over asylum-seekers and “does not deserve the support of the Australian people”.

The ALP’s Knowledge Nation policy matches the need to be globally competitive, the paper says. Kim Beazley is more likely to deal with reconciliation, the republic and issues of social cohesion, it says.

Editorial from The Age, November 9, 2001.


A Time To Look Ahead, Not Back

If there is a metaphor for this election campaign, it is the Tampa affair and the bitter immigration controversy it has generated. The Howard Government’s refusal to allow the Tampa and its cargo of rescued asylum seekers a landfall on Australian territory marked the beginning of the government’s resurgence in opinion polls. Ever since, John Howard has made his handling of the issue of asylum seekers the grounds on which his government should be judged, the grounds on which he should be re-elected. By doing so, he broke a long-standing tacit agreement between the major parties not to pander to fear and xenophobia on immigration and refugee issues. He made it very hard for Kim Beazley to do anything but go along with the Howard position that under no circumstances will any of the boat people land on Australian soil. We regret the fact that Mr Beazley has done so, but it has been Mr Howard who has made asylum seekers the basis on which he is asking the Australian people to return his government tomorrow.

By making the asylum seekers the central issue of this election campaign, Mr Howard has unleashed forces that will continue to be potent well beyond the election. His stand has damaged Australia’s standing in the region and divided the Australian community. Mr Howard’s position has been severely criticised by a range of former senior Liberal politicians and by former senior public servants.

There can be no doubt that there are real questions about how Australia should deal with the asylum seekers, who, in increasing numbers, have undertaken the desperate journey, often in unsafe boats, to Australia. It is understandable that many Australians are unsettled by this and are anxious about the consequences for Australia. But instead of addressing these anxieties, Mr Howard has played on them. He has shown a complete lack of leadership on this issue by failing to proclaim and defend the spirit of tolerance and diversity that has been nurtured by a century of stable democracy.

None of this need have been so. The Howard Government could have gone to the people on its record of sound economic management and its achievements in industrial-relations reform and, of course, taxation reform. The introduction of the GST was a major achievement: although it botched the introduction of the tax, especially the BAS system, the government showed great political courage in pushing through the first fundamental reform of Australia’s taxation system in 50 years. It could have gone to the people with a real third-term agenda for more reform. It could have spelt out where it wanted to go on reconciliation, on the issue of when and how Australia should become a republic, on our position in the region, on the way the further challenges of globalisation ought to be handled. Instead, the government seized on the Tampa as an opportunity for it to retain office without having to do the hard work of articulating an agenda that might win it a third term on merit. Even before that, in response to bad results in state elections and byelections, the government had abandoned previously strongly held policies such as the indexation of fuel excise, and had spent the budget surplus trying to win back the support it had lost in key constituencies.

That Kim Beazley and the ALP seemed ill-equipped to counter the Coalition’s opportunism over the Tampa, other than by falling into line with it after some initial dithering, is an indication of how much energy Labor has devoted during the past six years to making itself a small target, instead of elaborating the detailed policies we should expect from an alternative government. The opposition nonetheless gives a greater sense than the government of having a vision for Australia. Some aspects of Labor’s platform, such as the abolition of Australian Workplace Agreements, would be retrograde steps if implemented, because they conflict with the commitment to fostering international competitiveness that has been core Labor policy since the Hawke government began deregulation of the economy. The record of the Hawke and Keating governments on economic management and reform is a pretty good one, and although we have some doubts about the extent to which a Beazley government would build on that record, we believe it unlikely that a Labor government would undo the reforms initiated by its predecessors.

The centrepiece of Labor’s platform, the projected refashioning of Australia as a “Knowledge Nation” is consistent with the commitment to global competitiveness and profoundly extends it. The details of the project have not been fully elaborated, but its aims match the nation’s need to be globally competitive. And Mr Beazley is more likely to deal with the unfinished business of reconciliation and the republic, issues of social cohesion, than Mr Howard.

Mr Howard has asked the Australian people to re-elect his government on the basis of his stand on asylum seekers. He has asked them to re-elect his government on the basis that he has shown true leadership on this issue. We believe the opposite is true: he has shown no leadership on this crucial issue. He has pandered to fear. He does not deserve the support of the Australian people.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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