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We Can’t Afford The Luxury Of A Long Goodbye: Sydney Morning Herald Election Editorial

This is the election editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

The Herald is a Fairfax publication.

Editorial from the Sydney Morning Herald.

We Can’t Afford The Luxury Of A Long Goodbye

The fake pamphlet scandal in the seat of Lindsay maintains the faint air of unreality that has surrounded the Coalition’s election campaign. This editorial is not the one we should have been able to run on election eve. We should have been able to write about a Liberal Party that had renewed itself – a Government that had managed an orderly leadership transition from one generation to the next. Had things turned out differently, Peter Costello, as prime minister, would have had the opportunity to explain his freshened vision for this country over the next decade. We cannot write about that, because we know little about it. Mr Costello has spoken occasionally outside his portfolio in public, but more to soften his image for a suspicious electorate than to set out an alternative platform. He has always been – to his cost at times – a loyal member of the Government.

What we do know is that, at some stage during a fifth term of a Coalition government the Prime Minister, John Howard, would hand over to Mr Costello. But what happens until then? We have waited for the vision of the next era of conservative government, but it never came. Instead, we have seen only attempts to rally or panic sections of the community with pork-barrelling and scare campaigns. We have said in the past that Mr Howard was entitled to choose the time of his going. But we also said that in doing so Mr Howard should bear in mind the need for a smooth transition. He has done the former, but neglected the latter. He is now asking Australians, in effect, to vote a lame duck into office – and then wait 18 months or more to find out what that really means. It is too much to ask. It is a matter of the greatest regret that the Prime Minister has mishandled his chance to choose a time to step down.

If, as opinion polls suggest, the Coalition loses the election, no single issue will have caused its downfall. Work Choices, on which Labor has concentrated its attacks, is significant, but one of many. We believe Work Choices was the right policy, a necessary reform of workplace relations to ensure flexibility and efficiency. But it has been poorly implemented and poorly sold. Should Kevin Rudd and Labor form a government, they will come under enormous pressure to wind back the Work Choices reforms further than they have promised.

The Government’s scare campaign about the over-representation of unions in a Rudd government is based on fact. For voters, the biggest risk to be assessed from Labor is how far it will be influenced by unions to bring back those labour market rigidities that hobbled Australia’s economic performance in the past. More generally, voters will want to be confident that a Rudd government would govern for all, not just a narrowly based and self-interested economic pressure group.

Without ever saying so, the Government has appealed to the electorate on the basis of its record and little more. It has much to be proud of. Mr Costello’s steady hand on the tiller when the Australian economy was buffetted by storms from the Asian meltdown and the US dotcom crash, and more recently the US subprime troubles, has helped ensure an unbroken run of years of economic growth, record lows in unemployment, low interest rates, low inflation and hundreds of thousands of new jobs. The economy does not run itself; such solid achievements take vision and discipline. But the wealth this creates must be reinvested if growth is to continue. Here the Coalition’s record is patchy. Australia’s infrastructure is run down, and education institutions – particularly universities – are under unprecedented stress from inadequate funding at a time of growing skills shortages.

John Howard’s political antenna has been as sensitive as any in the country for most of his time in power, but it has failed him recently. He managed to shape Australia’s intervention in Iraq at a low enough level, with minimal casualties, to avoid public controversy for years. But that war was badly planned and badly run. The worst scenario has now come to pass and, with virtually none of the allies’ original objectives achieved, the Prime Minister is reduced to justifying Australia’s open-ended involvement as nothing more than standing by our traditional ally, the United States, in its time of trial. Labor is at least acknowledging the hard reality and promising a workable exit strategy for Australian troops. On David Hicks, the Government similarly misjudged the public mood. The Coalition has many thoughtful conservative supporters who felt betrayed by this casual abrogation of the rights of an Australian citizen.

The growing menace of climate change to Australia’s economy and way of life also caught the Howard Government unawares. The advocacy of Al Gore and, in Britain, Nicholas Stern barely shifted it. Only when the clamour for action from voters and business supporters became deafening did the Coalition move – grudgingly – to frame some sort of response. We see troubling shortcomings in Labor’s policy, but the party at least takes this vast issue seriously.

The Coalition has served Australia well with many necessary reforms, but those are now past. It makes no compelling case for re-election. Under its current leadership it appears unwilling to respond to the new and growing challenges Australia faces. We do not know how it would deal with them.

We believe this country must, for now, look elsewhere for that response – to Kevin Rudd, and the Labor Party.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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