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Two Directions One Decision: The Age Election Editorial

This is the election editorial from The Age newspaper in Melbourne.

The Age is a Fairfax publication.

Editorial from The Age.

Two Directions. One Decision

Tomorrow Australians arrive at one of the most significant days for our nation. The federal election will set the course for the next three years and possibly beyond. It is not our role to tell you who to vote for (in a post-deferential age no one wants to be told who to vote for), or to endorse one party over another. We know most readers of The Age will consider the issues carefully and decide which party they wish to be in government. Our fundamental responsibility is to subject whichever party forms government to continuous independent scrutiny and measure words against actions. On poll eve, we focus primarily on the two main parties’ differing approaches to governing Australia.

The Liberal-National Coalition has broadly argued we should support a continuation of its current policies. The argument goes that Australia’s prosperity depends on this support, and that now is not the time to install novices, and that electing Kevin Rudd puts that prosperity at risk. The campaign, led by Prime Minister John Howard, has sought an answer to the question that has perplexed him all year: why do voters seem intent on throwing out the Coalition?

Mr Howard could stage the most extraordinary escape from the annihilation he canvassed earlier this year and win a fifth term by the narrowest of margins. Or he could suffer the drubbing foreshadowed by today’s Age/Nielsen poll. But it is likely his time is almost over.

It could all have been different. Mr Howard’s political ledger has much to commend it. The economy is in good shape. An unbroken record of growth since the early 1990s has maintained our place among the world’s most prosperous nations. Inflation is edging up enough to have the Reserve Bank on alert but is still manageable at just over 3% even with unemployment at levels that would once have been thought fancifully low had any politician promised them. Blessed with some of the world’s richest mineral resources and located in the world’s fastest-growing economic region, Australia can look forward to a resources boom for some time.

The six interest rate rises since Mr Howard’s unsustainable 2004 election promise to keep rates low are a product of that growth. This is ultimately a problem of political trust for the Coalition, but it also reflects a major economic concern: that even with the best terms of trade in decades, the persistently high current account deficits and foreign debt are factors in Australia’s interest rates being among the highest in the developed world. But that is nothing new: the Hawke-Keating Government never got on top of the problem either.

Mr Howard also deserves credit for transforming the shape of the political debate. His success in identifying with ordinary people – those who had the confidence in Mr Howard to give him four election victories – led to Labor changing its entire political approach.

So back to Mr Howard’s dilemma: why are voters seemingly willing to “risk Rudd” and retrench the Liberals’ experienced and successful team of economic managers? Put simply, the electorate is smart enough to know that China’s demand for Australia’s resources is not dependent on which party is in government and that the minerals boom will continue for some time. The economy has also been neutralised as an issue by Kevin Rudd’s unrelenting efforts to persuade us his approach would be “fiscally conservative”, code for much the same as now.

So if the economy has not been the central issue of the campaign, what has? The answer is a plethora of issues. Without doubt there is a sense that maybe it is time to make a generational change to a man who is 18 years younger. Mr Howard gave the game away when asked to explain his reluctance to change his attitude towards reconciliation with indigenous Australians: “I am an artefact of who I am and the time I grew up in.” His formative political years in the 1950s and ’60s were shaped by the towering figure of Robert Menzies amid the echoes of the thwack of Don Bradman’s willow on leather. It may have been a golden era but it is a very different age to the one we now live in.

This helps explain, but does not offer a political excuse for, Mr Howard’s lack of regard, bordering on contempt, towards climate change and the rights of indigenous people and refugees, as well as his disdain for the ever-increasing emphasis on a knowledge economy built on public investment in education and for the so-called cultural elites, including sections of the media.

As early as 2001, the Government’s hostility towards its opponents and its underinvestment in the educational and cultural foundations of the nation (while engaging in the so-called cultural wars) had led many voters to form a view that the party’s federal leadership was “mean and tricky”, as then federal Liberal president Shane Stone warned.

Mr Howard could have secured a legacy as one of the greatest Liberal prime ministers. Had he taken the advice of many senior members of his party that, after welcoming the Queen to the Melbourne Commonwealth Games last year, he stand down in favour of his deputy, Treasurer Peter Costello (who is the same age as Mr Rudd), we would have had a very different election contest. At its most basic, a Costello leadership would have neutered Mr Rudd’s New Leadership campaign theme. But graciously handing over the leadership is not the Howard way. Senior figures within his own party have concluded that Mr Howard has become so intoxicated with the power and the glory he is unable to let go. His refusal to listen to his ministers during APEC in September gave the game away: his previous promise to serve as PM only as long as the party wanted him was no more than empty rhetoric. The job was his, and he would not relinquish it.

This state of political decay and hubris has led the Coalition to the brink of losing government to Labor, which has been able to adopt an uninspiring “safety first” approach to the business of winning power. Much has been made of this being a “metoo” campaign, and there is indeed some of that – witness the billions of dollars in tax cuts both sides have thrown at the electorate. However, The Age believes that it does make a difference who governs Australia, and opinion polls suggest voters expect a change of government to change the country.

The Coalition has been relentlessly criticial of two aspects of Mr Rudd and his team: inexperience and trade union dominance. All new governments are, by definition, inexperienced; at the same time they can offer the benefits of fresh energy and enthusiasm. Mr Rudd can also be free of the baggage that Mr Howard’s candidacy brings – the latter’s entrenched position on the Kyoto Protocol being a case in point. Though Mr Rudd may be new to the role of leader, his wealth of experience in the public service and diplomatic corps has well prepared him for the workings of government. Given the increased importance of China to Australia in recent years, his grasp of Mandarin must surely be seen as a plus.

There is some validity in the Coalition’s much repeated warnings of a Labor government being dominated by former trade unionists. This reflects the worryingly shallow pool from which the party draws its talent. However, it is up to voters to decide whom they trust to best govern in the interests of the entire community and be trusted to act fairly to protect the rights and responsibilities of both employers and employees.

The disappointing aspect of this campaign has been the unwillingness of both major parties to present clear, competing visions: instead, they have left it to the voters to read between the lines of their campaign messages. Today The Age outlines its own vision for the future of Australia.

AS BOTH sides of politics argue, without fear of disagreement, Australia’s future depends on maintaining a prosperous economy. In turn, this depends on lifting our gaze and realising that new ways are needed to sustain prosperity in a world competing for increasingly scarce resources – most urgently, oil – and finding new sources of energy in a carbon-constrained world of climate change. Fortunately Australia has a natural competitive advantage with its abundant resources, but it must also focus on building its new economy – the knowledge economy – by accelerating investment in universal education, skills training, research, innovation and technologies. Australia aspires to a highly educated population but other nations are more committed to learning, and, in a few cases, they are overtaking us. Future-proofing our prosperity requires that we never surrender the advantage of education and skills to others.

Only very recently has Australia begun to put a small part of the proceeds of the resources boom into investment trusts for higher education, health care and infrastructure such as a long-overdue high-speed national broadband network. These investments must be taken further and can be, now that the Howard Government has eliminated Commonwealth debt. The future of this country, to be funded from these trusts, needs to call for much greater investment than the current surplus target of 1% of GDP, with the rest being doled out as tax cuts and other electoral bribes.

Future governments must be mindful of the pressures that an ageing population creates for labour supply in a growing economy. Fewer workforce recruits and lower unemployment put pressure on wages. The need to maximise workforce participation and skills, and to balance flexibility with fairness, has never been greater. Australia’s need for more workers, in competition with the rest of the developed world, dovetails with its moral responsibility to become a more welcoming nation to migrants and, in particular, refugees: these are people who deserve shelter and want to come here to build a better and safer life. In turn, they and their children have made, and will continue to make, immeasurable economic and social contributions. As much as they need a place of refuge, Australia needs them, and they must have extended to them the same opportunities and rights of our egalitarian society as all of us enjoy. The principle of the fair go must extend to all-comers.

Australia should also aspire to a more influential role on the world stage. This country’s distinguished record of contributions to multilateral diplomacy – in matters such as international law, the environment and trade – has been overshadowed by the Government’s uncritical acceptance of US ventures into unilateralism. A meaningful partnership must include the right to criticise and caution; would that Australia had done so more forcefully before blindly following the US into the quagmire of Iraq. Mr Howard was, of course, profoundly influenced by his experience in the US on September 11, 2001, which no doubt explains Australia’s acquiescence to the violations of the rule of law in the “war on terror”, including the lengthy detentions of Australians David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib at Guantanamo Bay and the unjust treatment of Dr Mohamed Haneef this year. There is no question about the importance to Australia of the US alliance – that is not at risk under either a Coalition or Labor government – but Australia can, and must, do more on its own initiative as a “softpower” nation to rebuild the standing and effectiveness of global institutions, starting with the United Nations.

An early test case will be the Kyoto Protocol, which Australia signed in 1997 but then decided not to ratify. Labor has promised immediate ratification if elected. A decade ago, all developed nations had accepted responsibility for being among the first to tackle dirty energy, and the opening of the next phase of UN climate change negotiations in Bali next month offers an opportunity for Australia to restore the reputation it had before 1998 for being progressive instead of reactive. Climate change, the great challenge of our times, must be put above party politics.

The past year has also awoken the nation to the value of water and the urgency of coordinated national action to secure this vital resource. Both sides of politics have made commitments to do so, and these must be kept. The ways we use and, as often as not, waste water and the price we put on these uses must be re-examined.

An election campaign focuses the mind and leads to a reappraisal of standards of government. In 1996, many Australians invested their hopes in Mr Howard’s promises of higher standards in public life, and Mr Rudd is making similar promises now. Only last week, the Commonwealth Auditor-General blew the whistle on pork barrelling. The Australian media, concerned at the erosion of freedom of information, have united in a campaign over the public’s democratic right to know the workings of governments and bureaucrats. The decline of accountability, transparency and ethics is not confined to federal politics – instances abound in state politics and the corporate world too – but it is an important issue in this campaign. When Malcolm Fraser and Gough Whitlam, once the most bitter of political rivals, can unite to speak out against the decline in public standards, something is rotten in the state of Australia.

One institutional reform that could promote good governance is the adoption of fixed four-year terms, which Mr Rudd has promised. Set election dates would eliminate long phoney campaigns; this entire year has been consumed by too much focus on winning power and not enough on everyday governance.

As political commentators have long noted, there is no real power in opposition, but, as Lord Aston observed, power tends to corrupt those who have it, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. This is true of any age or nation. The rot sets in with every long-serving government of every political colour. The Government’s contempt for its opponents and critics, even well-intentioned ones, is reminiscent of its predecessor’s arrogance.

The state of the lower house decides the government, but voters also need to consider how this election might reshape the balance of the upper house. The need for Senate checks on the government of the day has been brought sharply into focus and the minor parties, especially the Greens, have an important role to play in calling the major parties to account. Voters have as much right to be concerned about the Coalition’s abuse of its Senate majority as they do about the prospect of Labor domination of every government in Australia – notwithstanding the potential for co-operative reform of the Federation.

The act of voting, a simple pencil mark in a box, takes but a second. But the thought behind that action should be weighed carefully. The Age has highlighted some of the key issues that need to be considered before you cast your vote. The hard part is now up to you: decide and vote. Tomorrow, you, the voters, have the power. This is the foundation stone of democracy. We wish you an empowering and enjoyable weekend.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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