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Time To Think About The Future: The Australian Election Editorial

This is the election editorial from The Australian.

The Australian is a News Limited publication.

Editorial from The Australian.

Time To Think About The Future

A contest between worthy opponents ensures that whoever wins, Australia will be in good hands.

Blessed with resources at a unique time in history, as two billion people are making the transition from poverty to affluence, Australia has the great luxury of being able to consider what pathway its destiny should take. We can be confident that whoever wins tomorrow’s election, the nation’s immediate economic wellbeing is assured. But, as the Pacific century gathers pace, a rare opportunity exists to harness an almost limitless potential presented by our geographic location and well-earned reputation as a reliable supplier and good global citizen. The choice now on offer is to continue to manage our prosperity well and with caution or to utilise it in a way that maximises our claim to the future and better provides for the generations to come.

John Howard came to office in 1996 at a time when many in the community had reform fatigue after 13 years of Labor trying to modernise the Australian economy to meet the demands of globalisation. As well as having to cope with high interest rates and a recession, many voters had become disconnected from the progressive social agenda and historical revisionism adopted by Paul Keating. In short, Mr Keating had got too far ahead of the Australian mainstream. Mr Howard promised voters a more relaxed and comfortable life.

Mr Rudd, by contrast, has offered himself as a man of the future. Mandarin-speaking and married to a very successful businesswoman, Mr Rudd has campaigned to help take Australia into the 21st century, offering to provide the infrastructure and tools to complete the transition into the digital age. This includes a national high-speed broadband network and computer resources for every secondary school.

Having presided over a period of uninterrupted economic expansion, Mr Howard is now accused of being reform-shy, at least by this newspaper and the business community, and increasingly behind the mainstream on the issues that have a building sense of urgency, such as climate change. Mr Howard has made a big effort to catch up. He has declared himself to be a climate change realist and, after years of rejecting symbolism, has announced plans for a referendum to recognise Aboriginal Australians as the nation’s first inhabitants in the preamble to the Constitution. Mr Howard is asking voters for the opportunity to complete reforms such as a commonwealth takeover of responsibility for the Murray Darling Basin and the intervention to protect children and lift living standards in Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. Other reform plans, such as the takeover of a single hospital in Tasmania and the creation of local hospital boards, appear to be poorly thought through and a reaction to what is being offered by Mr Rudd. The core of Mr Howard’s campaign is the promise of consistency in economic management and a continuation of big government that redistributes rising prosperity while promoting individual choice. Mr Howard has offered $34billion worth of across-the-board tax cuts, higher pension and carer payments, tax deductibility for education expenses, including school fees, and tax incentives for anyone saving to buy a first home.

Mr Rudd has trimmed the tax cuts to $31 billion, deferring cuts to the top rate, and pledged to increase the childcare rebate from 30 per cent to 50per cent. He has offered similar tax incentives to Mr Howard for education and first-home ownership. To boost his credentials as a candidate for the future, Mr Rudd has made building a high-speed broadband network and the provision of a computer to all senior high school students a centrepiece of his campaign. On climate change, Mr Rudd has promised the largely symbolic gesture of ratifying the Kyoto protocol but mirrored the Government’s core position that any post-Kyoto agreement must include China and India. He has promised a carrot-and-stick approach to forcing state governments to improve health services or lose responsibility for them and a razor gang to cut the fat from what he says is a bloated public service.

The Australian is particularly interested in Mr Rudd’s desire to modernise the federation, something for which we have long campaigned. The evidence is, with the recent exception of water, Mr Howard and Mr Costello have not really shown much interest. Mr Rudd claims his background as a senior public servant with the Goss government in Queensland and the network of state Labor administrations will be an advantage to his reform plans. Mr Howard is keen to portray wall-to-wall Labor as a great threat.

Mr Howard is being challenged because many believe he went too far with the Work Choices industrial relations reforms, the culmination of a 25-year passion to improve workplace flexibility. We have always supported the Government’s IR policy and believe it has been badly misrepresented by Labor in a big-spending campaign funded in part by a trade union movement fighting for its own survival.

If he wins, Mr Rudd must deal with the high expectations of the union movement. This remains our biggest reservation about the possibility of a Labor government. Mr Rudd says unions will get no special treatment from him and we would expect him to honour his word. More than anything, we would wish Mr Rudd to be a true reformer for Labor in the mould of former British prime minister Tony Blair. On balance, we think the introduction of a fairness test has weakened the reform credentials of Mr Howard’s Work Choices package, which was designed to keep pressure off wages and improve workplace flexibility. On the other side, Mr Rudd has successfully moved his party towards the centre on IR, agreeing to keep individual contracts for high-paid workers and limit the influence of unions. The big difference is Labor’s plan to return unfair dismissal laws for small business, which could have a negative impact on employment growth.

While we are mindful of the economic dangers posed by a resurgent trade union movement, we do not believe Mr Rudd poses an obvious threat to Australia’s financial wellbeing. We are encouraged by his determination to pick his own cabinet.

Despite opinion polls consistently giving the contest to Mr Rudd, the outcome of tomorrow’s election is by no means certain. It would be very unusual for Australia to turn its back on such as successful Prime Minister during such prosperous times. The latest polling, both Galaxy and Newspoll (which was still polling last night), shows the Coalition is coming home strongly and the contest is likely to be tight. If Mr Howard wins, Australia will continue to be well served. We have never accepted the leftist critique that Mr Howard has made Australia a divided, nasty and selfish society. The statistics on wealth distribution and workforce participation prove the opposite to the true.

Mr Howard is offering a safe pair of hands but, in reality, they are not his own. His campaign has been weakened by mixed messages about economic growth and turbulence as well as confusion over the handover to Mr Costello some time in the next term.

Mr Rudd’s attention to process, including a determination to push ahead with plans to improve the living conditions of indigenous Australians, is impressive. So too is his pledge to make sure his ministers and bureaucrats keep in touch by meeting regularly outside of Canberra.

The Australian has been portrayed by many people as an unquestioning supporter of the Howard Government. The truth is we exposed the children overboard affair, we pursued the Government over AWB, we argued passionately for tax reform, to the annoyance of Mr Costello. We exposed the weakness of the case against terror suspect Mohamed Haneef and were vocal about Mr Costello’s ill-advised appointment of businessman Robert Gerard to the Reserve Bank board.

The truth is we are not so interested in one side of politics or the other. We advocate a set of principles that have motivated us for 40 years: an open economy, markets, international engagement, reform of the federation and labour market deregulation. With the caveat of industrial relations, Mr Rudd shares many of our reform ideals. We believe it is a new century and that Australia deserves a leader who reflects Australia’s character and position in a rapidly changing world and fast-growing region.

As Australia’s economic centre of gravity shifts north to reflect the mining boom and the rise of Asia, it is fitting that the new Labor leader comes from Queensland. We believe this is a great advantage. ALP leaders from Queensland and Western Australia, more than the southeast of the nation, are attuned to the concerns and aspirations of middle Australia. We believe the incumbent Government has been a good manager but has not done much with the prosperity with which the nation has been blessed during its watch. Mr Howard and his team have a proven track record but, to us, they have run out of energy. Their campaign is a signal of their torpor. Mr Rudd has spoken of recapturing some of the reform zeal of the Hawke and Keating years, the economic benefits of which are still being felt. There is much detail missing from Mr Rudd’s promised reform revolution, especially in education and health, but we believe he has the administrative experience to manage constructive change. We recognise that no change is free of risk, but we recommend a vote for Mr Rudd.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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