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The Compelling Case For Change: Canberra Times Election Editorial

This is the election editorial from the Canberra Times.

The Canberra Times is a Rural Press/Fairfax publication.

Editorial from the Canberra Times.

The Compelling Case For Change

Those swinging voters entering polling booths today face a difficult choice: give an economically competent but increasingly tired Coalition a mandate for a fifth term or plump instead for a Labor Party which, if untried and unproved, has mounted a convincing case that it can bring fresh ideas and forward thinking to the challenges facing Australia.

Australians have never liked throwing out governments without reasonable cause, no matter how well credentialed or polished their opponents might appear. Even stern critics would allow that the Howard Government’s economic record since coming to power in 1996 has been strong. It has locked in relatively low rates of inflation, achieved near full employment and posted record budget surpluses. If much of the prosperity of the Howard years can be said to have been driven by the mineral commodities boom, Treasurer Peter Costello can still along with his department claim credit for some deft economic management over the past 12 years.

The problem for the Howard Government if a year of consistently bad opinion polls for the Coalition is to be believed is that successful management of a booming economy is no longer enough to win the hearts, and votes, of a majority of Australians. Those polls suggest that rolling out tax cuts from ever-increasing budget surpluses is no longer enough to satisfy the electorate. Instead, there are signs of a growing belief among voters that the profits of boom times have been squandered by a Government that has allowed crucial investment in national infrastructure such as ports, transport and water supplies and in education and in health services, to languish.

If, as widely expected, Labor wins today’s election, it will be not so much because Australians are persuaded by the Kevin Rudd alternative however smart and plausible a campaign the Opposition Leader has run over the past six weeks. It will be more a consequence of the Howard Government’s failure to present a convincing case that it has a plan for the future beyond perpetuating its self-image of achievement and good management.

After more than 11 years under Prime Minister John Howard, Australia might be a more prosperous nation, but is it a safer, fairer or more inclusive society than it was in 1996? Howard’s blinkered decision to lead the nation into the disastrous war in Iraq on a spurious premise, and his blind allegiance to the follies of US President George W.Bush’s war on terrorism, has confirmed Australia as a terrorist target, sullied our international reputation, forced a massive increase in defence and security spending and triggered an alarming erosion in hard-won civil liberties.

Along the way, the Coalition has grown more arrogant and complacent the unmistakable signs of parties that have been in power for too long. It has seriously politicised the public service, it has redefined conventions of accountability by refusing to allow ministerial advisers to be called before a Senate committee investigating how the “children overboard” incident was stage-managed for electoral gain in the run-up to the 2001 election, and it deliberately misled the public over the extent of its knowledge of and involvement in the AWB food-for-oil bribery scandal. It has shamelessly and ruthlessly exploited the benefits of incumbency for political gain and spent hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money on self-serving television advertising.

Despite the success of its previous four election efforts, the Coalition has run a poor campaign this time. Its tone has been overwhelmingly negative and alarmist. Many of its policies have been issued in response to Labor policies, and have looked rushed and ill-prepared.

Despite his reputation as a star campaigner, Howard has been largely on the back foot in the last month, either outmanoeuvred by Rudd or tripped up by his own, or his colleagues’, mistakes. Indeed, his biggest mistake may have been his decision to seek another term rather than hand over to Costello 18 or even 12 months ago.

Rudd’s optimism and forward-looking policies have turned Howard’s age and time in office into distinct liabilities for the Coalition. And he has nullified what has always been a traditional electoral asset for the Coalition economic management by staying strongly on message about Labor’s competency in running a trillion-dollar economy and by refusing to match all of Howard’s spending promises.

The most compelling argument for a change of government this weekend, however, is that of the health of our democratic system itself. If the Coalition defies the odds today, it will have notched up 15 years in government before it faces voters again. This would be an unhealthy record, even for a government performing well.

Change and renewal are essential elements of our system, for governments and oppositions. That alone is sufficient reason to send the Coalition for a refresher course on the opposition benches, and to give Labor a chance to demonstrate its alternative vision.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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