July 25, 2020
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Change Of Guard

Despite a landslide victory, John Howard faces an uphill task

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Change Of Guard
AUSTRALIA has made its choice. In a victory speech, John Howard, the new prime minister, told the Australian people that he experienced many emotions following his election, but the "deepest emotion...is humility...that the people have given me this opportunity to lead the government".

Pollsters and analysts alike expressed surprise at the huge swing which is considered the biggest landslide since Malcolm Fraser came to power in 1975. Former prime minister Paul Keating's Labour Party was thrown out after 13 years of uninterrupted rule, as the coalition (a combination of the Liberal Party and the rural-based National Party) led the polls with a national swing of 5.4 per cent and a majority of more than 40 seats in the 148-seat Parliament.

However, when 56-year-old Howard accepted victory in a ballroom in Sydney's Wentworth Hotel, he looked somewhat subdued, and, perhaps, had every reason to be. While the coalition had a huge majority in the House of Representatives, a third political force, the Democrats, who had doubled their seats in this election, held the balance of power in the Senate (the Upper House).

So, what on the surface looks like a landslide may, in fact, prove to be a very difficult three-year tenure for the new government. Howard will face trouble from the country's strong trade unions who are vigorously opposed to the new conservative regime's plans to weaken the Industrial Relations Commission, the organisation that umpires disputes between employers and unions. The introduction of workplace contracts, which the coalition says will be voluntary, will be met with stiff resistance from the unions who are seeking Democrat support in the Senate to thwart the government's efforts. Howard plans to take on the Waterfront Unions, risking strikes, huge pay claims and product shortages.

Moreover, the Labour-led opposition will oppose the government's plans to fund environmental policies with the privatisation of one-third of the national telecom network, Telstra. Conservation groups have vowed to wage a war on the coalition if Howard goes ahead with his proposal.

As the election campaign momentum built up, it was feared that Howard, a conservative at heart, would take Australia backward instead of forward. In defence, Howard argued that he was very much a man of the '90s representing the "ordinary Australian bloke". In a final pitch to the voters before election day, he said: "Our priority will be to champion the concerns of the men and women whom Labour has forgotten—the fami-lies, small business, young Australians."

The prime minister has also vowed to reduce Australia's foreign debt of $185 billion (Australian) during his first term in office, maintain low levels of inflation and interest rates and not introduce new taxes. But with a huge current account deficit of $27.6 billion (Australian) for 1994-95, and the introduction of new policies costing about $2.7 billion (Australian), he is bound to discover that the going has already begun to get tough.

But ultimately, the victory was not so much a win for the Liberals as much as it was a vote against the Labour Party which had clearly overstayed its welcome. Howard's image as an 'ordinary bloke' in contrast to Keating's arrogance has won the confidence of small business. In fact, he promised to cut red tape for small business by 50 per cent during his first term in office.

The president of the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Bill Pickford, told the press that he was confident that small and medium-sized businesses would flourish under the Liberals. "It's a breath of fresh air, which I'm sure will blow into crannies and corners that haven't been addressed before," he said, adding that one would have to wait and see what sort of initiatives were introduced.

While there is optimism that Howard will pick on the issues that his predecessor forgot about, there is the danger that he may put other things on the backburner. A confirmed monarchist, Howard will not be rushing to turn this former British colony into a republic. Keating wanted it done by the year 2000. Although the British monarchy no longer exercises any political powers, about 80 per cent of Australians are in favour of gaining independence from their former rulers. However, Howard believes that with the country's recent push into developing links with the Asia-Pacific region, relations with the West have suffered. "For one reason or another, it is true that business relations with Europe have declined significantly in the last few years," agrees Peter Lloyd, head of the Asian Business Centre at Melbourne University. But even if Howard shifts the focus of foreign policy westward, Lloyd does not believe that any government can afford to ignore the growing importance of Asia.

As an opposition leader, Howard tried to keep all voters happy. But now, as prime minister, the leader of the coalition will need to exercise greater strength and decisiveness. If the Liberals are true to their cause, they will favour growth over the environment, dismantle Medicare, the nationalised health system, cut spending and scrap industrial awards. But Howard won office by shifting policy to satisfy the middle ground. He has promised to retain Medicare, maintain standards of living and introduce only moderate industrial reforms.

Even if he reneges on his election promises which may result in a period of conflict, his hefty majority will make it difficult for the electorate to remove him from office in the next elections, due after three years. However, if it's with 'humility' that he's embarked on his prime ministerial mission, upheaval is one scenario he would rather avoid. 

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