Making A Difference

A Voter's Dilemma

The ideological divide between the main contenders has blurred

A Voter's Dilemma
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Ideologically speaking, the traditionally left-wing Labour as well as the conservative Liberal parties have moved to the cen-tre over time. Keating has begun to push harder for industrial deregulation like his right-wing opponents, while Howard, who attacked the Government's multicultural policy in the '80s, has become visibly pro-Asian. Howard has also eased up considerably on his anti-immigration policy. And though the Opposition says Keating has neglected ties with Europe and North America and is pursuing a covert policy of isolating China while wooing ASEAN, it has not proposed majorchanges in the current foreign policy.

At present, Labour has 78 of the 147 seats in the House. But opinion polls are predicting a mood for change after 13 years of Labour, with the opposition leading the Government by up to 10 percentage points. The Liberals, and their coalition partners, the rural-based National Party, need a gain of only eight seats to form the next government. A close result could see independents controlling the balance of power in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, which reviews government legislation. There are currently three inde-pendents in the House.

The Government maintains that its social contract with the trade unions has delivered a stable environment for economic growth, kept inflation low and created millions of new jobs. Labour complains that Howard has a hidden agenda of radical privatisation and industrial confrontation which will destroy the economic progress. Yet, the fact that unemployment and taxation are high by western standards undercuts the effectiveness of the claim. But Labour has warned that the national health insurance scheme, Medicare, which provides universal coverage to all regardless of wealth, will be a target of a Thatcherite conservative coalition. The coalition says it merely intends providing incentive for people to switch to private health insurance.

However, Keating's aggressive style and colourful epithets have left him with an arrogant and abrasive image. One Labour slogan seeks to turn the handicap into an advantage. "You don't have to like him, but you have to respect him," it says, comparing Keating to the plodding and homely Howard, who was dumped once before as opposition leader, only to be elevated again to the position last year.

As for the Liberals, in an unprecedented move in Australian politics, they have offered an environment policy with strings attached. They say they'll spend one billion Australian dollars on the environment, but to do it, will partially sell the country's state-owned telecommunication network Telstra to the private sector. One poll indicates a mixed response to the controversial plan, but it seems to have succeeded in splitting the crucial 'green' vote.

Neither is Keating's campaign free of handouts. During the campaign he launched a bid to appeal to Australian families with a 368-million Australian dollar plan for their children's dental and health bills, which Howard claims is just "another exercise in catch-up politics".

A long-awaited television debate between Keating and Howard on February 11 proved inconclusive. And so, Australians will just have to wait till the last vote is counted to find out who will lead them into the 21st century.

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