Under the Australian political system, unlike the US and most other countries which have fixed terms of office, the final decision on when elections are called rests with the Prime Minister, subject to the limitations imposed by the Electoral Act and the Constitution.
With the Federal Election now just months away, increasing media speculation surrounds Mr Howard, as he considers when best to call the next election.
Three years ago, after trailing in the polls for many months, Mr Howard’s re-election prospects turned around after the September 11 bombings in the United States which took around 3000 lives, and the government’s tough response to the boatloads of asylum-seekers who arrived from Indonesia in that year.
The 2004 election will be very different: international issues will play a lesser role, there is a new leader of the Labor Party, Mark Latham, and the focus will be on domestic rather than international issues.
The latest opinion polls, published simultaneously by both the Murdoch and Fairfax press, show that the government and opposition are virtually level-pegging.
They show that the Coalition parties are ahead on primary votes, but with preferences from minor parties going primarily to Labor, Mr Latham could become the next Prime Minister.
This is apparently surprising, in light of the fact that the economy continues to grow, that official unemployment is at the lowest levels for around 30 years, and that the Government has just released a generous budget which made a $600 down-payment to all families with children, and a maternity benefit of $3000 for every child born after June 30 this year, after last year offering small, but welcome, tax cuts across the board.
The latest measures cost a net $2.5 billion over four years, compared to increases in defence spending, to deal with the impact of the war in Iraq and increasing the effectiveness of the defence forces, of about $1.5 billion over five years.
(Even in 2003, the government’s priorities were seen in the fact that the tax cuts alone were budgeted to cost nearly $11 billion over the following four years, while increases in defence spending were estimated to cost $2 billion over a five years’ period.)
In the end, there is no doubt that the Budget was intended to have an immediate electoral impact, although the signs are that its political impact was less than the Government might have anticipated.
The opinion polls, which reflect national trends, do not take account of the fact that in rural and regional areas – the traditional heartland of the National Party and in some states, the Liberal Party – there is deep resentment at the commitment of the Federal Government to the free market agenda, regardless of its social consequences.
The resentment against government policies in the sugar, milk, pork, banana, apple and pear industries is seen in widespread criticism and public protests. These industries are among the most productive and efficient agricultural enterprises in Australia, but have been sacrificed on the high altar of National Competition Policy and the so-called “free market”, which in reality is neither free nor a market.
Forced by government policy to compete on price with subsidised products, thousands of farmers have walked off the land.
Some industries, such as bananas, grapes, apple and pears face the additional risk of introduction of exotic diseases, as a result of the erosion of quarantine standards. The recent discovery of the citrus canker disease in Queensland, introduced through imported plant material, shows the seriousness of this problem.
There is clear evidence that protection of Australian industries is being jeopardised by the government’s insistence that Australia’s quarantine standards must take into account the government’s support for free trade.
Additionally, the wheat and barley industries face the prospect that their marketing organisations, which improve the bargaining position of farmers, will be deregulated
The effect has been not only to cut the number of primary producers, but the towns and industries which depend on them as well. The long-term trend from the Bureau of Agricultural and Research Economics is that net farm income will fall to zero by 2016.
The response of the politicians to crises created by government deregulation of the dairy and sugar industries, and restrictions on the fishing industry in Queensland, has been to offer an “exit package”.
What these industries need is not an exit package, but a growth package, to help them supply Australia and the world.
Policies to promote the growth of Australian industries, both primary and secondary, were the foundation on which Australia was built. If the government is unable or unwilling to address these issues, it will face an inevitable loss of seats at the ballot box – and possibly government.
- Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council