The close of the 100th year of Federation sees a political and economic landscape very few pundits would have predicted at the same time last year with John Howard dominating the Federal Parliament and Australia an unlikely "world leader" in growth and prosperity.
Prime Minister Howard’s third election win over an opponent who was far and away the most liked and respected Opposition Leader in recent memory was a remarkable feat made even more so by the fact that his government had just introduced the most onerous and despised new tax system in recent memory.
Victory was achieved through a combination of political guile and ability to understand the mood of a nation, a massive run-down of the budget surplus to pump prime the economy and win over disgruntled groups, and some good fortune toward the business end of the election cycle.
Chink in armour
Howard was also able to find the one clear chink in Kim Beazley’s armour, which was a deep self-doubt, and used political circumstances to expose it. Quite simply, when Kim Beazley flinched over the Tampa, it was not just about border protection, but a confirmation in peoples’ minds of nagging doubts about whether he had the mettle to lead the nation.
In his first public post-election analysis, Beazley said Labor had achieved a great result at a time of great uncertainty, turning a potential rout into a narrow election loss as well as achieving the same two-party preferred vote John Howard received at the 1998 election.
Sadly, this is political tosh and Beazley, apparently still bleeding from the brutal reality of politics, is either unwilling or unable to recognise that Labor’s result was the worst primary result since the Lang Labor split of the Great Depression, and that the only uncertainty in peoples’ minds was over a Labor Party which had pig-headedly refused to come clean about its policies until the election campaign itself.
Labor is now undergoing the difficult task of trying to understand who it wants to represent and of finding ways to connect with an electorate which has thrice rejected it.
The ALP is doing this with an unpopular leader whom few people, even within the Party, believe has the charisma and ability to connect with the populace to lead them out of the wilderness.
Howard has also wasted no time in finding Crean’s chink – his association and dependence on the power of the Australian trade union movement.
Even though that power is rapidly dwindling in the "post-industrial" society Howard is clearly going to use the third term, starting with the Royal Commission into the building industry, to savage the unions.
A former ACTU President, Crean has already walked into Howard’s trap of considering the possibility of changing the 60-40 rule which gives the union movement a majority say in policy matters and candidate selection.
If Crean fails to change the rule, Howard and Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott will remind him of his failure to take on his union mates for the next three years. If Crean succeeds, he will make enemies with his allies.
The unions are Labor’s roots, and even in a period of rapidly declining union membership, its ideological soul. The ties can never be completely severed without changing the ALP into something which it is not, in other words ending the 100-year-old party.
However, Labor desperately needs to broaden its electoral appeal and end the practice of moving union hacks into safe seats. How Crean manages to find a solution to these problems within the first 12 months of his leadership will largely make or break him.
All that said, it would be foolish in the extreme to write off Labor, and a rapid deterioration in the economy would destroy the goodwill the Coalition enjoys at the moment. While the Australian economy is booming in defiance of every mainstream economist, there is a sense of unreality about the Australian "economic miracle".
Treasurer Peter Costello boasts that Australia’s growth is higher than the United States and those of the vast majority of western economies, but that growth has been achieved through the biggest Keynesian pump-priming exercise in a couple of decades including the unique policy of a government giving its citizens money to buy new and used houses, and by an export boom created by a collapse in the Australian dollar.
Australia continues to borrow billions to help fuel this economic miracle, and the foreign debt continues to climb past the $300 billion, but the money goes not toward rebuilding an industrial society, investment or infrastructure, but to borrow to create for its people the best housed-nation in the world for a populace which cannot breed enough children to replace itself.
It seems such a brilliant economic program to ensure prosperity for our citizens – Why isn’t the rest of the world following our example?