This editorial from The Economist’s October 11 edition has surprised many observers and certainly makes Crikey feel a little more comfortable in his tentative decision to vote Labor for the first in his life.

Mr Howard’s bunch deserves credit for one achievement: last year it brought in a goods-and-services tax-a sort of value-added tax-which has allowed a big shift from direct to indirect taxation, and with it lower income-tax rates and higher social-security benefits. The new tax, stoutly resisted and still unpopular, continues a series of reforms that was started by a Labor government under Bob Hawke in 1983 and has continued ever since, changing a highly protected, highly unionised resource-dependent economy into a strikingly open and competitive one. Unfortunately, a cynically voter-pleasing budget this year and the funking of the sale of the government’s 51% stake in Telstra, the big telecoms company, suggest that Mr Howard’s lot have lost their reforming zeal.

The bigger blot on their record, however, is their even more cynical decision to refuse refugees the right to seek asylum on Australian shores, and to pass them on instead to the Pacific micro-state of Nauru. Though the courts have sanctioned this policy, it plainly defies the spirit of Australia’s obligations under the 1951 UN convention on refugees, which says that the right to asylum in any country can be claimed only in person in that country. The Howard government claims its policy is aimed at people-smugglers, not refugees, but it is hard to see it as anything but a populist attempt to win votes.

That there are xenophobic, if not outwardly racist, votes to be won in Australia is not in doubt. The anti-immigrant One Nation party, led by Pauline Hanson, has made an electoral impact more than once in recent years. Its successes, albeit always short-lived, and the surge of support for Mr Howard’s hostility to refugees suggest that Australia is not yet the kind of multi-cultural country, at ease both with its Asian neighbours and with its own aboriginal people, that Mr Howard’s Labor predecessors sought to bring into being. Yet this change was, and is, the necessary social and political counterpart to Australia’s economic modernisation. Mr Howard seemed to sense this when he promised three years ago to commit himself to “true reconciliation” with the country’s indigenous people. But that promise has come to naught, amid recriminations about his refusal to make a formal apology for the treatment meted out to aboriginals by generations of white Australians.

Labor has its blemishes too. It opposed the new tax, and promises changes to it, though they probably would not amount to much. It says it will not privatise Telstra, and it still has ties with Australia’s less-than-enlightened trade-union movement. But in economic affairs Labor would probably not depart much from the path of modernisation that it started 18 years ago. And in helping to bring an end to the attitudes of the past-many associated with the white-Australia policy that characterised the country for so long-Labor would almost certainly be more successful than Mr Howard’s team. If he does indeed turn out to be the lucky prime minister, Australia might just cease to be the lucky country-for a while at least.

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Peter Fray

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