Former Liberal adviser Greg Barns gave John Howard both barrels writing in the Fin Review this week and Hugh McKay did likewise in the Sydney Morning Herald. Both are well worth a read.

And how far Mr Howard is prepared to go in this quest for those votes was made abundantly clear this week when, as this newspaper reported on Thursday, the PM announced that Australia will not increase its refugee intake to deal with the millions of displaced Afghans and others as a result of the war on terrorism.

Leaving aside the sheer inhumanity of this approach and the fact that it is in stark contrast to the attitude taken by former Liberal PMs Malcolm Fraser and Robert Menzies towards refugees from World War Two sand Vietnam, the message to the racists and xenophobes out there is clear – vote for the Coalition and you won’t have to worry about thousands of people from the Middle East and Central Asia moving into your neighbourhood. How different the rhetoric and appeal might be if it were white Zimbabwean farmers who were knocking on Australia’s door!

The Coalition’s campaign slogan, ‘Putting Australia’s Interests First’ is stridently nationalistic and its message is one of ‘Fortress Australia.’ It is designed to assure voters that the Liberal Party under John Howard will continue to cut up rough on refugees and to snub UN committees that dare to criticise us in areas as diverse as human rights or the environment.

The Liberals’ campaign literature hammers home a few more One Nation favourites. We are informed in a glossy pamphlet called ‘Putting Australia’s Interests First’ that ‘Good policy’ is ‘guided by the values’ of men and woman who are ‘self reliant, willing to take on responsibility and who desire for themselves and their families choice and opportunity’ and not by ‘special and sectional interests’ – for which read aboriginal and ethnic groups or even a lobby group like ACOSS, but not commercial television networks that had a monopoly on digital broadcasting delivered to them on a platter by the Government only last year.

The other piece of Party propaganda released by the Liberals this week, a pamphlet called ‘Heading in the Right Direction’ has on its front cover a road in lush pastoral country, and on the inside pages is a road cutting a swathe through what looks like a typical piece of the highly marginal seat of Kalgoorlie. Not a city building or even a suburban home in sight.

This populist right wing strategy seems to be working – Pauline Hanson is now reduced to a side lines role of ‘I told you so’. On October 1 she issued a media release that praised the government for its treatment of the asylum seekers taken aboard the Navy vessel Maranora. Ms Hanson, with her haracteristic chutzpah crowed that ‘John Howard is following my lead and then claiming my ideas as his own.’

There is a risk of course that the Liberals populist conservative approach could throw up a surprise result or two in some of its wealthy, blue ribbon seats in Sydney and Melbourne. Tony Abbott in Warringah, on Sydney’s North Shore, is under threat from former State Independent MP, Peter McDonald, who represents for many Liberal voters in that electorate a more palatable form of liberalism – humane treatment of refugees, reconciliation with Indigenous Australians and an Australian Head of State. After all, this was an electorate that voted heavily in favour of a republic in 1999. This author understands that Liberal Party polling shows that Dr McDonald is running at around 25 percent of the primary vote at the moment and is gaining some momentum in parts of the electorate.

The adoption of the strategy that appeals to those who flirt with One Nation might be designed to win Mr Howard the election but it is possibly doing Australia tremendous international damage. One of the world’s most respected journals, The Economist, has editorialised this week against the government on its treatment of asylum seekers and has pointed out what to any observer abundantly clear – that this brutal policy is designed simply to win over the xenophobes and racists. That The Economist should take such a strong tone is highly significant. It is not a left leaning publication, but one that Mr Howard has been very happy to quote because of its praise of his government’s handling of the economy. One might also assume that it is reflecting a view in the rest of the world that our country is behaving in a way that is unacceptable for one that belongs to the liberal democratic tradition.

In fact, The Economist makes a very sound point when in the same editorial it takes the Howard government to task for refusing to formally apologise to our indigenous population. It notes that both this and the Tampa incident 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.’ To this could be added, nor are we prepared to let go of a Head of State who lives in London.

By giving succour to One Nation sympathisers and those who are unduly influenced by the absurd ravings of radio shock jocks Mr Howard and the Coalition risk belittling us in the eyes of the region. That’s hardly putting Australia’s interests first.


John Howard’s personal indulgence

By Hugh Mackay

When ambition outstrips conviction, the resulting gap will inevitably be filled by arrogance and pride. That’s why Socrates once observed that people driven by naked ambition for high office should be disqualified from holding it.

John Howard’s bid for a third term in office represents one of the most extraordinary pleas for the indulgence of personal ambition ever put to the Australian people. This is a man who, ever since primary school, has declared that he wanted to be prime minister of Australia … not that he harboured some idealist’s vision of a better society; it was simply that he wanted the top job.

Plenty of kids fantasise about being prime minister, of course, but Howard was deadly serious. He never wavered from his goal and, what’s more, he attained it.

Now he wants us to give him a third election victory. This is not so he can finish some grand task he has set himself; indeed, his pitch for re-election is that he should be rewarded for what he has already done (especially the introduction of his beloved GST) and that he represents the promise of continuity of leadership at a time of world crisis.

Yet, paradoxically, his offer of continuity does not extend to a commitment to serve a full third term. He is telling us, with a transparency he presumably hopes will melt our hearts, that he will review the situation when he turns 64 – in July 2003 – and then decide whether to stay or go.

Ambition has got the better of him, yet again. A third term would make him the second longest-serving Liberal prime minister after his hero, R.G. Menzies. (This is a bit like Steve Waugh wanting to have the second-highest batting average after Don Bradman, 05as though politics is just a game, after all.) It would also allow him – again like his hero – the self-indulgence of leaving the prime ministership at a time of his own choosing, rather than being pensioned off by his colleagues or by the electorate.

In other words, this is a man with one eye on the record books, and there’s no greater distraction from the demands of high office than that.

On several occasions during last Sunday night’s TV debate, Howard was at pains to tell us he would stay in office long enough to “see the people through these difficult times” – as if he were some selfless, pastoral figure committed to the welfare of the Australian people rather than his own re-election. (And what, exactly, would he be doing to see us through these difficult times? Saying “Yes, George” and “Whatever you say, George”?)

The steel of Howard’s determination to win that coveted third term can be seen not only in a series of blatantly populist policy switches, but also in the profligacy of his spending since the beginning of this year. The Howard Government has been on the greatest advertising binge in Australian political history, with expenditure on self-promotion through media advertising even surpassing the budgets of our biggest commercial spenders – Telstra and Coles Myer.

So what is all this ambition really about? Is there an agenda – apart from an understandable reluctance to let go – attached to this powerful desire to remain in office? And if there is, whose vision will drive it? Not only is the Prime Minister asking us to re-elect him so he can leave office on his own terms, but when he says we would be re-electing “the team”, you have to ask yourself , “Which team?” In three of the most critical portfolios – defence, health and finance – he can’t even tell us who might steer the ship of state.

The imminent retirement of Peter Reith, Michael Wooldridge and John Fahey exacerbates the impression of a government wanting to be returned on the basis of its past, rather than its future. While Fahey’s health problems make his retirement understandable, both Reith and Wooldridge were among the Government’s most formidable performers, and both might have been expected to figure in any future leadership contests.

With three key ministers no longer around, and a prime minister so clearly signalling the possibility of his own mid-term retirement, it’s hard to escape the impression of a spent force – precisely the impression created by the Prime Minister himself in the TV debate. (Memo to the PM: whatever you do, don’t agree to a second debate.)

The separate question – whether Kim Beazley would make a good prime minister – can’t be settled until he’s in the job; that’s the nature of politics. But the fact that he was widely reported as being reluctant to take on the Labor leadership in the first place is a point in his favour. Socrates would approve.


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