You won’t read a leader like this anywhere else and it’s proving very popular, even rating as the top story on Google News Australia for a while on Friday afternoon.

Something is rotten in Australia

Unlike most of Australia’s media outlets, we at Crikey are not commercially conflicted, spineless or the subject of special deals with the Howard Government which influence our voting recommendations to subscribers ahead of tomorrow’s vital national election.

We believe it is in the national interest for Australians to put an energetic, intelligent, open-minded and market friendly social democrat such as Mark Latham in The Lodge.

Governments decay over time. It happened to Fraser, it happened to Kennett, it happened to Hawke and Keating and it has happened to John Howard’s government.

After the profligacy and ill-discipline of Whitlam and the do-nothing years of Fraserism, the first five years of the Hawke Government were arguably the finest in Australian history. However, much of the good work was undone in the fiscal disasters of the last years under Paul Keating. We would all have been better off if Labor had not won a fourth term in 1990.

And so it is with John Howard. The Prime Minister served Australia reasonably well in his first two terms until he chose to embark on an unseemly spending spree to tackle his political woes of early 2001 which, coupled with his divisive policies on refugees, were enough to win him an undeserved third term.

The Howard years could have been so good. But, instead, history will remember them for only a handful of notable reforms:

  • the waterfront
  • industrial relations
  • and the GST package

The booming economy is a false dawn with a policy-induced housing bubble and a debt-funded consumer binge leaving no great legacy for future generations.

The Howard years have coincided with the age of the Internet, yet we have not produced an IT company of any note or taken advantage of new technology to create greater diversity of ownership and choice in media. Our business sector has become an amalgam of gouging cartels, a service sector oligopoly which has delivered for shareholders but not for the nation. Look no further than the way bank profits have more than doubled since 1996.

For the first time in history, we have fallen below one per cent of world exports and those exports remain dominated by primary products and minerals.

Just as Bob Hawke benefited from the drought breaking in 1983, the Howard Government has taken credit for things over which it has no control, primarily low global interest rates and the our best terms of trades in many years thanks to the boom in China.

The national economy has grown from $500 billion to $800 million since 1996 but too much of this relates to the property bubble and unsustainable debt funded consumer spending.

After this unprecedented election spending spree, the Howard Government’s claims of fiscal responsibility ring like a death rattle. Unfunded public sector superannuation has blown out from $75 billion to $90 billion and the Commonwealth Government still has a net worth of negative $36 billion.

The Reserve Bank has been raided for $18 billion in dividends and now our foreign reserves are lower than most comparable countries in the region.

A unique opportunity has been squandered to tackle Australia’s punitive personal income tax rates as John Howard abandoned his pretensions to serious economic reform and smaller government.

Whilst the economic record is superficially good, sadly there are now a long list of negatives that will sully how history treats the Howard years.

Standards in government is the most obvious. Whether it is demonising refugees, telling blatant untruths or even running ridiculous scare campaigns over interest rates, John Howard has shown himself to be a man of few principles who will do or say anything to stay in power.

When the rot starts at the top, the diminishing standards spread throughout the entire government. No minister has been forced to resign, no matter how they have behaved, since the travel rorts affair of 1997.

It now seems standard practice for retiring Howard Government Ministers to try and cash in from their knowledge. Look no further than Peter Reith, Michael Wooldridge and Richard Alston.

Having trashed his ministerial code of conduct, it would not surprise if John Howard retired from Parliament and took a paid consultancy with Halliburton.

John Howard used to be a conviction politician who believed in truth in government, lower taxes and small government.

Now, he is blowing a surplus created by record levels of taxation on profligate, non-means tested welfare expenditure that fosters an entitlement mentality and will become more expensive and more difficult politically to claw back as the population ages.

Now he’s just another ruthless populist exploiting the prerogatives of power whilst his government runs out of puff.

The trouble with Latham

Mark Latham has campaigned well, but not all his policies are commendable. Medicare Gold is underfunded and impractical in the medium to longer term, the $800 million bribe to red-necked tree-loppers was grossly excessive and the abolition of AWAs is a sop to the union puppeteers who still have way too much influence in the ALP.

Mark Latham has some interesting ideas – but the worry is that he will not be able to shift the lefty troglodytes in his party.

His modest tax and family policy demonstrate that he has been able to defeat the entitlement mentality in the ALP. The mantra of hard work, incentive, productivity and labour market participation are at the heart of his appeal.

Latham “club-busting”, from Liverpool Council onward, is practical economic and policy reform designed to benefit the social strata he comes from based on his own empirical observation, a fascinating product of his own life experience.

A hungry Labor leader who won the University prize for economics at Sydney Uni, did it tough in his younger years and personally detests waste and mismanagement is always an encouraging sign given the constant examples of Labor profligacy that are now on display in NSW and, to a lesser extent, the other states.

Latham has clearly out-campaigned his opponent and a victory tomorrow would give him tremendous authority in any new Labor administration. This would be a positive start, but the question remains whether he can take his party with him.

A formal apology to the Stolen Generation, the freeing of refugees from detention centres and a renewed push for the republic all polls suggest Australians still want would also be welcome symbolic gestures of genuine reconciliation by a mature nation truly comfortable with its place in our region and the world.

Living with wall-to-wall Labor Government is naturally a risk, but could also prove a unique opportunity. Petty buck-passing and blame shifting have for too long characterised Australia’s antiquated system of federal-state relations.

We accept Mark Latham is a work in progress: that’s why we have a strong Senate to act as a house of review. With that in mind, the decline of the Democrats is sad, and we urge voters to strongly consider the Democrats in preference to the Greens – who seem not to understand the language of politics rather than protest – in the Senate.

Mark Latham didn’t mention the war in his Press Club address on Wednesday. But we will: the way John Howard took us sneakily into war without declaring his intentions boldly up front characterises his modus operandi as Prime Minister.

Never mind the missing WMD’s fiasco, Howard wasn’t straight with the people from day one on War in Iraq, and for this alone he stands discredited. There was an overwhelming humanitarian arguement to remove Saddam Hussein. But the nation first needed to be fully informed.

Howard’s unblinking support of the increasingly rudderless US policy in Iraq has made Australia a less safe place. Bob Hawke could hardly have been accused of being anti-American, but he was able to stand up to the excesses of the Reagan administration and give Australia a more independent foreign policy voice. Howard has lived up to his Deputy Sheriff tag and it’s remarkable that no-one has seriously raised the question during this campaign of how Australia would react if Bush is dumped – a real possibility.

Howard claims that his government is “respected” in the Asia Pacific region. This is nonsense; anyone who has spent time in Asia knows that Asian leaders distrust Howard and his government and that they only give them token respect because they know they have the ear of the Bush Administration.

In particular, there is a need for serious industrial engagement with the growing economic superpowers of China and India, rather than the current “we’ll sell you the farm and the minerals” approach that conservative governments have too often followed.

Stability or stagnation?

No doubt many voters are not persuaded by Latham’s “change before it’s too late” message. They sense that Australian democracy is a robust institution, and three more years of Howard can hardly do lasting damage (although the 20th century should have taught us not to overestimate the strength of democracy).

One great Australian institution, however, that may not survive the re-election of the Howard government, is the Liberal Party itself. Sickly for many years, under Howard it has become almost comatose. Its members have deserted, dissent has died out, and its state divisions have degenerated into factional warfare over diminishing spoils. Howard himself is attempting to restructure the party as a tool of the federal secretariat, not a popular movement.

A Howard victory tomorrow would set the seal on his picture of what the Liberal Party should be: a party hostile to any genuine liberal thought, undemocratic in its principles and its processes, loyally supporting whatever policy twists the Leader (always with a capital “L” now – remind you of anything?) deems necessary to secure his re-election.

The Fraser and Howard governments both frittered away opportunities to change the nation for the better, but all the signs are that Latham would be a genuine reformer.

We believe Australia deserves fresh ideas on both sides of politics. It’s time for John and Janette Howard to pack their bags and enjoy a well deserved retirement at their holiday shack in Hawks Nest. Time for a new generation of leaders to take us forward.

We like the idea of Mark Latham vs Peter Costello. Both have untapped potential, and deserve to be removed from the political shackles that have held them back – albeit with a strong Senate and a robust media to hold them accountable.

We believe that overwhelmingly it’s time for change. Not change for change’s sake. Change for the nation’s sake.

* This editorial was written by former Liberal staffers Stephen Mayne, Christian Kerr, Charles Richardson and former Labor staffer
Hugo Kelly. Responsibility for election comment is taken by the editor, Stephen Mayne, who can be contacted at
[email protected].

Reader feedback:

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Crikey, Good editorial.Congrats on your election coverage. Have craved it each and every day. More than I can say for most outlets.

Ex News Ltd hack

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Well done Crikey, you’re editorial would make Graham Perkin, the late great editor of The Age, proud.

Gary

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I wish each voter could read that balanced – and I believe eminently fair – editorial. Then cast a fully informed vote. Sad that can’t happen! Well done anyway.

Bill, Killcare

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I have just called The Age to ask whether the rumour that their editorial (which recommends a re-election of the government) was imposed on the editor by the Fairfax management was true. It was not true, The Age stated, it was an independent editorial.

I have just read The Australian which recommends the return of the government.

I have just read The Adelaide Advertiser, which recommends the return of the government.

May I congratulate you on your editorial. It is well argued, thoughtful and has a view to the future. The results of your latest survey suggests that most of your readers share your conclusion.

Joe Hoogland

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Your editorial today is a nicely written spray, which makes good use of your unbeholden position — a very timely contrast to The Age! Your point about the influence of the so called Troglodyte Left is completely and utterly wrong of course – a failure to see past many centuries of cumulative scare campaigns – but I can tell you have made it because you genuinely believe it.

One thing your editorial has overlooked, however, is the momentous responsibility that now rests on the shoulders of Bennelong voters. They have carried Howard through to his current position over many years, when they could have dumped him. On balance, they might be proud of the use to which their local MP put that support in the 1996 election. In 2001, I got the sense that their feelings were very mixed, and so their support for Johnny was noticeably muted. But this election is a bit different, because Labor’s platform has so much more integrity this time than last, while the Government’s integrity has continued to dwindle.

Tomorrow is a chance for the voters in Bennelong to make a declaration about the kind of bourgeois respectable liberal-conservative politics they actually stand for. Nice gardens. Nice streets. Nice people. Tomorrow, they could vote to guarantee the Latham vs Costello future you have (very reasonably) endorsed, by electing Andrew Wilkie to Parliament. For them, it need not matter whether Labor or Liberal wins the majority: they should still vote to get rid of Howard. Vote Liberal for the Senate, perhaps – plenty of people have tried this in the past and the country has survived so far – but vote against Howard for the seat of Bennelong.

We cannot expect that they will do it, but they clearly should. It’s what they believe in.

Tom

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Congratulations on a great election-eve editorial.

I have to say i was somewhat shocked to actually read an intelligent, passionate and well-argued analysis of why your team believes Latham should be our next PM. Sadly, this kind of journalism has all but faded from the conflicted Australian mainstream outlets.

I have been a reader of crikey for some years so i know the roots of crikey’s founders are liberal and found the editorial even more refreshing for that reason, in that you could argue both what was in the nation’s best interest and also, what is in the liberal party’s best interest.

Personally, i have never been a member of any political party and am a swinging voter, but not the traditional apathetic, self-interested kind open to bribery. I have agonised over how to vote in this election.

Living in a very marginal seat, Ihave had reams of election material stuffed into my letterbox. However none of this has appealed to me. Your editorial has been one of the few things I have read during this long election campaign that has given me any intelligent food for thought and had some influence on my decision how to vote. A decision i still haven’t made – but I am getting closer…

Well done on your independent coverage over the years.

Michael

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As a swinging voter, I couldn’t agree further that it is time for a change, your article is spot on. The rodent is past his use-by date and we need a new government with a new direction, even if it has some flaws. I am totally sick of the great “independent press of Australia” and their sycophantic approach to reporting the election and almost all other items of interest, I do remember the day when you could read top editorial, getting stuck into the government ( or the opposition ) with no bias and no agenda, at least we have crikey!

Clive Brooks