November 14

Australia chooses

The following is an opinion piece from The Age. Apart from amtters relating to the ACM mission, it does not represent the views of ACM


"Almost 2500 years ago Confucius said that good government obtains when the
population is made happy, and those who are far off are attracted.

On this criterion, Australia is a very well governed country.  That is why
Australians have just returned John Howard to a third term with a record swing
to him.

Any government’s core functions are the defence of the borders, law and order, a
framework for economic progress, education and the safety net for the

The Australian constitution intends a demarcation of these functions between the
Federation and the states, but previous High Courts and politicians have
succeeded in blurring this.  In any event a federal government can only be
sensibly assessed against its performance of these core functions.  On 10
November Australians ignored those peripheral issues so dear to the elite, for
example, the republic, comment in The Economist and The New York Times.

They clearly judged John Winston Howard by comparing his predecessor Paul
Keating and his rival Kim Beazley.

His predecessor came to power with the economic reforms he himself had obtained
as Treasurer, with, let it be noted, opposition support.  But in the crucial
labour market area those reforms were at best tepid.

Even with the benefits of privatisation, and substantial tax increases, the
Keating government just could not live within its budget.  This had serious
effects on interest rates and employment.  Then there were those divisive social
and cultural policies.  Seizing upon the High Court’s extraordinary decision to
legislate, in effect, on native title in mainland Australia, Paul Keating went
beyond practical reconciliation, with Australia’s indigenous population. 
Through impassioned and inflammatory language, he gave more solace – and comfort
– than he probably intended to those who will only ever be satisfied with a
treaty and legal separation from other Australians.

Although success in trade is a matter primarily for business, Keating
“discovered” Asia and thought to substitute that vague geographical concept for
our oldest and closest friends, especially the UK but also the USA.  While APEC
remains a good concept it is a long way off from the most primitive form of
economic association, a free trade area.  His almost filial devotion to the
Indonesia dictator General Suharto meant that he continued the policy of
ignoring the rights of the East Timorese.  That this was endorsed by those same
diplomats, ex-politicians from both sides and commentators who now accuse
Australians of racism over border protection, in no way made the policy more
virtuous.  But this led him, like an eighteenth century princeling, to negotiate
a treaty of which even most of his Ministers, to say nothing of the Parliament
and the people, were completely ignorant.

Determined to sever our oldest links, and to divert attention from the
government’s economic mismanagement, he proposed both a new flag and
substantial, unnecessary and divisive constitutional change.

He thus lost his own heartland, and John Howard was swept to victory.  His first
priority being a sound economy, he set about repaying the mountain of debt he
had inherited.  His action ensured that Australia did not fall victim – as most
of its neighbours did and his critics gleefully predicted – to the Asian
economic crisis.  He took on the thankless task of reforming the tax system and
for proposing this he was only just returned in 1998.  He curbed the growing
trade in hand and machine guns.  His leadership on East Timor was remarkable. 
He declined the foolish demands of the Left that he invade and thus declare war.
(Had he, the Left would have been the first to denounce him.)  The speed with
which he obtained UN support, and actually had troops on the ground is a world
record.  He thus removed for once and all that that awful stain on the nation’s
honour. Had the M V Tampa  – the vessel at the centre of the border control
incident – not been Norwegian owned, he could well have received the Nobel Prize
for this.  But it was in his stopping what would have become a vast and annual
armada of people smugglers that Australians have rallied behind him.  Not out of
racism but because they know that those already in the queue, living today under
the threat of persecution, have greater rights.  Australians are prepared to
discuss the size of their already generous and completely non-discriminatory
refugee quota, but they will accept neither open entry nor that places be
awarded in the quota by the criminal smugglers. 

And what of John Howard’s rival in this election?  Unlike Mr Howard, Kim Beazley
in opposition more often than not obstructed any reforms, which was his right. 
But some voters wondered whether in government he would retreat from say, labour
reform, and the reduction of welfare dependency?

While Mr Beazley has renounced the profligacy of the Keating years, the proposal
to use public service superannuation provisions for current government spending
does not inspire confidence.  Proclaiming his passion in defence matters, he has
to live down his role in the choice of the Collins class submarines.  Less
assertive than Mr Keating on cultural matters, he still proposes to continue the
folly of funding that elite passion, the republic which was so overwhelmingly
rejected in 1999.  He is determined to say “sorry”, while the treaty and a
reparations tribunal are still possible.  Little more will flow to education in
the first term, but universities will lose private income.  While some private
schools are targeted, the fact is that on average the private schools remain
more cost efficient.

It was on border protection that the comparison is most clear.  From 1998 a
concerned government began to introduce legislation in an attempt to curb people

But it was only when the smugglers clients forced the captain of the M V Tampa
to enter Australian waters and John Howard’s use of the RAN to head them off,
with overwhelming public support especially in the Labor heartland, that the
Opposition fell into line.

It was said by Lord Morley that the difference between a statesman and a
politician is that a politician approaches great questions as though they were
not truly great.  As prominent journalist Paul Kelly – no friend of the
government on this – wrote, John Howard’s opponents not only refused to
recognise the imperative of border security.  They showed contempt for it! (The
Australian, 31 October).

Lord Morley was right.  On his assessment, Curtin, Menzies and Chifley were
statesmen.  And so is John Howard.

While we have many politicians, statesmen are rare.  On 10 November, the
Australian people decided that while it is good to have a statesman in a
government, it is essential in a crisis."


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