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Issue 576, 7 December 2007 - Union Campaign Smashed Howard

Has Howard changed Australia?

WHEN JOHN Howard won the 2004 election, the newspapers were gushing. Here was the leader who had tapped into the psyche of ordinary Australians, who understood them and related to them.

Has Howard changed Australia?After eight years in power, Howard had not only been re-elected, but won such a decisive victory that the government would control the Senate for the first time since the late 1970s.

Howard had boasted, in 1996, that the times would suit him, and here was the proof. Australians were fundamentally conservative, and Howard represented that mood.

Three years later, the Howard regime lies in ruins and the Liberal Party is in disarray. The Lord Mayor of Brisbane is the most senior elected Liberal in the entire country. Former ministers admit that Australians hated WorkChoices, and that the government should have ratified the Kyoto Protocol. Some even regret that they didn’t say “sorry” to the stolen generations. There is now a competition to junk the Howard legacy as quickly as possible.

Right through the election campaign, journalists breathlessly warned that the polls would tighten, that the government had a chance of winning, and that the prime minister was the best political campaigner in the country. But the Liberal campaign was a litany of failures and disasters.

The government started the year 10 per cent behind Labor, and never caught up. Tax cuts in the budget didn’t win any votes; massive tax cuts at the start of the campaign were ignored; promises to save hospitals from being closed or run down by state Labor governments had little impact; vicious attacks on Labor’s trade union links failed; and the government was reduced to promising to save the Indonesian rainforest orangutangs.

Yet since the election debacle, the media has faithfully stuck to one argument’the electorate is conservative and Labor won because Kevin Rudd positioned himself as a conservative. Rudd boasted about being an ‘economic conservative’, and me-tooism became a feature of Labor’s campaign.

This argument is just as flawed as the idea that Howard reflected the popular mood.

In fact, Australians have become less conservative and more social democratic and pro-trade union under Howard’s rule.

For instance, in 1996, when Howard was elected, just 17 per cent wanted an increase in social spending while 57 per cent wanted tax cuts. According to a massive survey of Australian social attitudes taken in 2005, after nine years of Howard 47 per cent wanted an increase in social spending while 34 per cent wanted tax cuts.

After nine years of Howard - before Workchoices - 79 per cent of people wanted ‘a law to protect all workers in Australia against unfair dismissal’, with just 11 per cent against; and 69 per cent saw award wages as ‘the best way of paying workers and setting conditions’ with just 12 per cent against. Only 10 per cent thought ‘a lower minimum wage is the best way to solve unemployment’, with 73 per cent disagreeing.

When Howard came to power, over 60 per cent of people thought unions had too much power; the figure after nine years of Howard was under 40 per cent.

Then we have the issue of the US Alliance, the centrepiece of Coalition foreign policy. In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, 58 per cent of Australians believed the US Alliance was ‘very important’; slightly higher than the figure when Howard came to office. By 2005 the figure was 35 per cent, and it has dropped further since then.

We are entitled to ask: exactly which argument did John Howard win?

Howard’s record in power

The story of the Howard government is really the opposite of the media version.

Howard came to power as the beneficiary of working class hatred for Paul Keating and a government that had betrayed them: firstly with the ‘recession we had to have’, which took unemployment to 11 per cent and mortgage interest rates to 20 per cent, then with a ruthless restructuring of work that saw profits start to recover in the early 1990s while jobs remained scarce.

From the very start, the Liberals attacked the working class and the poor. Union rights were undermined and billions of dollars in welfare stripped from the budget. When the economy began to boom, those cuts in welfare for the poor remained, while billions were handed out for private schools and private health insurance.

One of the most appalling legacies of the Howard government is the 30,000 people who are admitted to hospital every year with dental and gum diseases that are life-threatening. The human and financial cost is astronomical, but Howard and Costello refused to reinstate funding for a Commonwealth dental scheme. People had to be forced to learn to look out for themselves.

At first, there was resistance to Howard’s cuts and attacks on the unions. Just months after Howard was elected, hundreds of thousands of workers protested against his budget cuts and new industrial relations laws. When Howard and Chris Corrigan tried to smash the Maritime Union of Australia, the trade union movement rallied behind them and Howard tasted defeat.

Howard then proposed a Goods and Services Tax. The result was that in 1998, there was a significant swing to Labor, which won the two-party preferred vote, but narrowly failed to win the election.

From that point onwards, Howard would continue to attack workers’ rights and funding for essential social services. But he was only able to hold on to power using scare campaigns about terrorism and the most blatant racism.

In 1998, it was Aboriginal people, who were accused of wanting to get control of 98 per cent of the continent through Native Title claims.

In 2001, it was the disgraceful attack on asylum seekers, and the deliberate lies about children being thrown out of boats by their refugee parents. ‘We do not want those kind of people here,’ Howard declared.

The Tampa crisis saved the Howard government. Early in 2001, with mass opposition to the GST, Howard had suffered a 10 per cent swing at a by-election, and the president of the Liberal Party had warned Howard that people saw the government as ‘mean, tricky and out of touch’.

By 2004, the government was even more disliked. Hundreds of thousands of people had marched against going to war in Iraq. Labor led in the polls as millions rejected the direction Australian society was taking. This time Howard was saved when Labor backtracked on its promise to pull Australian troops out of Iraq, by the perception that Mark Latham was dangerous, and by a ridiculous promise to keep interest rates low.

Howard’s interest rates promise was a reflection’not of confident economic management’but desperation. When the spin doctors found the slogan worked, they pushed it relentlessly.

The problem was that Howard’s economic program had been based on stripping away workers’ rights and unleashing whatever boom he could conjure up.

As in all booms, there was a period where this meant rising profits and slowly rising real wages; but by 2006, the boom was starting to reach its limits. The result was six interest rate rises’caused directly by the mixture of a global boom and Howard’s ‘bring-on-the-boom’ policies.

Liberal racism became a liability

Everyone agrees that Workchoices and rising interest rates destroyed support for the government in the working class suburbs of Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide, where the swings against Howard were massive’often over 10 per cent. The trade union campaign against Workchoices is rightly seen as pivotal to the destruction of the Howard government.

But the government had known for over a year that it was in trouble, and yet for all the money they spent on polling, and all the ruthless efficiency of their scare campaigns, they were unable to drag enough working class people back to voting for them. Indeed, in the middle of the year, Howard told his MPs that he could not repeat the successful scare campaigns of 1998, 2001 and 2004.

He was unable to scare people with ‘terrorism’ because enough people saw that the Iraq war was not about making the world safe, but a vicious attempt by American imperialism to grab Iraq’s oil.

The anti-war movement in Australia might be weak, and the protests might have mostly been small since 2003, but all the small and seemingly insignificant acts of opposition kept the issue and the argument against Howard alive, and people mostly listened.

The appalling arrest and deportation of Dr. Mohammed Haneef exposed the brutal cynicism involved in Howard’s terrorism scares.

In the last week of the campaign, in a now infamous incident, Liberal supporters distributed a fake Labor Party leaflet in the western Sydney seat of Lindsay.

This was a desperate and calculated attempt to whip up vicious anti-Muslim racism for electoral gain.

As the Financial Review pointed out ‘Lindsay is one [seat] where a bogus campaign based on race and Islam could have gained traction. In 2001 Pauline Hanson’s One Nation polled 5.15 per cent of the vote’.

Outrage about the Lindsay incident quite possibly also tipped Howard’s seat of Bennelong, with its large influx of recent migrants from China, Hong Kong and Korea, over the line.

The Liberals also tried to play the race card in the seat of the neighbouring seat of Macarthur, by supporting the campaign against the opening of an Islamic school. Both seats saw massive swings against the government.

We saw more racist appeals in the Queensland seat of Moreton, where local Liberal MP Gary Hardgrave said that locals ‘needed a break’ from an ‘influx’ of Sudanese refugees. Hardgrave also lost his seat.

By now, most people can see through their racism. People had grown sick of Howard’s ruthless use of lies and wedge politics to hang onto power.

This is a tribute to the ongoing efforts of the campaigns for refugee rights, and against anti-Muslim racism.

When Howard launched the Tampa crisis in 2001, support for ‘boat people’ had sunk to just 9 per cent of the electorate.

Determined and successful campaigning in support of asylum seekers has seen that rise to well over 30 per cent. Given that Labor has never supported the rights of asylum seekers, this is a remarkable result.

Even amongst millions of people who agreed with Howard locking up refugees, there was dismay and disgust at what happened to them, and a desperate desire for some alternative. There was a limit to their willingness to go along with Howard’s racism.

Far from reflecting the desires of the electorate, Kevin Rudd’s conservatism is also at odds with the desires of ordinary people.

We didn’t want the Liberals’ tax cuts, and we don’t want Labor’s. Most people want the money spent on decent hospitals and schools’and public transport.

Getting rid of Howard is a huge achievement. But it will not produce the kind of society ordinary people want or need.

For that, the core social-democratic values of society need to be organised around, and fought for.

By Phil Griffiths