Australia: Cracks show in John Howard government

Labor no alternative to rightwing Coalition – New workers’ party needed!

Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, is starting to show signs of not being the ‘invincible’ politician he is often made out to be by pundits. John Howard’s longevity as a prime minister (in power since 1996) is often portrayed by various political commentators as an indication that he has an uncanny ability to link up with and understand “middle Australia” and the “Aussie Battler”. Howard has managed to hold onto power even despite his active support for Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sending Australian troops to both countries. Indeed, Howard asserts Australian imperialism in the Asia-Pacific region, sending forces to Timor and the Solomon Islands.

Recent events are beginning to show that it is more the case of Howard’s extraordinary luck, as far as the economy and various political events is concerned, and the lack of a real political alternative, that are key to his surviving, so long.

Howard has been Prime Minister for 10yrs, first winning office in 1996 and he was re-elected in 1998 and 2001. He won a fourth term in October 2004. Howard’s Liberal Party governs in a right wing Coalition government, with the National Party.

Luckily for Howard, these electoral successes took place during a general upturn in the Australian and world economy. A commodities boom, in particular, helps to sustain the Australian economy. The large services-based economy has sustained growth, at the expense of workers’ wages and conditions.

Howard also managed to use fear and uncertainty over terrorism to maintain power. He asks Australians to choose the ‘devil they know’ rather than the ‘devil they don’t’ (i.e. the Australian Labor Party – ALP), during such uncertain times, particularly if the other devil does not pose any kind of real alternative.

After winning a majority in the last Senate elections, Howard may have thought he would be able to have smoother passage of legislation through the upper house. [Australia’s parliament has a lower chamber, the House of Representatives, and an upper house, the Senate. Individual states also have parliaments.] However, recent events in the Senate, with the threat of Coalition senators voting down Howard’s anti-refugee legislation (and the bill’s subsequent withdrawal), and backbenchers actually crossing the floor in parliament, have shown Howard is not getting an easy passage for new reactionary legislation.

A recent increase in interest rates and an increase in oil prices, along with higher inflation (which Howard tried to blame on banana prices), also showed how vulnerable the prime minister will be during a serious downturn in the economy.

All this comes on the heels of a well-publicised showdown between Howard and another Coalition leader, Peter Costello, the government’s Treasurer. Howard broke his promise to stand aside and let Costello take over as PM. Despite this, Howard’s colleagues see him as the best bet for the Coalition government to hold on to power.

Howard wanted new draconian legislation to mean that refugees arriving near to Australia would not be able to come into Australia and be subject to Australian law and legal processes. This comes after refugees from Nauru were granted asylum in Australia, leading to angry complaints by Indonesia. Howard hoped to placate the Indonesian government, to prevent any further such incidents, as well as continuing to look ‘tough’ over immigration. Howard previously took a tough stance on asylum seekers. A few years ago, He ruthlessly exploited a discredited report that refugee boat people ‘threatened’ to throw their children overboard into the sea to get asylum in Australia. But Howard’s recent brutal plans for refugees suffered a setback in parliament.

There has also been disquiet over several other issues, including oil prices, stem cell therapy research and Industrial Relations legislation.

Howard’s paltry response to oil price increases has been a $2000 subsidy for LPG conversion for cars. Regarding stem cell research, Howard decided that rather than risk overt division in his Coalition government over the issue, he will allow a ‘conscience’ vote on a private members bill to overturn the current ban on therapeutic cloning. On Industrial Relations, Howard set up a government task-force to sell and defend the hated anti-worker IR laws.

Preferred leader of big business

Despite recent set backs Howard remains the preferred Prime Minister of big business. Recent opinion polls still show Labor and Coalition running very close. This demonstrates Howard may still be able to win elections because of a failure of the ALP to pose as a real alternative. On almost all issues mentioned above, the ALP is very little different to the Coalition government. The ALP leaders claim they will tear up Industrial Relations legislation, as it currently exists, but do not say what is going to replace it. On stem cell research, the ALP leaders are also giving ALP members a conscience vote. On the economy, we cannot expect any real difference in policies between the Coalition and the ALP. The ALP, after all, is the party that started Australia on the neo-liberal path when in power.

The ALP’s opposition to the proposed refugee bill was based on nationalistic sentiment about Australian sovereignty, rather than any kind of compassion for refugees; it was, after all, the ALP that first created inhuman refugee camps in Australian.

The ALP would like to see Peter Costello as the new prime minister, regarding him as an ‘easier’ target than Howard. Regardless of who is PM, the fundamental policies of both Coalition and ALP remain the same. They are the policies of neo-liberalism, of doing whatever it takes to ensure that the profits of bosses are maintained and increased. This can only be done at the expense of working people and youth.

Working people need a new party, built by unions, community groups, students and activists, to put forward a programme in their interests. The Socialist Party (CWI-Australia) calls for such a new mass party. Our campaigns against cut-backs, racism, low wages and exploitation, and in defence of jobs, public services and student rights, help to prepare the ground for the development of a new party that represents the mass of people, as well as building fighting, socialist party.

This is an edited version of an article from latest issue of ‘The Socialist’, newspaper of the Socialist Party (CWI) in Australia

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