Howard puts his faith in Thatcherism

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The Independent Online
AFTER WEEKS of public indifference to the general election Australians are finally waking up to what the Prime Minister, John Howard, calls "one of those generational elections when a nation has to decide" its future direction.

Mr Howard claimed yesterday that his plan to introduce a 10 per cent Goods and Services Tax (GST) was quintessentially Australian. "The tradition of a fair go is like a river running through our community," he said, but there was "a companion to a fair go, and that is having a go".

Electors in Mr Howard's home territory, a prosperous Sydney commuter suburb, are being spared the populist high notes in favour of a rhetoric which, to British ears, carries eerily familiar echoes. "Having a go" translates as putting "more money into the pockets of taxpayers", according to one of Mr Howard's campaign newsletters. The proposed income tax cuts, in parallel with the GST, are aimed at "encouraging incentive, opportunity and choice".

So is Australia ready for a transition inspired by the one Baroness Thatcher brought about, from a fiscal system based largely on progressive, direct taxation, to one with a hefty proportion of revenues raised by a flat- rate tax bearing hardest on the poor?

Mr Howard's announcement of his intentions gave the Labor leader, Kim Beazley, a lifeline - one he has seized on, with a campaign almost exclusively based on offering voters the choice, as one newspaper put it, of "me or the GST".

Visiting Sydney's fish market, Mr Beazley showed the influence of New Labour campaigning - brushing off reporters' questions as he pressed on with a photo- opportunity designed to highlight the issue of the day. Mr Beazley posed for the cameras, kissing a Red Emperor fish marked "10 per cent GST".

Yesterday's Labor story was based on Treasury papers that supposedly show the impact of the tax on poor families would be more severe than the ruling National/Liberal coalition has admitted - but which have not been released, even under the Freedom of Information Act and despite a charter of budget honesty, which Federal politicians are supposed to observe.

In another suburb, Manly, people can, in Mr Howard's words, "have a go" at living the surf life on a weekly rent that can be paid by about five hours' work a day waiting tables in one of the many localrestaurants.

Mr Howard has not specifically suggested that fair rent legislation or wages councils are up for grabs. But the unmistakable drift of his policies, including further privatisations and tighter regulations on trade unions, gives the country, as he says, a generational choice to make.

Beaming out from the windows of Manly's bookshops are copies of Kim Beazley's biography. Just published, it comes with a foreword by his ally, Tony Blair. The debt New Labour owes to Australian Labor in terms of ideas is well known. The minimum wage and welfare-to-work were tried out in Australia. Now the voters are being offered a chance to embrace a vision of the future which, in some respects, owes more to Britain in 1979.