Australia tries Thatcherism - strife included

Patrick Hosking in Melbourne on a government set for confrontation after 13 years of teamwork

"Over the last 13 years we have had a co-operative society," a prominent Australian trade unionist said last week. "I now fear we are headed back to confrontation of many years gone by." The man responsible for "injecting this atmosphere of confrontation back into Australian society", as he saw it, was the conservative Prime Minister, John Howard.

Since Mr Howard's Liberal-National coalition took power in March, after 13 years of Labor rule, it has seemed at times that Australia was belatedly undergoing its own version of the "Thatcher revolution" in Britain. Never more so than in the past few days, when the combination of strikes, angry rhetoric and violent confrontation created an atmosphere reminiscent of the Thatcher era at its most divided.

Australia's elegant parliament building bore the brunt of this new mood. As MPs gathered to hear the new government's first budget, the entrance hall was a sea of broken glass, blood and paint, and its gift shop trashed and looted. News of the budget's drastic deficit-cutting measures had leaked early, provoking a rally by 20,000 trade unionists and Aborigines and, in the worst violence ever seen in Canberra, a small breakaway group from the peaceful demonstration attacked the building with sledgehammers, iron stakes, acid and paint. Chanting "Johnny, we're coming to get you", some of the demonstrators tried to reach Mr Howard's office, but police finally regained control after two hours of clashes. There were 70 injuries and 49 arrests.

The cause of the confrontation, the federal budget delivered by the Treasurer, Peter Costello, was one of the toughest in memory. Among the most visible victims of the A$4.7bn (pounds 2.4bn) in spending cuts to next June were the unemployed, Aborigines and students, with the number of places on jobless programmes to be reduced by 200,000, and further cuts in the following two years. Grants to universities were reduced, and students will be expected to pay increased fees.

But few other areas escaped the axe, with public service broadcasting, the arts, research and development programmes, health, foreign aid and childcare assistance all being targeted. Generous tax breaks for pension schemes were also removed. Financial markets welcomed the budget, calling it fiscally responsible and going some way to tackling Australia's endemic deficit.

More echoes of early 1980s Britain came too in official statistics underlining what has been anecdotally apparent for some time: industrial disputes have soared since the Liberal-National coalition took office. In its first three months, working days lost through strikes quadrupled to 320,000 compared to the previous quarter. Car-making, oil-refining, construction, coal-mining and the ports have all been hit by strikes in recent weeks, and in one particularly bitter dispute in Melbourne, mounted police wielding batons were deployed to break through a picket line at a glass factory owned by the British manufacturer, BTR.

The desire of the new government to signal an end to years of consensus Labor rule under Bob Hawke and later Paul Keating was demonstrated by its early decision to dismantle the Accord, the pact between unions and government. Mr Howard would certainly like to reform industrial relations law to reduce union power, enforce the anti-secondary picketing laws, ban the closed shop and give more flexibility to employers.

But the impression of a Thatcherite revolution is tempered by the fact that the coalition does not control the Senate, Parliament's upper chamber. Although Mal Colston, a Queensland Labor senator, defected to the government last week, Mr Howard is still two votes short of a Senate majority.

The new government also appears reluctant to stir things up in other fields - it shows no sign of reforming Australia's complex tax system, for example. Like Baroness Thatcher, Mr Howard had a non-conformist upbringing and a small businessman for a father (a garage owner rather than a grocer), but the Australian leader is more cautious. Sometimes he has to rein back the more radical right wing of his party.

And to paint the old Labor regime as having learned nothing from Thatcherism would also be misleading. It was Mr Keating who dismantled the high tariffs that had protected much of Australia's inefficient manufacturing base. He also helped to create many of Australia one-million-plus small shareholders by embracing privatisation, selling off chunks of the Commonwealth Bank and state airline Qantas, and putting in train the sale of the country's airports.

But even if the Howard government differs less from its predecessors than last week's demonstrators in Canberra might claim, the pace of deregulation is almost certain to accelerate. Its plans to privatise one-third of Telstra, the government-owned phone company, will lead to thousands of job losses, and tensions with some of the most vulnerable groups in Australia are likely to get worse. In style if not always in substance, the coalition is courting an image of confrontation rather than co-operation.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Life and Style
tech
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Arts and Entertainment
filmThe Rock to play DC character in superhero film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# .Net Developer

£23000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: C# .Net Develop re...

Electronics Design Engineer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: My client are l...

Senior BI Engineer (BI/MI, Data Mining)

£60000 - £65000 per annum + Bonus & Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior BI Enginee...

IT Teacher

£100 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are seeking a teacher o...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor