Disillusion reigns in the land of Oz

Voters' needs and politicians' promises are polls apart writes Robert Milliken
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The Independent Online
AFTER a week flying thousands of miles across Australia's vast outback stumping up votes, Paul Keating, the Prime Minister, flew home to the unnerving news yesterday that he faces humiliating defeat when Australians vote in a general election in three weeks' time. That is what opinion polls told the Labor Party leader after he had criss-crossed the continent from Perth to Brisbane and back to Sydney, where he responded to the forecasts with characteristic bluntness: "We'll fight like hell."

Mr Keating has never trusted opinion polls, and with good reason. At the last election in 1993, the polls predicted a similar drubbing, and almost every political commentator in the country had written Mr Keating's obituary before the campaign was a week old. They drew on his personal unpopularity among Australians, the man who brought them a recession which he loftily described as "a recession that Australia had to have", offended many voters, particularly women, with his gutter political language and scared middle Australia by vowing to ditch the country's flag, with the Union Jack in the corner.

Yet Mr Keating went on to win that election, the first in his own right after unseating Bob Hawke as Labor leader, and to increase the government's majority in the House of Representatives in Canberra. Only the foolhardly would write him off again. This time, though, the odds against Mr Keating repeating his Houdini act are much greater. Labor has been in power for 13 years and many Australians believe that the government has run out of steam. Mr Keating pulled off his astonishing victory last time, when unemployment was 11.3 per cent and the recession was still biting, largely for one reason. He mounted a brilliant scare campaign against John Hewson, then leader of the opposition Liberal-National conservative coalition which proposed a VAT-style consumption tax.

Three years on, the opposition has dropped the tax proposal and Mr Hewson. He has been replaced with John Howard, a more seasoned, if equally charismatically challenged, politician.

Although the opposition leads the government in opinion polls by up to 10 points, voters are sending out confusing signals. After two weeks of campaigning, Mr Howard has failed to widen his lead and Mr Keating actually leads Mr Howard in polls for preferred prime minister. Voters describe him as untrustworthy but strong and Mr Howard as honest but weak.

More than 20 per cent of Australians do not know who would make the best prime minister. A remarkable 40 per cent have still not made up their minds how they will vote on 2 March. The reasons are straightforward enough. Australians have never seemed more disenchanted with politicians and the political process or concerned about the future. Mr Keating has trumpeted loudly about his government's "vision thing": its proposal to end Australia's links with the British Crown and replace the monarchy with a republic, its historic introduction of land rights for Aborigines and forging of closer ties with Asia. But Australians want answers on the questions that worry them most: the security of their jobs, access to health care and the future of their children's education.

Somewhere along the road of the heady 1980s, the "lucky country" was quietly buried. After Labor dropped its traditional dogma about government intervention, pulled down the barriers around Australia's protected economy and opened it up to the chill winds of international competition, Australians woke up to a different world in the 1990s. Egalitarian Australia now feels that it has been pushed more and more into a society of haves and have-nots, where the rich have become richer and the working- and middle- class "battlers" have lost out through industry restructuring, mergers, downsizing and other impacts of the global economy. Although the economy is growing steadily, unemployment stands at 8.6 per cent, a sad indictment of Labor after 13 years.

Mr Howard has offered few, if any, prescriptions to improve things. The policy differences between government and opposition are so minimal that both leaders have resorted to offering a swag of promises costing billions of dollars.

Sceptical Australians suspect the promises will either be shelved after election day or paid for only by raising taxes and cutting spending. Mr Keating has promised packages on housing, forests, youth and health care, together with a new film production studio in Melbourne and a fast ferry linking Tasmania with mainland Australia. Mr Howard has pledged packages for small business, the environment and the arts. But voters see these promises as not so much the return of the lucky country, as more like something out of the land of Oz.