|Issue No 119||16 November 2001|
Week Five: All Washed Up
By Peter Lewis
If you can stand it, relive the fatefull final week of a most remarkable election campaign.
Weekend: On the Hustings
I spent the weekend up in Macquarie, one on the forgotten seats in the election. The few dedicated campaign workers are pushing on with few resources, no polling data for four months and a big pile of materials to get out to the punters. It's a seat Labor should be fancying itself in - with 10,000 new voters, mostly inner-city refugees, the Liberals 4.9 per cent margin seems doable. But like everywhere, the lack of enthusiasm and feeling in the campaign is palpable. It's left to the handful of party faithful and friends of the candidate to push through the last seven days.
Candidate Adam Searle, who graduated as Jeff Shaw's capable and conscientious chief of staff won the preselection for his first tilt at office, which is where the hard work began. Over the past 12 months he's door-knocked thousands of houses./ It's the unglamorous side of politics - door-to-door sales; there are lots of doors slammed in the face, better resourced seats also try phone polling - isolating swinging votes via a very clever analysis of electoral data - and then ringing the punter with a targeted message. It's all sales, selling the candidate, selling the Party, trying to sell some enthusiasm in the democratic process. It's grueling work the TV news never captures.
The polls are all over the place, with Labor's heartland disappearing in seats so save they might not make a difference. But focused polls have the party still competitive in key marginals/ There's two schools of thought within Labor - one that we've gone for all money (my view), the other that given (a) the situation is highly volatile and (b) 20 per cent of people make their mind up on the day, anything can still happen. That's why the candidates have to keep on pushing - things can be totally cactus, but as long as you have undecided voters, miracle can happen. It means that even when you are dead, there's the chance of resurrection.
Monday: The Party Line
There is a dangerous sideline emerging in this campaign - the pressure to give unquestioning support to Howard's closed border policy on Afghani refugees, the US foreign policy and their War on Terror, whatever guise it may take. As these are the issues that are dominating our world right now, it severely hampers a considered debate about where we are heading. But both leaders of the major parties have drawn a line, albeit for very different reasons: Howard to exploit the situation and Beazley to neutralize it.
For a Labor Party with a proud tradition of critical thought and dissent, it is a particularly heavy weight in the saddle bag - candidates making even the most vague references to concerns with US policy are being held up as traitors, pounded on by7 the media and being forced into an unedifying public recant of their views. Peter Knott was forced to state he "was misguided to have held the views he held" - a line of reason that smacks of McCarthyism. Other candidates have followed him in recent days, typically in comments to their local papers that are printed innocently enough, picked up by the Liberal campaign team, circulated in the media and then dropped on the Leader.
It's a cynical exercise and one that is contrary to all the things our leaders tell us we are fighting for. For Beazley to dismiss comments by a candidate as a sign of their immaturity, may neutralise the issue for now, but will come back to haunt Labor. From the day the Tampa crisis began, Labor has deserted the high moral ground in the mad rush for popular support. As for the Liberals, the ugliness of their attack on divergent opinions highlights the cynicism that is at the heart of their modern philosophy. Only now some Liberal candidates are also starting to question the Party line - stand-by for more public repudiations of views one shouldn't have.
Tuesday: And They're Racing
The Melbourne Cup is the obvious pictorial backdrop to the day's campaigning. With five days to polling day all the players are looking for omens - symbols that just might stick in a swinging voters' mind long enough to influence their vote. Beazley backs a West Australian nag which gets a nose-bleed on the home straight, while Howard opts for Big Pat - a gray stayer that runs out of steam. Howard seems to like the 'stayer' analogy and spends the day dead-panning it, again raising serious questions about how he has ever survived in public life. It's that excrutiating.
Behind the pictures, the day-to-day fare of the campaign is all negative. Labor's begun its scare campaign that the Coalition will put a GST on food; in return the Tories are trying to tear holes in the ALP costings - now submitted to Treasury for official scrutiny before the election. Campaign promises have slowed to a trickle: Labor puts some money into childcare, Howard comes up with a superannuation plan to benefit the risk, but at this point of the campaign it's the smear that is compelling. But the biggest negative campaign is being targeted at both the major parties - a string of former Liberal leaders, senior bureaucrats and diplomats panning both parties for their mishandling of the refugee and immigration issue.
But yet, but yet ... The polls are still showing Labor is in the hunt. The Morgan Poll has the Opposition a remarkable nine points in front. The thought horrifies me: am I witnessing one of the great backs-to- the-walls victories, but I'm too emotionally involved to see it happening? My instinct has been wrong in the past: I made a much-hyped escape from Sydney for the Olympic Games and look what happened there. If Beazley gets across the line, I'm going to have to seriously rethink my faculty for sound judgment. And I hate to admit it, but I think I'd be a little disappointed if he does get up - as it would vindicate for all time the sort of facile, opportunistic politics-in-place-of principle tactics that has defined the Beazley Show. At best, it would be bitter sweet.
Wednesday: In the Drink
Allegations emerge that would have been dynamite if Labor had chosen a different, more moral, electoral tack. The Australian newspaper quotes unnamed naval sources as saying that refugees on a boat intercepted by the RAN had never thrown children overboard as claimed by the government. At the time both parties used the evidence to argue "these are not the sorts of people we should have in our country". There was said to be video evidence to prove this heinous act and it became a truism that applied to all asylum seekers. Evil people who ram airplanes into towers and throw their children overboard.
Now, one month later we have a Minister of Defence like Peter Reith claiming he had not been "bothered to look at the video", that he thought it was infrared or grainy or unusable in some way so it was unlikely it would be publicly released. One can only wonder how this scandal would have played out if Labor had not fallen in behind Howard on the issue. More community leaders are questioning the morality of the campaign and the fact that both parties have vacated the high ground for votes. I keep coming back to the fact that all Labor would have need to do was display the guts to run a moral and humanitarian position - care for the current refugee crisis and work with our neighbors to handle the coming influx - and we would have been approaching Saturday with justice on our side.
But Beazley's at it again, defending the indefensible at his National Press Club lunch, his last big set-piece of the campaign. He doesn't dwell on refugees in his speech, but it's all the journalists want to question him on afterwards. Beazley focuses on the need for secure borders, the need to crack down on people smugglers and the fact that Australia is already generous. What he won't and can't talk about is the loss of our compassion for other people fleeing repression who have given up everything for a chance to get to Australia, for those who have already have their refugee status confirmed but wait in Indonesia to be accepted to Australia, a country which is not even fulfilling its refugee quote. If he manages to win on Saturday all this will be vindicated in the short term, but the long-term costs will be far greater.
Thursday: Not Waving, Drowning
This campaign is becoming too surreal. It now emerges that the Navy never told Reith that children were thrown overboard. There is evidence a child was held overboard on a threatening manner before the boat went down, but no evidence to back up the bilious lone that the major political parties used to justify their tough stand on asylum seekers. What's gone on here? Reithy being Reithy you can see how it plays out - half a kernel of truth, beat it up and see the sparks fly. Remember, this is also the public figure who fuelled the scare campaign that boatpeople were potential terrorists - it's his modus operandi. In the final days of his political career, the man who brought balaclavas and dogs to the wharves and family values to public perks has one last trophy: Australia's dodgiest home videos.
So the government has lied and the lies have been part of the foundations of this bipartisan campaign of prejudice. The truly tragic part of this saga was the way the evidence was used in the first place. Even if it was true, there was no space for compassion, the question: what desperation would make someone throw their own flesh and blood into the ocean? Only a: we don't want your type in our country line. Reith, Ruddock, Howard and Beazley are all equally to blame and should be all chastened the emerging truths. Howard was grilled on SBS - remarkably coming back for a second interview after his office pressured the Naval chief to soften his denial of the children overboard reports. The defence is now: look at the small print of the comments and you'll see they were qualified, I was acting on advice. The small print never ,made it inot the new reports, yet the leaders were happy to have the line run.
But bizarrely, the latest incident will not necessarily play into Labor hands. Beazley has spent the entire campaign desperate to neutralize the issue of national insecurity embodied in the fears of hordes invading us from the north. The theory went, neutralize boat-people and Howard has nothing; Labor's health and education agendas would prevail and Labor would sneak over the line. It had been going to plan for the past few weeks, stories of more boats being intercepted and towed of to a compliant Pacific neighbor had been creeping further and further down the bulletins. Now at the eleventh hour they're leading the bulletins again and Howard can again trumpet his tough leadership, leaving Beazley nothing to do but complain about the lies while failintg to distinguish his own party in any other way. He who lives by the unprincipled act of political expediency can also die by it.
Friday: And So to the Booths
All the major dailies editorialise in favour of the conservatives, as they normally do. The general line is that this has been an uninspiring campaign between a government that has run out of ideas and an Opposition that never really had any. The conservative press equates Beazley health, education and jobs with old-style Keynsian economics; of all the interest groups they appear the only ones to give Howard credit for selling off the rest of Telstra. It again shows how out of touch our mass media is with the views and aspirations of its readers. They're not even endorsing Howard, more the prospect of a future Costello government; as The Australian states: We enetertain some hope that the Coaltion, if not under Howard, then under someone else will renew itself and its ideas.
The Liberals' newspaper final advertising blitz is on its chosen theme - keeping unwanted people out - a full page advert of Howard with the quote "WE decide who comes to this country" underlines how evil, but effective, the campaign has been. Labor is again left to plug away at the issue it had believed would be its godsend: the GST. More news reports of boatpeople dying off Christmas Island after they set their craft alight do Beazley no good. All they do is underline the depth of the humanitarian crisis that is the destruction of Afghanistan and the mean-spiritedness of Australia's response.
The most bizarre election in memory is drawing to its end. So who will win? I'm more pessimistic than anyone I know about this outcome. Most are convinced it will be close - Labor to pick up in Victoria and the NT, and holding the line elsewhere to sneak into power. I'm not convinced - I just can't imagine the history books serving us up a campaign like this, at a time like this, with a Government and Opposition running similar lines on the issue that is at the heart of the populous's fears, coming up with a change of government. There are all sorts of strange results that may be thrown up on election day, but I just can't see Beazley being elected. Nor do I believe he deserves to be. So there it is: Howard with a 20-seat majority. For Labor, a most ignomious defeat.
Interview: Out of the Rubble
Michael Costa argues that Saturday's election result could have been much, much worse.
Unions: Sixty-Forty Are Good Odds!
John Robertson argues that while there may be many problems with the ALP, union power is not one of them.
Politics: Wrong Way, Go Back
Labor's failure in the federal election is the result of more than bad luck. It is the result of a shift to populism that has left the Party bereft of core principles.
Campaign Diary: Week Five: All Washed Up
If you can stand it, relive the fatefull final week of a most remarkable election campaign.
International: Trade Piracy Unmasked
As the trade barons met in Qatar to chart out their agenda, George Monbiot looks at the machinations behind the scenes.
Factions: The Party's Over
Chris Christodoulou renews his call for a breakdown of the factional system to bring new life into the ALP
History: The Fall-Out
Neale Towart looks back to Labor's reaction to its loss in the 1954 'Petrov election' and finds warnings for today's post mortem.
Media: Elite Defeat
Rowan Cahill looks at the intellectual paucity in the PM's ongoing attacks on 'elite opinion'.
Satire: Crean 'Listens To Australian People': Will Sink Refugee Boats
Simon Crean, the most likely candidate to replace Kim Beazley as Labor's leader, says he will take heed of the message sent to the ALP by Australian voters at the Federal Election.
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Last Modified: 15 Nov 2005