John Howard has a keen sense of history. And his place in it, at least as far as Australian politics is concerned, would seem assured after November 11th. when he led the coalition to its third successive election victory. But if he aspires to the mantle of statesman – and the moral integrity that this implies – there is one
thing he must do, and that is reunify the Australian community.
As the election results reveal, there is still a significant number of Australians who are gripped by a sense of alienation, both from the forward momentum of the national economy, and the political process. Most of them live in rural and regional Australia, although they are not strictly confined within its boundaries. Their
occupations centre around small business and farming but also numbered within their ranks are some blue collar workers and others.
As corporations and government services rationalise and contract, these people find their own lives and businesses more subject to regulation, with the result that they feel themselves squeezed in a relentless vice between de-regulation on the one hand, and over-regulation on the other.
Most ordinary people's lives (unlike those of governments) require that they look further ahead than the next election. Farmers eg. are aware that their terms of trade are declining even without researchers at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) backing them up with data that if present trends continue, then farm household
income will be zero by the year 2018. Similarly, rural and regional communities don't really need the Queensland Mining Council's Director of Operations, Mr. Barry Mathias, to point out that mining exploration activity in Australia has halved from $1.2 billion in 1997 to $676 million in 2000. They know all this already through that
most reliable of indicators, the hip-pocket nerve. And this makes them very fearful about the future.
In his excellent Bulletin article in defence of John Howard recently, Les Carlyon takes the 'chattering classes' of the broadsheet op ed pages to task for their obsession with 'a vision' for Australia and the Prime Minister's lack of it. But he may be interested to know that rural and regional people, also, would very much like the
government to articulate a vision for Australia, the role rural and regional sectors of the nation might play in it and some indication of how we might reach it. Or are they to be rationalised or regulated out of existence?
They look at the major political parties to whom they were traditionally linked, and they don't like what they see. In fact, they see tweedledum and tweedledee, as least as far as the economic agenda is concerned. The coalition has simply taken up Paul Keating's baton and run with it, albeit with a great deal more success.
Searching for an alternative, a million of them voted for Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party in the previous election, and many of them again voted similarly in November with the result that the party polled 4.3 per cent nationally (behind the Nationals' 5.2 per cent, but ahead of the Greens, who were the big winners in the
election). Parliamentary representation does not reflect this because of the preference strategy adopted by the major parties. Ron Boswell's celebrated victory over Pauline Hanson in the senate conceals the fact that she actually received a greater primary vote (10.1 per cent) than he did (9.1 per cent).
A cynic might describe the parties' preference strategy as more about preserving their own cosy situation from competition and less about moral outrage at One Nation and perceptions of racism. To anyone with a sense of fair play and a regard for democracy there remains a legacy of slight distaste at the tactics used to discredit the
party which now seems doomed. Nevertheless, the pool of disenchantment remains, and these votes will in all probability be picked up by independents.
There were always going to be winners and losers in the enthusiastic embrace of economic rationalism as an ideology, rather than simply as an economic system, entailing as it does free-markets, de-regulation and competition policy. What its zealots failed to see were the extensive negative ramifications for rural and regional
They have seen industries struggle and often disappear, communities contract and die and development all but cease. The latter is particularly worrying given that much of remote Australia is still in a developing phase, having experienced European settlement for little more than 100 years, and because of disadvantages of distance
and isolation, desperately needing some long-term government investment to get enterprises established.
Advocates of economic rationalism, when confronted with the situation in rural and regional Australia, respond that rural decline is an inevitable world-wide phenomenon. What they don't concede is that other countries adopt much less ideologically pure remedies to address it.
As far as agricultural policy is concerned, successive OECD reports reveal that Australia and New Zealand support their agricultural industries to the tune of about one tenth of the average of other OECD countries, and the latest figures available suggest that support has actually increased in response to lower commodity prices