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Federal Labor must pull together to oppose Howard's disastrous agenda

By Peter Lewis - posted Wednesday, 30 April 2003

As the fog of war lifts and attention returns to the domestic phase we find a Federal Opposition imploding as the Prime Minister prepares for the final putsch toward what he sees as his historical mission.

With John Howard's self-appointed date to consider his political future fast approaching, the federal ALP should be applying maximum political pressure on him to end his dismal and dangerous rule.

Instead, it is as though they were begging him to stay on, secure in the knowledge that the hardline conservative agenda that he spent so long hiding, can finally flower in the broad daylight.


Howard has already succeeded in introducing the GST, killing off the Republic, halting the drive towards Reconciliation and removing our regional interests from Asia to create a US-sponsored Fortress Australia.

He now turns his attention to the remaining two legacies of the Whitlam and Hawke-Keating governments: universal health care and access to higher education.

With Medicare, Howard's oft-quoted ambition to gut Medicare is within his grasp; by lifting restrictions on the fees GPs can charge so that only the Medicare rebate is a universal right, Howard will have killed universal health care by stealth.

What this means for workers is almost inevitably a US-style system where there are two tiers of labour market, those with access to health care as part of their salary package and those who are forced to rely on a substandard public health system.

Of course, those with access to private health care will be those with access to higher education - the other target in the Howard cross-hairs.

The three agenda points of full tertiary fees, research funding tied to a radical IR agenda and voluntary student unionism combine to create a user-pays system where the wealthy can buy their way into degrees and knowledge becomes a line item on the balance sheet.


Both agendas will be a focus of the upcoming Federal Budget session and will become political issues when enabling legislation hits the Senate.

Community alliances are already building around both issues but the big questions remains whether they will find an effective political advocate who will not only oppose the Howard agenda but propose their own ideas.

Having just witnessed a state election where health and education - as personified by nurses and teachers - were the dominant issues, it's hard to see how Howard can be in anyway comfortable.

That he is, is partly due to the War on Iraq but also the failure of Labor's federal leadership to stake out its territory beyond that of defender of the status quo who will wait for the political tides to change to surf back into office.

At the end of the day, the federal ALP leadership should be a question of who has the grunt - intellectually, politically and popularly - to translate these issues into electoral capital and force Howard to retreat into retirement.

It's more than a battle for the next term of government, it's a fight for the gains that previous Labor governments made for ordinary Australians - those same Australians who no longer see the ALP as their party.

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About the Author

Peter Lewis is the director of Essential Media Communications, a company that runs strategic campaigns for unions, environmental groups and other “progressive” organisations.

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