Would John Howard have been so successful at the polls if ASIO was strip-searching children, food copped a 10 per cent GST, rural services were collapsing under a privatised Telstra and the industrial bargaining power of workers had been slashed? Would Australians have re-elected the Coalition if its worst policy excesses had not been moderated by Labor, the minor parties and Independents in the Senate?
For the last nine years, the non-government senators have inadvertently made the Coalition more electable. But from here on, Australians don’t have the protection of a non-government Senate - and John Howard and his ministers will have to moderate themselves. The early signs are not good. After nine long years and pressure for him to go, John Howard is in no mood to be shackled. He’s intent on making full use of his new-found power. In 2007, the Howard Government will have to be fully accountable for its extreme, ideological and self-serving policy agenda.
The non-government parties in the Senate have used their numbers to hold the Howard Government to account by setting up inquiries into executive mismanagement and deception. It was a Senate inquiry which got to the truth behind the Children Overboard lies - and it’s a Senate inquiry which is currently investigating the misuse of taxpayers’ dollars in the National Party’s rorting of the Regional Partnerships Program. Neither would have been established under the current Senate representation.
The new Senate will have dramatically reduced power to check the Howard Government. The simple fact is John Howard now has the numbers. To capitalise on the Senate majority there has been a sharp swing to the right in the direction of his Government. Australians now face a barrage of legislation rooted in the hard edge of conservative dogma and a desire to entrench the Coalition’s political power. The legislation that now dominates the Government’s agenda is not about what’s good for Australia, it’s about the long-held prejudices, ambitions and arrogance of senior Coalition members. Australians should closely follow John Howard’s use of his Senate majority and ask themselves if he is really governing in their interests.
Most recent publicity has concentrated on moves to strip Australian workers of their industrial bargaining power - removing unfair dismissal protection from seven million workers, getting rid of the impartial industrial umpire and slashing award conditions. This is the fulfilment of a life-long dream of the Prime Minister.
This is a man who used taxpayer-funded postage to campaign for candidates in a union ballot. Industrial relations for John Howard is a zealous mission, not a policy debate. As yet, the Government has failed to demonstrate any convincing economic argument to support its industrial relations changes. However, the magnitude of what the Government is proposing should not be understated. This is the most fundamental change in industrial relations since Federation - it represents a massive cultural change in Australian society. The election promise of unfair dismissal exemption for businesses with 20 employees or less was suddenly increased to businesses with 100 employees. Why? Because John Howard could - because he has the Senate numbers.
Australians have every reason to be concerned at the way this government is going. It’s not just industrial relations, but moves to end services on university campuses, beat up on single mums and the disabled, increase the secrecy of political donations and grab more and more power form the States. And all the time leaving Australia unprepared for the future by neglecting the skills and infrastructure crisis that’s hurting our economy. Labor in the Senate still has powerful tools at our disposal to hold this government to account - to expose its arrogance, incompetence and mismanagement. And we intend to use them. But we are no longer able to protect Australians from the worst extremes of the Howard Government. That protection will be found in the ballot box in 2007.
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