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Bigger vision needed to see the light on the hill

ON October 5, the day Prime Minister Howard named the election day, I called in at a Liberal campaign office to meet the candidate.

Soon after, a Federal MP arrived.

“Just heard November 10 is election day,” I said.

“Yep, do you think we’ll win?” the MP asked.

I said I remained influenced by the old claim that the way the polls stood about six months before an election was probably how people would vote.

The MP asked who claimed that.

I replied I couldn’t recall, but thought it was either Canberra psephologist Malcolm Mackerras or long-time Canberra political columnist and author, the late Allan Reid, who’d reported politics since before the Chifley era.

The MP nodded and added that he’d spoken to Treasurer Peter Costello earlier that day and the Treasurer said: “The polls are running our way – but the support is soft”.

At no stage during the campaign were conservatives confident of victory, despite Tampa, the al-Qa’ida gang’s attack on America, and Mr Howard’s resultant tough leader image.

The severe January-June Howard-Costello poll slump was so deep that, in May, Liberal national president Shane Stone told them voters saw the Government as “mean, tricky and out of touch”.

That’s why the last Federal Budget so favourably treated self-funded retirees and why small business red tape GST requirements were trimmed. Support among both groups – seen as natural Liberal backers – had slumped markedly.

The big lift in the Howard claw-back came with the Tampa in August.

The Howard response was something like what WA One Nation Senate hopeful Graeme Campbell told me a year ago ought to be done.

He’d said a Royal Australian Navy supply ship should anchor off Ashmore Reef and, whenever boatloads of Middle Eastern/South Asian “illegals” arrived, they be provisioned for return trips to Indonesia, which was almost what Mr Howard did.

Clearly most Aussies were peeved with illegals teaming up, buying unseaworthy boats, pointing southwards and expecting automatic residency.

The Howard Tampa response aligned with that mood and pulled the carpet from under Mr Campbell and One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson.

And in the process, those seen wanting an more open door on illegals were left largely floundering.

Politically it was a successful move – not open or shut door, but a regulated and controlled door – one Immigration Minister Phillip Ruddock backed competently.

Labor leader Kim Beazley fell in line and his immigration spokesman, Con Sciacca, in the end couldn’t be found for comment.

Interestingly, Mr Ruddock’s major critics were former federal Liberal leaders Malcolm Fraser and John Hewson, and ex-ministers Fred Chaney and Ian Macphee.

Australia remains, however, one of a tiny handful of nations accepting refugees – some 12,000 annually - in an orderly manner.

Mr Howard’s ratings dramatically skyrocketed.

Labor’s slumped. And that, except for another boost from the patriotic response to September 11, is where matters stood on October 5.

Thirty-six days on - and nearly six years after Mr Howard toppled Mr Beazley’s leader, Paul Keating – Australia’s is still in conservative hands. Why?

Mr Beazley ran an energetic, if old-fashioned, campaign while Mr Howard’s looked tired.

It seemed closely modelled on that of Bill Clinton that toppled George H Bush, despite his (then) recent emergence from victory over Iraq.

Beazley inner circle boffins saw disaster in quibbling on border penetration.

Their only option, they felt, was to focus on domestic affairs, claiming a Beazley spending plan existed to overcome several alleged crises – in health, education and whatever else they could so dub.

They also saw votes in promoting the idea of establishing a coast guard.

But only Tasmania swung to Labor, and only by 0.3 per cent.

The mainland – especially outer capital suburban electorates - went Howard’s way; NSW (3.4), Victoria (1.6), Queensland (1.7), South Australia (1.9) and WA (1.4) per cent. Nationally it exceeded two per cent.

Because he planned more spending, bigger government, more bureaucrats, and thus higher taxes, post-Beazley Labor is left in need of policies that actually use ingenuity and imagination.

With the next likely Liberal leader, Peter Costello, not showing that new ideas are his strongest suit, surely, Labor would find it more rewarding to dump its attachment to bigger government and go into election 2004 equipped with an array of original and far-sighted programs.

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