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Campaign an insult to our intelligence

THANKFULLY we are on the last lap of what passes for an election campaign in Australia. It would be a good idea if politicians were made to take something akin to the Hippocratic oath. This would oblige them to prescribe only beneficial treatments according to their “abilities and judgment” and, above all to refrain from “causing harm or hurt”. Insulting the intelligence of voters comes under the latter category.

It seemed almost impossible, but the standards of debate and the quality of oratory actually continue to decline. Opportunities to explain alternative policies to the electorate are invariably lost in petulant partisan point scoring.

A few weeks ago gamblers were being offered $1.65 for every $1 punted on John Howard to keep his job. The chance of a 65 per cent tax-free short-term gain is rare these days. You could have written your own ticket on Kim Beazley. But the odds are now shortening fast, and we are told to expect a close race. The Democrats are likely to continue to hold the balance of power in the Senate. Given a scattering of mini-party members, we can confidently expect a few eccentric windbags to slow down the business of government.

The Howard crowd’s reputation for fiscal rectitude was blown out of the water along with the bloated budget surplus. It appeared to be beyond the great leader to explain that rocketing domestic petrol prices were a function of a $US36 a barrel price for oil. The abolition of the indexation of the petrol excise was a silly flip flop – inevitably the international oil price began to plunge the day after the decision was made, and it now stands at a two-year low.

If Labor wins office we can expect the traditional year or more of hearing all the reasons why nothing can be done because of the mess left by the last lot. Scratching for any real differences between the parties unearths very few stock market issues.

Bank-bashing Beazley has promised a social charter to arm wrestle the banks into restoring the level of services, introducing tax-free accounts for social security recipients and requiring branch managers to pull their forelocks to clients at the door. All this would be cheered on by most customers in rural areas – but a couple of million of them are shareholders in the big four banks.

On the other hand, the Opposition has flagged it wants superannuation contributions boosted. Still more billions sloshing around among the baby boomers would be good news for the financial services sector, including CBA, AMP, NAB and AXA Asia, who will be pleased to look after the money for a fee.

The Libs will seek to privatise the rest of Telstra at the first opportunity. The present structure is half baked and benefits nobody. However, it is unlikely many investors would be killed in the rush to pay the $5.49 per share for Telstra III “inadvertently” indicated by Treasurer Costello. The Coalition may have erred in selecting nuclear families for tax rebates – that happy basic social unit is becoming an endangered species in this country. Labor has said it would roll back GST and abolish Australian Workplace Agreements. That is radical or retrograde, depending on your political taste.

The GST has proved a success and is set to raise $27.5 billion. The compliance nightmare has been partly addressed with much further to go.

Tinkering with the GST would simply mean revenue would need to be raised elsewhere, and the States would have to get their begging bowls out again.

Getting rid of painfully negotiated AWAs would not be good news for the likes of BHP, Rio Tinto and WMC. Beazley also has pledged to ratify the Kyoto protocol on sharply reducing greenhouse emissions. If the plan is to go it alone, without the US, China and Canada, this would put Australian energy producers at a severe competitive disadvantage – perhaps that is why Woodside shares were sliding last week.

All up it should not make much odds whether we wear red or blue rosettes. As stockbrokers Salomon Smith Barney point out: “Over the last 30 years, during which the ALP was in office for 16 years and the Coalition for 14 years, there was no significant difference in the performance of the economy in terms of growth.”

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