John Howard Winds Up Australia's Election Clock
If the opinion polls are right, australians are in the mood for political might. Pollsters say that what voters want from their leaders is not only tough talk but strong actions to fight a war against terrorism and keep uninvited immigrants at bay. So the times appear to suit the country's conservative Prime Minister, John Howard, who last week called a general election for Nov. 10.
Like many western leaders, Howard has enjoyed a surge in popularity since the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S. Often dismissed as old-fashioned and stubborn, Howard is at the same time perceived to be a strong leader and a good economic manager. After languishing in the polls when the economy weakened a year ago, Howard is now a clear favorite to take his Liberal-National coalition to a third term. The P.M. is so confident that he plans to break off campaigning to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation talks in Shanghai. In any case, history suggests that Australians are reluctant to toss out incumbents in times of international crisis.
The doubts surrounding Howard, 62, who was first elected in March 1996, concern his policy agenda and whether or not he will serve a full three-year term. After a major repair to the Budget, industrial relations changes and a tax revolution on his watch, does the 27-year political veteran have the desire for another term? "I have never been more committed to winning an election or a political campaign in my life," said Howard, who, if successful, plans to reconsider his post when he turns 64. Of the coming contest, he said: "It is a choice between certainty, stability and strength on the one hand and political opportunism and a lack of a clear, coherent alternative on the other."
Howard's Labor opponent, Kim Beazley, 52, is also a political veteran, who has held Defense, Finance, and Communications portfolios. Poll results suggest that Beazley, who has led the party since 1996, is seen as verbose and indecisive. Beazley has made the government's 10% goods and services tax the alp's main target. By keeping policies close to his chest and minimizing differences with the government on national security issues, Beazley has left the electorate unsure about what he stands for. In the next five weeks, Labor will outline its domestic reform agenda. "We have the policies which are essential to fairness in our society and a secure future for all Australians," said Beazley, who plans to remove the GST on some items and increase spending on education and health. Although viewed in political circles as a pessimist by nature, Beazley says he relishes campaigning: "I'm committed, I'm qualified and I'm there for the long haul."
There are many uncertainties at home and abroad for Australians and their political parties. Will the world economy crumble? Where will the hunt for Osama bin Laden take the alliance? Which domestic issues matter most? There is little between the major parties on policies-or in a score of seats across the country. Labor clawed back a lot of ground at the 1998 poll and needs to pick up a mere six seats to win government. Howard and Beazley will be speaking to the masses, but their strategists know the contest will be decided in a handful of marginal seats. A few thousand votes either way will end one political warrior's career.
Nauru's shot in the arm
The Republic of Nauru flashed its heart recently by accepting some 500 boat people bound for Australia; now it is showing an open palm to its grateful neighbor. Australia agreed to pay the tiny nation $A20 million for its role in Prime Minister John Howard's "Pacific Solution." Last week it pledged a further $A1 million to help pay outstanding bills for Nauruan citizens treated in Australian hospitals.
If Nauru's President, Rene Harris, has his way, Australia will soon be making an even bigger contribution to his people's health. In Melbourne for emergency diabetes treatment, Harris plans to ask the Howard government to spend millions of dollars upgrading Nauru's only hospital. The island's Australian-based health adviser, Professor Paul Zimmet, says Nauru needs not just equipment but doctors, nurses and dietitians.
Some Nauruans think their government should try harder to keep the few doctors it has. Harris recently ordered that the hospital's senior medical officer be sacked for questioning the priorities of the Health Minister. After a public backlash, however, the order may be revoked.