Signs of Revival, But Who Will Reap the Rewards?
In march, australian prime minister John Howard was looking like political dead meat. With a national election due before the end of the year, Howard and the LiberalşNational coalition he leads were facing the possibility that the country could tumble into recession and that voters would blame them for a variety of economic ills: a wonky dollar, sagging confidence, a drop in output and a slump in home building. Every morsel of bad news fed the gloomsters, and Howard's team appeared to be changing policies-from petrol excise to business accounting-willy-nilly. After the Coalition lost a seat in Queensland, there was blood in the water and panic in the air. Howard's government was in a political funk, and Labor leader Kim Beazley was sounding cocky.
But good economic news and a crafty Budget in May have Howard back in the hunt for swinging voters. The electorate is "incredibly volatile," says David Briggs, general manager of Newspoll. "People are not locked into their vote. Both major parties will be going into the election with an equal chance."
"The economy is roaring along," Howard boasted last week before the Aston by-election, soaking up every ray of winter sunshine that emerged from an optimistic speech by Reserve Bank chief Ian Macfarlane. Interest-rate cuts and government spending have helped get the economy back on the growth trail. Home building, which fell by almost 40% in the six months after the introduction of the goods and services tax last July, is on track for a strong recovery so long as mortgage lending and building approvals keep their momentum.
While the economy has proved hardy, it's not yet as robust as the government's spin-ocrats suggest. According to National Australia Bank chief economist Alan Oster, investment and small business are still struggling. In his view, the economy won't be at full steam until the end of the year-after the election-and unemployment is likely to rise in coming months. "By this time next year, Australia will be growing at 4% plus," says Oster, "which will put us at the top of the world in growth."
Will it be Howard or Beazley who welcomes those results? The answer will depend as much on the fortunes of the global economy as on the ability of the imagemakers to win fickle voters in the coming campaign.
Kiwis Waltz Matilda
Was it the nationalism unleashed by the centenary of Federation? Or Australia's February move to make New Zealand arrivals wait two years before they can claim social-security benefits? Whatever the reason, a soaring number of Australia's 460,000 expat Kiwis are taking up citizenship. In the six months to June, 10,279 applied-127% more than in the same period last year.
Advertising executive Jody Cursons, 26, who took the oath in February, says she saw the new rules as a sign of things to come: "It might become as hard for me to work here as it is in the U.K." Her friend Caroline Bennet, 28, wants to be sure that "if I have children in New Zealand" they will be Australian citizens. Teacher Colin Cousens, 34, says his plans to become an Aussie owe less to rule changes than to "Federation and the TV ads [promoting citizenship]." After 18 years in Australia, gallery owner Kester Macfarlane, 58, says he feels "a bit obliged" to formally join Australia's "wonderful multicultural mix." He won't give up his New Zealand passport, though-it represents "family, where I'm from," he says. Kiwis fly, but not that far.
Critters in a Can
Aren't possums cute? New Zealanders can't get enough of them-with poison, guns and traps, that is. Since the mid-19th century, when would-be fur farmers imported a batch from Australia, these cuddly-looking vegetarians have become a plague. Some 70 million infest the countryside, chomping through more than 20,000 tons of vegetation a night with blithe indifference to the principles of conservation. And despite poisoning campaigns and shooting drives, their numbers are growing.
Now retired North Island farmer Bryan Bassett-Smith has come up with a new approach to the possum pest: If you can't beat 'em, eat 'em, or at least persuade pets to. The result is Possyum, a gourmet casserole of possum meat, vegetables and jelly that Bassett-Smith says has won raves from scientists with its high levels of heart-friendly polyunsaturated fats. Just launched in New Zealand, Possyum will soon be exported to Korea and Singapore, where one vet prescribes it as a health food for sick puppies. "Dogs love it," says Bassett-Smith, who doesn't mind the taste himself: "It's good on crackers-just needs a bit of salt." Maybe he can do something with Australia's cane toads.