POLITICS The Future Defined

According to law, everyone must vote in Australia. And the preference system drafts nearly all votes into the Liberal-National coalition’s bag or Labor’s, like outback merinos penned ready for docking or dipping.
Yet the government often fails to get majority. The Parliament has two chambers and in the upper House, the Senate, each state has 12 seats of which six are usually contested each general election under semi-proportional system that virtually ensures small parties get seats.
This system has kept John Howard’s government in minority in the Senate during his premiership and thwarted some of his reform plans. The GST, for instance, is dog’s breakfast. Workplace law reform has been watered down. And the Senate forced change in the United States free trade agreement.
All this plus states often with governments of different political stripes from the central government in Canberra. Indeed, all Australian states now have Labor governments.
Now stir in the preference system of voting in the single-member-electorates in the Lower House. Voters must say which candidates they choose second, third and so on if their top choice (and second, third and so on) preference gets few votes. Votes are redistributed from losers until one candidate gets 50 percent.
Independents or small-party candidates can, and do, win by pulling strong “primary” showing and picking up preferences from major party candidate who comes third. In tight election that can spell “hung Parliament”.
All of which reduces the likelihood of radicalism in Canberra, whatever politicians say on the hustings. Shades of MMP?
For all that, New Zealanders have vested interest in the outcome of John Howard’s suddenly called Australian election on October 9. The election will decide whether the Liberal-led coalition or Labor heads the government and whether it has an effective majority. It will also decide the general policy direction, though the detail may depend on the configuration of parties in the two chambers.
It also decides another matter relevant to this country, and that is: how fast power will now pass from an older to younger generation.
Labor’s Mark Latham is 43. He was born into the 1960s, decade marked by “values revolution” that overturned much that the previous security-conscious generation held dear in favour of personal freedom in every sphere.
John Howard is 65. He was born as the first shots of the Second World War were fired. He grew up with and personifies the postwar values which were, in great measure, rejected in the 1960s.
By election day Howard was within sight of becoming Australia’s second longest-serving Prime Minister and pressure was building for his replacement by either one of two people born just before 1960, deputy Liberal leader Peter Costello (47) or Health Minister Tony Abbott (46).
Howard’s generation was still part of the old British empire in their youth, even though the empire had, by then, become Commonwealth. The empire bound Australia and New Zealand in wars and sentiment. That broad-based war bond hardly factors with the next generation. To the extent the trans-Tasman link still exists, it is no longer war-buddy-based. It is much more practical matter.
Howard’s attitude to New Zealand has, of course, been practical. He showed that by ruthless unilateral pursuit of free trade agreement with the United States. But Howard is also an old-fashioned monarchist, creature of empire.
Abbott is monarchist, but of modern conservative sort. He has taken little interest in New Zealand and is an unknown quantity on matters like the single market or immigration.
Costello, on the other hand, is republican, free of empire, and practical Treasurer. He did, however, restart Australian action on the single market after Michael Cullen pressed him. He did that for practical reasons and Australia’s economic advantage.
Latham has seldom visited New Zealand, though he liked what he saw when he did, especially around Queenstown, and in March at meeting with New Zealand ministers he backed the single market, but again for practical reasons.
Which defines the future. Evoking Anzac, Gallipoli and sentiment as reasons for trans-Tasman cooperation on matters vital to this country’s future won’t work with Howard gone. It is one country to another now, close of course, but not blood brothers any more.

Colin James is Management’s regular political writer.
Email: [email protected]

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