This election campaign has left a stain on the soul of Australia.
Xenophobia. Racism. Populism.
- Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating
Reviewers of the 2001 Australian Federal Election would be hard-pressed to find three better words to describe the bitter campaign waged over the past weeks. In an election entirely overshadowed by both the recent events in New York
, and the issue of asylum seekers
, both major parties (the ALP
lead by Kim Beazley
, and incumbent Coalition
lead by John Howard
) were left to campaign on unstable platforms. Whilst the ALP solidly rolled out policy throughout the campaign, the Coalition capitalised on the uncertainty in the electorate, demonising refugees and offering a "tough on terrorism" solution.
Defining Moments 1 - The Tampa Refugee "Crisis"
After Norwegian freighter MV Tampa rescued a boatload of asylum seekers from a sinking ship on the August 26, 2001, Prime Minister John Howard refused the Tampa and the refugees on board entry into Australia, thus creating a contentious issue for the coming election. In doing so, Howard broke the tacit agreement between the ALP and Liberal Party not to pander to fear and xenophobia on immigration and refugee issues. Indeed, this agreement was largely to keep supporters of ultranationalist Pauline Hanson out of Federal politics. "Playing the race card" apparently trumped all other issues.
Frighteningly, the Liberal Government's refusal to allow the Tampa landfall on Australian soil marked the beginning of the government's resurgence in opinion polls. Prior to this event the Liberals were trailing the ALP by around 8% across the electorate. The gap began to close.
Defining Moments 2 - September 11 and Aftermath
The collapse of the World Trade Center towers reverberated around the world, leaving the West in a state of shock and uncertainty. Australia was no exception. John Howard, in the US at the time, capitalised on the event by grandstanding with George W. Bush and making a hasty appearance before the US Congress to pledge Australia's undying support. Terrorism was suddenly the issue for the election campaign, and Howard could be assured victory by reiterating his thinly veiled xenophobia from the Tampa crisis combined with the incumbent advantage of massive uncertainty in the electorate.
Although the ALP continued to roll out solid policy and oppose the Coalition's GST, it did not criticise Howard's stance on refugees directly, despite the private concerns of the party faithful. This left Kim Beazley in a catch-22 situation. Taking a strong stance against the Government on this issue would have been political suicide in many marginal seats - but not taking a stand deeply offended many party members, especially those on the Left.
The Saturday, November 10 Election and Results
Staunch Australian Labor Party supporters (such as myself), went to the polls with a feeling of betrayal. Rather showing a strong, humanitarian social conscience that many members of the party have championed throughout the years, the ALP remained in populist silence. This silence was reflected in the election. Minor party, The Australian Greens by speaking out on the asylum seeker issue polled at 4.29 percent of the vote nationally on Saturday - doubling their previous years efforts. These votes came at Labor's expense.
The Coalition however won the election with 80 seats in the House of Representatives, the ALP winning 67, with three independents. The composition of the Senate is still undecided. There were varying swings in each state with no clear trend across the entire country. Kim Beazley stepped down from his leadership position.
By making the asylum seekers the central issue of this election campaign, John Howard unleashed a potent force that will last well beyond the election. His stand has undeniably damaged Australia's reputation in the Asia-Pacific region and divided the Australian community. In the wake of the election, Mr Howard's position has been severely criticised by a range of former senior Liberal politicians and by senior public servants.
John Howard's over-arching project has been to tear down the Australian Labor Party's vision of a modern Australia. Progressive issues such as the republic and reconciliation have been stymied in order to reassert Howard's nostalgic and racist world view.