20 DECEMBER 1975, Page 8


The divisive election

Mungo MacCa,llum

Canberra Although the Australian electorate swung massively to the right last Saturday, there are some signs that, even before it happened, they were starting to feel guilty about it. An opinion poll of swinging voters taken the previous weekend confirmed that the overwhelming majority planned to vote for the Conservative coalition of the Liberal and Country parties and expected them to win, but only 39 per cent of them believed that the Conservatives "deserved" to win. And since the polls were right about everything else (not a difficult task where voting is compulsory) there is no reason to doubt that they were right on this as well. The former Prime Minister, Mr Gough Whitlam, who campaigned largely on the issue of the propriety of the events which led up to the election, has every reason to feel a little miffed.

But in retrospect, it is obvious that he never had any real chance of holding off the landslide after he was dismissed from office by the Governor-General. For the last eighteen months, Labour's stocks have declined steadily: and the momentary rise during the period when Malcolm Fraser's Conservatives were blocking the Labour budget was never more than a false dawn.

From the moment that Sir John Kerr sacked Whitlam, Labour's sun sank beneath the western horizon without trace, because by doing so, the Governor-General, in the eyes of the tradition-bound Australian electorate, legitimised the stand Fraser had taken. Everywhere one went in Australia, one heard the same story: "He really must have done something very wrong for Sir John to have sacked him, mustn't he?" Towards the end of the three week campaign this had been skilfully pushed along by the highly efficient Conservative machine to: "But if Sir John hadn't sacked him, he would have set up a Socialist dictatorship." Labour had no counterploy: and the electorate, after its brief flirtation with constitutional issues, decided that they were all too hard, and reverted to its normal preoccupation with what a former Labour Prime Minister called "the hip pocket nerve".

To readers living in the apparently endless economic disaster known as Great Britain, it may seem absurd that a country in which inflation is twelve per cent and falling, unemployment less than five per cent and stabilising, and disposable incomes at an all-time high should consider itself badly off. But in the lucky country, isolated by both distance and attitude from the rest of the world, this situation is seen as catastrophic. In concrete terms, Fraser promised little: some aid to business and the farming industries, an end to what he called "government extravagance" and the eventual introduction of personal income tax indexation. Repeated demands by the frustrated local press and the amazed overseas press for the details of how he was planning to achieve the apparently irreconcilable objectives of simultaneously reducing income tax, increasing handouts to business and lowering the deficit produced the bland reply: "We'll have to examine that when we're in office". One visiting American reporter commented in stupefaction that even Richard Nixon had never tried to get away with so many evasions. But Fraser tried, and succeeded.

Apparently in the belief that they were voting for a return to the econoinic stability of a decade ago, the Australian electorate gave him the most sweeping — and the vaguest — mandate in the country's history. We simply do not know, and will not, until Fraser brings down his first budget in August next year, what he intends to do and in particular, what he sees as "government extravagances". In its stormy three years of office, the Whitlam Government shifted a considerable amount of money from the private sector to the public sector, redistributing it in the form of services. Government sending on education more than doubled; a National Health scheme was begun; a massive programme of urban and regional development was set up; pension increases became automatic in line with average weekly earnings; legal aid offices and community health centres sprang up all over the country; and generous aid was provided for such diverse minority groups as aborigines and artists. It seems inevitable that Fraser will regard at least part of this largesse as non-essential, but which parts we have not been told.

Certainly, his inclination will be to dismantle as much of Labour's rather tentative progress towards a welfare state as possible. Fraser is that rare thing in Australian politics, a genuine right-wing radical — far closer to, say, Enoch Powell than to Margaret Thatcher. He has frquently expressed his admiration for the ideas of the Russian-American author Ayn Rand, and her vision of a totally free enterprise society, unencumbered by any form of public bureaucracy. Throughout the campaign he described hostile interjectors as "bludgers", which in Australia means anyone who doesn't want to work, and is regarded (absurdly enough) as a deadly insult. It seems inevitable that the money for his handouts to business and his tax indexation scheme will come from the service areas and it will be interesting to see what sort of reaction he gets from the bludgers when they discover (in the words of another Ayn Rand disciple) that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

Certainly, there will be trouble from large numbers of the forty-three per cent of Australians who voted Labour to gain just over a quarter of the seats in the House of Representatives when the goodies they were just starting to appreciate are snatched away from them. But this, with an assured three years of office (the Conservatives have a comfortable majority in the upper house as well, so Labour will not be able to take its revenge on Fraser for Fraser's rejection of Supply) is really the least of the new Prime Minister's worries. The unions

now are still in a state of shock at th size of Labour's defeat, and the leader of the union movement, Bob Hawke, says they will accegt the verdict of the people (though this acquies. cence may have something to do with Hawke's stated desire to enter Parliament at a bY-elec. tion as soon as posSible and contest the leadership of the Labour Party). But Hawke cannot speak for the militants in the union movement, to whom Fraser and kis tougher industrial policy are total anathema. It is hard to see how Fraser can avoid a direct confrontation next year, when he will try t° bring back penalties for illegal strikes (and, under his policy they will almost all be illegal) and to establish what he calls "an arbitration inspectorate", and the unions call an industrial police force. Not only that: the very size of his majority in the House of Representatives is likely to cause him trouble. For the first time, Fraser's Liberal Party has won a majority in its own right, and could — if it wished — govern without its coalition partner, the National Country Part,Y. Fraser, who is ideologically far closer to 0', ultra-conservative NCP than he is to most 01 his fellow liberals, has completely ruled out anY such move, and has said that the leader of the NCP will continue to be Deputy Prime Minister in Conservative governments. But there will ber a lot of pressure on him from large sections o' his own party to go it alone, and to resist the Country Party's inevitable demands for greater subsidies to farmers, the devaluation of the Australian dollar, and an electoral redistriblY tion even more favourable to rural areas than the present one. Fraser will have to play We diplomat as well as the politician if he is Of prevent the situation developing into a series° public wrangles, which have been shown to be immensely damaging in the electorate. But Fraser is at least Prime Minister: thf saddest figure is of course, the loser, Gougn Whitlam. As is its wont, the Labour Party nacsi already turned on him with some ferocity, an is dropping on him all of the blame for itsf defeat. Whitlam's one-man-band style ° government made him many enemies during his three years as Prime Minister, and unfor; tunately for him, most of them have survive° the landslide while most of his supporters have not. It seems certain that his leadership WW be, challenged when the Labour caucus meets nex` week, and it is hard to see how he can retain It is somewhat ironic that the man who remade the Labour Party and led it back to office after. its worst defeat ever in 1966 has now led it 0114 of office to an even worse defeat in 1975. But I cannot be disputed that almost all of the Labour Government's solid achievements, int both foreign and domestic policy, were aim° solely due to Whitlam. His contribution r°, Australian politics and society will no doubt recognised in the history books; at present, it not being recognised in his own party. The next three years promise to be a little more leisurely than the last three: Labour 5. breakneck pace is hardly the style of Conservative Government, even one led bY, Malcolm Fraser. But we will certainly never ge` back to the good old days, when there Was ri(o unemployment, no inflation, and everythirl: was all right on the stock exchange. And rh., . passions aroused during the extraordinac° violent campaign will be there for a long tinle Perhaps, eventually, we will get back to salt sort of national consensus. In the meantiMe least one Australian politician, the eccentrI: Premier of Queensland, Johannes Bielk f Petersen, has taken to wearing a bulletpro° vest in public.