Labour's Loss Ushers In Quieter Era for Australia
SYDNEY — AUSTRALIANS have dramatically chosen to throttle back their nation's fast-track integration into the Asian economic and political sphere in favor of a more gradual approach.
That warning was one of several messages delivered to Australian politicians in Saturday's historic election that decisively ended 13 years of Labour Party government. It catapulted John Howard's Liberal-National Parties coalition into power with the largest majority in Australian electoral history.
Tired of seeing jobs flow overseas and imports flooding the country, voters gave a wholesale rejection of the "big picture" vision of Prime Minister Paul Keating, who had encouraged Australians to embrace his concept of a multicultural Australia whose future was intertwined with Asia, analysts say.
"This huge shift demonstrates that people are resisting having to fit into a free-market economic model," says Frank Cain, a political historian at the University of New South Wales in Canberra. "Mr. Keating's model would have them changing constantly ... And, of course, people object to this."
But there was also the widespread feeling among many voters that 13 years was long enough.
"I just think we really need a change of government," says Matthew James, a clerk standing outside a polling station on the sunny election day. "And I think Howard will be a good leader."
Mr. Howard does not share Mr. Keating's vision of pushing Australians beyond what is comfortable for them when it comes to economic integration abroad. Ironically, however, he is a free-market believer who has broad plans for privatization and labor reform.
Until the day before the vote, polls gave only slight warning of the impending tidal wave. When it struck, it became clear a decisive majority of voters badly wanted a "change" in leadership.
At press time Howard's Coalition had won 79 seats in the 148-member House of Representatives and Keating's party 39. Results for the 30 remaining seats were too close to call.
The change in the House from Labour to Coalition leaves this nation of 18 million people with a conservative, pro-business government whose policy differences with the Keating Labour government are surprisingly slight.
But though few wholesale shifts in domestic or foreign policy are expected, subtle changes will include:
*Not pushing as hard as Keating did to integrate Australia economically and politically into fast-growing Asia.
*Downplaying government's role in setting the national agenda, and having it respond instead to citizens' desires.
*Weakening the power of unions and possibly doing away with pro-labor legislation.
*Retreating from the republic issue, championed by Keating, under which Australia would cut ties with Britain.
Until the last days of the campaign, Keating had derided Howard's policies on health care, foreign policy, environment, and other areas as a virtual "photocopy" of his government's policies. Vote for the real thing, he urged.
Using his powerful rhetorical arsenal and personal charisma, many thought Keating, although behind, might pull off a come-from-behind win as he did in 1993. But in 1993, Keating was helped greatly by his opponents, who alienated voters with their tax proposal.
Under Howard, the coalition ran a disciplined, low-profile campaign with few gaffes. There was no grand vision of Australia moving into the next century as part of Asia. Instead, Howard said he wanted Australians to have a "relaxed" view of themselves and their country.
In his victory speech, he promised that his government would not be a "pale imitation" of Keating's, as Keating had asserted during the campaign. The landslide, he said, gave him "an emphatic mandate" for his limited program and its labor reforms.
"Although uniting the Australian people will be the cornerstone of my government," Howard said, "I want to make it very clear that there'll be an absolute determination with fairness and understanding to do that and to do it with resolution and without qualification."
Pundits suggested that the "Keating factor" - his perceived arrogance and nasty debating tactics - was a big reason for the massive swing against Labour.
To historians, the key element of the legacy of Keating and his predecessor Bob Hawke, is that together, they turned Australians away from Britain and Europe and toward Asia.