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SYDNEY — Australians had hardly stopped cheering their Olympic champions in Athens — the highest medal winners in the world on a national per capita basis — before a general election was announced and the media again went wild.

Timed for Oct. 9, the unusually long and inevitably bitter campaign will decide a new House of Representatives and half the Senate — the other half of the Senate will be voted for next year. The Senate election is reasonably easy to predict. The Liberal-National coalition government could well gain three more seats here. But the power-holding Lower House is as yet anyone’s guess.

What makes this election so different from a century of earlier ones is the wide disparity between the two political leaders. Rarely before has Australia faced such a stark choice.

Do we stick to the tried and proven conservative John Howard? Or is the country ready for change under youthful newcomer Mark Latham?

Howard and Latham are a generation apart. Their contrasting backgrounds have given them very different political policies. Howard was born the year World War II broke out; Latham in the swinging ’60s.

Howard, at 65, comes from a Sydney family that owned a small business. He graduated in law and prides his long political career on steady-as-she-goes governance. After 30 years in Parliament, his 8 1/2 years as prime minister make him the second-longest serving Liberal leader after his hero, Robert Menzies. Like strongman Menzies, he weathered near-oblivion to lead the country at a time of strong economic progress.

Howard’s way is well charted within Canberra power play and is fairly predictable to regional leaders. His championing of the American alliance has seen a free-trade deal accepted in Washington while a small troop commitment in Iraq continues to hold the trust of U.S. President George W. Bush, if not that of many Labor-voting Australians.

Latham, by contrast, is an unknown factor at home and abroad. At 43, he has been opposition leader for only nine months and in Parliament for 10 years. A product of the tough new suburbs of western Sydney, the economics graduate has been known for shooting his mouth off and surviving. In the Labor Party, where branch membership stacking can be the ladder up, he has become the savior after years of leadership changes.

Keen to be the youngest prime minister in 80 years, Latham promises a different course in an Australia accustomed to steady growth. But does a comfortable middle-class electorate want a return to the excitement of previous Labor Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating with their volatile economic policies? To answer “no” would be to ignore several fomenting factors.

With interest rates close to historic lows, inflation comfortably in check and unemployment stuck just below 6 percent, the economy is steaming ahead. And if there’s one thing this electorate dislikes, it’s a change of horses while the majority are enjoying life’s journey.

Bob McMullan, Labor’s finance spokesman, dismisses claims that his party in government would return the economy to skyrocketing interest rates as happened in the Hawke-Keating era. For investors and homebuyers in a booming housing market, this worry weighs heavily on their voting decision — more so for the swing seats of suburban Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Howard still holds a big popular lead — 48 to 34 percent — on who would make a better prime minister. Much of his approval stems from his handling of the national security issue. His tough antiterrorism stance worked well in the last election, which was held shortly after 9/11. Now, however, Labor has moved to neutralize the issue by agreeing to most of Howard’s counterterrorism measures. The issue has shifted from which party will be tougher on terrorism to who can better manage the threat.

Pundits look for election clues in a peculiar history of voting between the federal and state governments. All states are now governed by Labor administrations — a pointer to voters plumping for a conservative balance in Canberra.

A media blitz due to reach fever pitch in one month will try to bring around swing voters for the final outcome. Meanwhile, Liberals will hammer home the economic management and steadfast-on-security issues personified by Howard. That should work well for Liberal candidates busily toeing the party line, but not for their coalition partner, the farm-lobby Nationals, who are seen to be on a long-term downward slope.

As voters inevitably become progressively more bored, Labor will wheel in its big cannon, Latham. A good communicator with the masses, the newcomer should appeal to young homemakers in the mortgage belt. He has yet to table a party platform on the economy and health, two key areas where veteran strategist Howard reckons he has the game sewn up.

“Trust” is the word both men are saying will swing the vote. To everyone’s annoyance, however, the word most bandied around is “liar.”

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