Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his Liberal-National (Tory) coalition won the general election last Saturday, giving him his third term in government. Even in August few people were predicting Howard could win. His government was deeply unpopular. It had driven through massive attacks on workers, privatisation in the benefits system and education cuts. His supporters claim his popularity increased because he opposes refugees and is a vocal supporter of the US war on Afghanistan.
Howard has deliberately targeted refugees as scapegoats. In August he refused to let 450 desperate refugees, many from Afghanistan, into Australia. They were living on the deck of a Norwegian freighter, Tampa, that had rescued them from their sinking boat. Howard sent Australian SAS troops aboard to try to force the boat away, causing panic amongst the refugees.
He has been eager to use the incident to talk of a refugee crisis. He wants ordinary Australians to blame asylum seekers for the economic and social problems across the country. Howard has also linked his attacks on refugees to his support for the war on Afghanistan.
He has talked about 'border protection' and national security being a key issue for ordinary people in Australia. He has tried to whip up jingoism around the war, sending Australian troops to join the US military.
Howard was allowed to snatch an election victory because the Labour Party did not offer any opposition to his policies. As Labour leader Kim Beazley said about the war and refugees, 'There is no difference between the parties on this.' This meant that there was a consensus over attacking refugees and cheering on 'our boys' in the war on Afghanistan.
The Labour Party has a long tradition of right wing policies in and out of government. It did nothing in the election to change this. It said it wanted to make itself 'as small a target as possible'. This meant allowing Howard to set the tone for the election around refugee-bashing and the war.
The Labour Party's attempts to focus on Howard's record on the economy did not convince voters that it was an alternative. As one former Labour Party pundit explained, 'The punters wanted a difference in this poll. Labour gave them me-tooism and tried to out-Tory the Tories.' Howard's Tories made electoral gains in areas like New South Wales.
There the hated Labour state government of Bob Carr has attacked workers over the injury compensation system, closed schools and allowed hospitals to be run down. It also launched a racist campaign against 'ethnic' gangs. Labour scored its lowest first preference vote since 1931-just 38 percent. However, the election was not a simple triumph for the right. Pauline Hanson's racist far right One Nation party lost votes. At the same time the Green Party increased its votes significantly. It has taken a strong stand against the war and in favour of refugees.
It got 5 percent of the vote, double its previous vote and its best ever score in an election. In some safe Labour seats in the inner cities it scored nearly 15 percent.
The Socialist Alliance candidates polled a creditable 1.5 percent in Canberra, and in eight out of 15 seats got over 1 percent. Left wing independent candidate Peter Macdonald scored 29 percent in the Sydney seat of Warringah.
The construction union put posters for him around the area and 1,000 people volunteered to campaign for him. This shows there is room for a real opposition to Howard that channels the anger at the economic crisis, not towards refugees. Instead this opposition needs to target the neo-liberal agenda that both the Tories and Labour have pushed.
Many people are still angry at Howard's legacy of union-busting, his VAT law that hits workers and the poor hardest, and rising unemployment that has already hit 7.1 percent. The main airline in Australia, Qantas, is trying to push through a wage freeze on its workers at the same time as its profits have risen.
There have also been significant protests against the war, with 5,000 people joining a march in Sydney the Sunday before the election. More than 27 percent of people polled in a recent survey in the Australian oppose Australian troops going to Afghanistan.
Howard hopes his stress on the war and refugees will continue to divert attention away from anger at his government. But he faces a significant opposition on the left that is making links between the war, refugees and opposition to capitalism.