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Tampa in Tasmania... and the devil we know

By Brian Johnstone - posted Monday, 18 October 2004

Howard comfortably wins his fourth election on the trot with an increased majority delivered by a swing of about three per cent to the Coalition. More alarmingly, he sits one Senate spot away from total control of both houses of the Federal Parliament. He’ll be the first Prime Minister since Malcolm Fraser to rule without the checks and balances of the Senate.

Labor’s primary vote has gone backward under L-plate Latham, reducing its much vaunted preference deal with the Greens to electoral irrelevance. The Democrats vote has collapsed, as expected, sweeping three of its Senators, including Aden Ridgeway out of a job come July. One Nation is gone, its three per cent share of the primary vote transferring directly across to Howard.

The result will have a profound effect on the political landscape over the next three years and on post-mortem Sunday everyone was trying to come to terms with what happened. The winners are grinning, the losing spin doctors are spinning. I could sense it slipping away from Labor in the final week of the campaign, especially after Tampa in Tassie. There are many reasons for the defeat.


It is clear, that in a buoyant economy a vast number of Australians would have gone to the polls with one clear thought: if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. Then there was the hugely negative L-plate Latham/Liverpool council campaign and the nagging doubts about interest rates under Labor. No matter that Howard has about as much control over interest rates as he has over the weather. The devil you know... But the sucker punch of the campaign must surely have been delivered by Howard in Tasmania.

The contrasting images of Latham saving trees not jobs and Howard being glad handed by hundreds of burly loggers for putting jobs ahead of trees must have sent a chill through every blue collar worker in the country. It was a perfect Howard wedge. Tampa in Tassie. For Latham it was surely the tactical blunder of the campaign. He could have offered three billion bucks to retrain the timber workers. It would not have mattered a dot.

Marry the images of Howard and his new-found friends from the forest to that of loyal Labor foot soldier Dick Adams getting stuck into Leader Latham on election eve to save his political skin. Adams did hold on. Two of his colleagues lost their seats. Labor picked up none of the seats it hoped the strategy would deliver on the mainland. His sledging of Latham for sacrificing Tassie jobs and seats for Greens mainland preferences may well have kept him in the House of Reps but it has much deeper significance for those who must now chart why Labor failed to tip out a government seeking a fourth term.

Surely one of the big lessons of the last federal election campaign was that the record rise in the Greens primary vote came from core Labor Party supporters disenchanted with its silence on humans rights issues and refugees. The new record primary vote recorded by the Greens in this election has clearly come at the expense of Labor’s primary vote.

Labor performed worse, under a new leader, than in 2001, with its primary vote crashing below 40 per cent.

I got stuck into Howard in the last issue of National Indigenous Times for not once mentioning Aboriginal Affairs in his campaign policy launch. Neither did Latham.


Despite all his talk about the ladder of opportunity he was totally silent on core issues such as Aboriginal Affairs throughout the six-week campaign. I took Howard to task and wondered how so much could be spent on health without a mention of Indigenous Australians. It was a theme taken up in the mainstream media at the beginning of the final week of the campaign by Mark Metherell from the Sydney Morning Herald. His article began by asking if there had ever been a federal election where so many billions of dollars had been thrown at health care with so little attention given to the plight of our sickest citizens?

Metherell pointed out that Indigenous Australians, whose health - or rather illness and death rates - remain at third-world levels, had picked up the odd million from both parties. But nothing to match the billions tossed to older, largely non-Indigenous people. There are not too many Indigenous voters in that group, by the way, because they tend to die before they can pick up the age pension and self-funded retirement is unlikely to happen for most, he told his readers. But the Indigenous community outnumber the 287,000 self-funded retirees who will get a $200 annual utilities bonus if the Coalition is re-elected, he continued.

Mark Latham promised to spend $3 billion to give those aged 75 and over priority access to hospital treatment. Amid the spending frenzy, the shameful state of Indigenous health goes largely unmentioned.

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First published in the National Indigenous Times on October 10, 2004.

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About the Author

Brian Johnstone is a columnist for the National Indigenous Times. He was Director of Media and Marketing at the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission between April 1998 and December 2002. Before taking up that position he was a senior advisor to former Federal Labor Minister, Senator Bob Collins, and a senior correspondent with Australian Associated Press.

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