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Hair of demagogue that bit us: cure for electoral hangover

By Judith Ireland - posted Tuesday, 19 October 2004

One can only imagine that there were many bad hangovers yesterday morning. Be it as a result of celebrating or commiserating, election night tends to bring out the inner bar tab in all of us.

But while a fast food fix and a sleep-in will cure the alcohol-induced malaise, for many voters the electoral hangover may take a lot longer to get over. Despite the no-change of government, we have woken up to a different Australia. One that is more conservative politically than perhaps it has ever been. For the more than 50 per cent of voters who didn't side with the winning team, it's difficult to know where to go or what to do from here.

Over 41 days of Election Campaign '04, voters have had policy issues by the truckload. From tool kits to hit lists and everything in between. To say nothing of those blessed interest rates.


We were told that this election was a referendum on Medicare and on whom we trust to maintain economic stability.

We were told that the contest was tighter than tight. So much so that both sides were claiming official underdog status. Only a week ago, the parties' apparatchiks were not prepared to call it, while no one in the media was game to do so until the final Newspoll hinted at a close Howard victory on Thursday. Next to "ease the squeeze" and "who do you trust?", "too close to call" is right up there for most overused phrase of the campaign.

And along with the main event, we've had more sideshows than a circus. Howard himself said that he saw the election as "150 by-elections". With the menage in Wentworth, infidelity in Parramatta, dog bites in Solomon and travel rorts in Makin, non-uniform swings were promised nationwide.

There was talk of a hung parliament, of four independents holding the balance of power.

Meanwhile, the “Not Happy Johnners”, the doctors' wives and the "youth vote" were poised to make it a million votes for the Greens, determine the outcome of the election and pick up as many as five senators in the process.

Then at 6pm on Saturday, after a trip to the local primary school, we tuned in to marvel at Ray Martin's pistachio-coloured tie and hear the news that Bass and Braddon were looking questionable for Labor. By 6.40pm the Tasmanian seats were very questionable indeed. By 7.10pm Labor was struggling on the mainland. And by 7.30pm it was time to start drinking. If it were in any way possible, people would have asked for their money back.


With a solidified status quo, for the majority of Australians the election was a non-issue. And the bookies were the only ones who saw it coming. Again.

But with a 3.3 per cent swing to the Government in the lower house and a near majority in the Senate, it would seem that the winner just about takes it all.

And not only was Howard returned with an increased majority, which is almost unheard of in a fourth term, but the "protest vote" wasn't particularly high. The Greens polled just 7 per cent nationally - a decided increase, but short of the double figures they had suggested and minus the seat of Cunningham.

Young people have lurked in the background of this election. There are 1.7 million of them between 18 and 24, but only 80 per cent enrolled to vote. And yet it will be their future taxes funding most of what the Government has promised during the campaign. And their children and themselves dealing with the environmental consequences of decisions taken today.

Young people are continuing to register growing levels of disillusionment with party politics and are seeking out their own spaces and means to involve themselves politically, be it online or through their own community groups. But with a newfound government influence in the Senate creating all sorts of legislative freedoms, perhaps young people will not be able to ignore the mainstream altogether. Or rather, they will be forced to actively engage with it. Indeed, this is a Government that is already on track to raise their university fees by as much as 25 per cent.

For those who did vote - and didn't vote for the Coalition - it is unlikely that a fourth term for the Howard Government will have reaffirmed their faith in such party politics. "Ours is a great democracy," said Howard during his victory speech, "[but] there can only be one winner when an election is held."

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 11, 2004.

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Judith Ireland is a freelance writer.

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