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Howard faces bust despite Aussie boom

(SYDNEY) Australia’s economy is booming, so the question of why the opinion polls show the government heading for defeat in elections on Saturday puzzles Prime Minister John Howard.

The conservative leader has gone from suggesting the electorate must be joking to complaining that Asian growth is getting the credit that is rightfully his for the performance of the economy. ‘I ask myself why is it that the polls are so bad for the government at present,’ he mused aloud recently while talking up his government’s achievements during more than 11 years in power. ‘I think one of the reasons is that the Labor Party has successfully created the impression that it doesn’t matter who is in government, the economy will continue to grow.’

Mr Howard’s ministers have been equally plaintive, with Foreign Minister Alexander Downer likening the government’s economic success to the winning ways of the nation’s world champion cricket team.

‘If the Australian cricket team is winning, which it is at the moment, you don’t go around and sack the whole team,’ he said.

But that, according to the opinion polls, is exactly what the Australian electorate plans to do to the government on Saturday, installing in its place the centre-left Labor Party led by Kevin Rudd.

While the election is about more than the economy, hip-pocket issues have dominated the campaign and analysts say Mr Howard is partly right when he complains that he is not given credit for the economic boom.

‘Most people realise the main strength of the economy comes from overseas factors rather than anything the government has done,’ said Wayne Errington, academic and co-author of a biography on the prime minister.

Rapid growth in Asian countries such as China and India has seen a blow-out in demand for Australia’s vast mineral resources, firing up the economy and cutting unemployment to 30-year lows.

But the very strength of the growth has presented a problem for Mr Howard, Mr Errington told AFP, with inflationary pressures forcing six interest rate hikes since the last election and putting pressure on mortgage-belt home buyers. ‘That in itself wouldn’t be a big problem apart from the fact that Mr Howard made a lot of the promise to keep interest rates low at the last election so it brings up all sorts of credibility problems.’ But Mr Errington and others believe the government has been hurt most on the economic front by its new union-busting labour laws, which critics say erode job security and wages by forcing workers to sign individual contracts.

‘What they’ve done with industrial relations is they’ve found a way to insert a sense of uncertainty into people’s well-being amongst all of this economic prosperity,’ said Monash University’s Nick Economou.

Despite the economic boom ‘there are great disparities in wealth, large numbers of people not doing so well’, he told AFP. Opinion polls show that the government is deeply unpopular even in some of the most affluent parts of Australia, suggesting that the electorate’s gripes go beyond the economy.

 

Source: AFP (Business Times 19 Nov 07)

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