On March 2, John Howard will have been prime minister of Australia for 10 years. Sadly, if the pollsters are right, more than 60% expect his government to win the next federal election. This despite the fact that his main policies are rejected by significant and growing majorities.
Irving Saulwick and Dennis Muller, who conducted a recent study for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, say their polls reveal "an exquisite paradox", with Howard receiving a strong endorsement despite being marked down "on many, perhaps most, issues".
- 73% disapprove of his government's policies on health;
- a 67% disapproval on education;
- 81% disapprove on the environment;
- 51% disapprove on employment; and
- 58% disapprove on going to war on Iraq.
It's the economy, stupid, chorus the pundits. What do you expect after 15 consecutive years of economic growth?
Yet the same poll found that only half those surveyed thought they were economically better off, with Coalition voters and the young more likely to feel better off, and older voters least inclined to say they were better off.
There's a clue in that. If you are more dependent on the public health system and social services then you have reason to be worried because they have been eroded after years of neoliberal reform.
A detailed study, carried out by the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training, found that 60% of Australians feel that their lives are a lot less secure now compared to ten years ago. Greater job insecurity makes people more fearful of recession.
The two major contributors to economic growth over the last decade — the housing price boom and the mainly China-driven resources boom — have had an uneven impact on people's lives.
First, the rich got richer.
The Howard government has presided over a massive transfer of income share from wages to corporate profits. Profit share of national income rose from 23% in 1996 to a record 26.2% in 2005. Further, between 1990 and 2005 the average annual regular cash earnings of company chief executives, who were also members of the Business Council of Australia, went from $514,000 to $3.4 million. Their incomes now outweigh the average full-time wage earner by a ratio of 63 to 1.
Homeowners might feel better off but mortgages are a bigger strain. For example, the number of Sydney households suffering "housing stress" — where more than one third of income goes on rent or mortgages — has jumped by more than 50% in the past decade. Repayments on first home loans swallow nearly 40% of average incomes.
The housing bubble has really enriched a few and made many others feel wealthier for a while, boosting their spending on credit. However, it has also frightened many into not rocking the boat. Coalition fear campaigns about the alleged danger of a return to higher interest rates under Labor bite hard in the mortgage belts.
While this housing bubble is deflating in the eastern states, in WA it is being fuelled by the resources boom in the state's north.
There is another factor in Howard's performance in the poll. It could be called the "resistance factor". Right through last year, while the trade unions engaged in powerful political campaigning and mobilisations against the Coalition's new anti-worker industrial relations laws, Howard's approval ratings tumbled (see chart). New mass action around the IR laws (due to come into effect in March) could resume those trends.
The chart also shows something else. Approval ratings for opposition leader Kim Beazley fell along with Howard's, and disapproval ratings also followed Howard's.
Adele Horin summed it up well in the Sydney Morning Herald of February 23: "The weakness of Labor accounts for much of the Howard Government's electoral success ... Voter loyalty to the Labor Party has plunged. Voters identifying as Labor supporters dropped from 49 per cent in 1987 to just 32 per cent in 2004."
Howard is sitting pretty because many Australian don't see a real political alternative.
From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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