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Wednesday, 14 November, 2001, 15:14 GMT
Australian election: The BBC's Mike Peschardt
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Australian Prime Minister John Howard has won a third term in office despite wide unpopularity at the start of the year.

Not only that but his conservative coalition has won an increased majority, following his hardline approach to asylum seekers.

Labor's Kim Beazley is quitting after two failed efforts at election victory.

What does a third Howard term mean for Australia? What treatment can asylum seekers now expect?

To discuss this issue we were joined by the BBC's Sydney correspondent, Mike Peschardt.


Transcript:


Newshost:

Alex Chiang, Brisbane, Australia: Do you think that John Howard won because of the asylum seekers? What's the evidence that asylum led to his victory?


Mike Peschardt:

I don't think he won solely because of asylum seekers but what it did was it absolutely changed his whole campaign and changed the political landscape in this country. There is no doubt that if the election had been held four or five months ago that Mr Howard would not have won - barring any sort of miracle. What really changed politics in this country and the whole setting of this election was the asylum seeker issue. The moment that the government decided to turn back the people on board the Tampa and said that no more asylum seekers could land on the Australian mainland, that galvanised this country.

Politics isn't necessarily a thing people talk about a lot in this country but directly the asylum seekers issue started to hit home, people were actually talking about it - they were actually talking about politics and that's what changed this whole campaign. There were other factors but I don't think you should ignore the importance of the asylum seeker issue.


Newshost:

Paul McGuire, Edinburgh, UK: Is there any statistical "justification" for Australia's phobia of immigration, or do you feel the Aussie media, or something else, is helping raise fears?


Mike Peschardt:

Statistically if you look at it in terms of the rest of the world, the number of asylum seekers that come to Australia is really very small indeed - over the last couple of years it's been something like 4,000 boat people have arrived in this country. Now if you look at that in world terms and compare it with Europe or the United States or just with Britain, 4,000 is a very small number indeed.

The point is though that Australians genuinely believe that they are right at the centre of the asylum seeker problem. They believe Australia has a worse problem than anywhere else in the world. Now the reason for that is, as the questioner suggests, because the Australian media don't really give that international background and dimension to the problem. So if you talk to people, they say of course Australia must take a firm hand otherwise everybody in the world would be coming here and it is just Australia with the problem. It is very hard to convince Australians that in fact Australia's problem is really quite small by comparison with the rest of the world.


Newshost:

Jason Lande, Chicago, USA: Can you tell us about the role that Pauline Hanson has played in bringing the immigration issue to the forefront of this election?


Mike Peschardt:

That's a very interesting question and there are two answers to that. In terms of this election campaign that we have just had, Pauline Hanson frankly was invisible throughout. I think she had only a handful of public engagements. It was a big contrast to three years ago when she really was the story and there were crowds chasing and following her. There was a huge media contingent around her and a number of demonstrations around her because of her Right-wing views. This time she was invisible.

However, you could argue that she has in fact set the agenda for this election. If you actually look at the result, the government won by really only a very small majority and where it picked up votes was from the One Nation party. People who voted for One Nation last time came back to the Liberal and Conservative coalition. You could argue that one of the reasons they came back was that the Liberal Party was in fact aping Pauline Hanson's policies by being tough on immigrants - that's exactly what Pauline Hanson and One Nation wanted to see. So in some ways they set the agenda but in so doing they actually guaranteed the end of their political hopes as a political force in this country.
Newshost:

Cheow-Lay Wee, London, UK: Does the re-election of John Howard mean the re-emergence of the "White Australia" policy and in effect a victory for Hansonism?


Mike Peschardt:

Not really. It's not a "White Australia" policy. It's very easy perhaps to overstate the case. There is still no "White Australia" policy - that has not been returned. What has been returned is a very, very firm line on illegal immigration into this country.

If you look at the numbers of people who are coming into the country, the majority of the people are not white Anglo-Saxons anymore - that changed in the late 1970s, early 1980s. So there's certainly not a "White Australia" policy but what there is a very firm holding of the line that if you want to come to this country, you have got to fill out the relevant forms and you have got to go through the relevant processes.

The way that asylum seekers are being increasingly portrayed here is as queue-jumpers - people who are trying to get to the head of the queue unfairly when there are people waiting overseas wanting to get to this country and doing the "right thing" and you have got the queue-jumpers coming. That's one of the very strong arguments against the asylum seekers - it really resonates with Australians because this is a migrant nation - most people who are here have come from somewhere else but they have all gone through a process. There is a feeling, particularly amongst relatively recently arrived migrant communities, that if they've gone through the process why should other people short-circuit the process.

The counter argument to that - and it is a very strong argument - is that there really isn't a queue. It's impossible to apply to migrate to Australia if you are on the Afghan border - there really is no bureaucratic framework for you to make that application. So what can you do if you want to come here - you have to somehow get here and that involves getting on a boat.


Newshost:

David, London, UK: Which would have been more dangerous for ethnic harmony in Australia - Howard hoovering up the anti-immigrant vote, or One Nation and other far-right groups capitalising on discontent?


Mike Peschardt:

I think there is no doubt that if One Nation had played a bigger role after this election then that really would have been a very volatile mix indeed. It was never going to happen. Even at the height of One Nation, there was no way that One Nation would ever be able to form a government in this country but what they could be was an influential minority. As we have seen, they've changed the agenda of politics.

As for the ethnic mix and racial harmony in this country, that very much now depends on Mr Howard and the government and the rhetoric and the way in which they frame the argument. There are people in this country who believe that in the rush to get votes, to capitalise on an anti-immigration prejudice in this country, the debate was whipped up and there was a lot of very unfortunate rhetoric used. I suspect, after the election now that things have calmed down we will see a very different approach - a much more inclusive approach - and I actually do believe there will be a softening on the asylum seeker issue because, for very good practical reasons, there is no real alternative.


Newshost:

Abbel Nadew, Manila - Philippines: Did people vote because there was no better candidate than John Howard or did they vote because they believed in John Howard as a future leader?


Mike Peschardt:

That again is a very good question because I totally sympathise with those feelings in as much as that if you don't see John Howard very often he is not the most impressive politician in world politics by any stretch of the imagination. He's a very ordinary man. But just in terms of the Australia political scene, his very ordinariness is what makes him remarkable - in fact people trust John Howard more than they do other politicians. Now that may not be saying very much because the reality is people in Australia don't like and certainly don't trust politicians. Mr Howard has developed a sense of trust - people do have a degree of faith in what he says.

Equally there is no doubt at all because of the international crisis with which we're all surrounded - and Australia has committed troops to the war against terror - there is no doubt that people preferred the idea of staying with the government that they knew. It was the devil that they knew and somebody who they believed was already in the loop, as it were, with the rest of the international community. People very much felt that it was too much of a gamble to change government now. There was no overwhelming reason to change the government so they struck with the devil they knew.


Newshost:

Peter Cardoza, Chicago, USA: Why did most newspapers before the election, back John Howard?


Mike Peschardt:

The problem with this country - and it is a very, very, very big problem - is that there is very little diversity of ownership amongst the press. In effect, the press in this country is controlled by two people: the Murdoch family and News Corporation and the Fairfax group of companies. So there's not a huge diversity of opinion. The tradition has been for the tabloids - the popular Murdoch press - to support the Liberal Party, that's just the way it's been. Again, equally for a lot of the newspapers in the Fairfax stable. They are, as it were, reverting to type. It is unusual for them to back the Labour party.

Plus there were good sound economic reasons for staying with the Howard government because there's no doubt that in terms of economic management, the Howard government has been a success. If you compare the economic performance of this country to the rest of the world over the past five or six years, this is in fact one of the - if not the most strongly performing OECD nations. During all the talk of recession that there is now and actual recession in very many parts of the Western world, Australia is still predicting 3% growth. So if you look at the basic economic fundamentals, there are good reasons to stick with a government that had a sound grasp of the economy. That is not to say that Labour wouldn't have done an equally good job, it's just that the Liberal party has got the runs on the board.


Newshost:

Anthony Imbrogno, Calgary, Canada: Has the issue of abolishing the monarchy been an issue in this campaign?


Mike Peschardt:

Very interesting question. As the questioner suggests, there wasn't any talk of the monarchy really. But it was absolutely vital this election to the future of the monarchy because if the Labour party had won the election, they had a commitment - and it was a very strong commitment - that there would be at the time of the next election - which will be in a maximum of three years - if Labour had won office, there would have been a plebiscite that would have been framed during the election campaign. So as well as voting for the government, you would have had a basic question of, are you in favour of a republic or are you in favour of the monarchy - just an open question like that. There may have been talk about the models of the republic or there may not have been - that was still to be worked out. But we would have had that vote in this country in three years time.

I think there is no doubt at all that if you were to ask Australians the simple question - monarchy or republic - there would be an overwhelming vote in favour of the republic and then from then there would have been the whole debate about exactly what form of republic it would have been. So there would have been very real progress towards a republic if Labour had won. The fact that they haven't means it's off the agenda, for another three years, until there is a change of government or a change of prime minister. It is worth bearing in mind that the person most likely to succeed John Howard as Liberal party leader is a very firm republican. Now he may change and bring it back on the agenda but for the moment it's very much off the agenda.


Newshost:

John P. Kelly, Loveland, CO, USA: Since voting in Australia is compulsory, what is the penalty for not voting?


Mike Peschardt:

It is a fine - I think it's about 50 Australian dollars and it's slightly less than a parking ticket. But the interesting thing about the fine isn't how big it is but the fact that it's there. This is a country which has a natural tendency to political apathy - people are also slightly embarrassed about politics, people don't like to talk about it very much because it's deemed almost un-Australian to be too interested in politics. The fact is because there is a fine, because it is compulsory, people say to each other - of course we've got to vote or we're going to get fined and so they go to the polls and they don't feel embarrassed about it - it becomes part of their civic duty. So it works very well indeed because although the fine is rarely invoked, the fact that it is there is just at the back of people's minds and it makes people vote and that is a very good thing. We do know that the vast majority - 98% probably of Australians voted on Saturday - at least had a very real say on who the government of this country is and they can have no complaint about it.


Newshost:

Makeda Candace, London, UK: Don't you think that the native people of Australia should have a place in the government?


Mike Peschardt:

That again is a very interesting factor in this whole election campaign. In the last election, native title issues, indigenous people issues, Aboriginal issues were at the forefront of the campaign. I didn't notice a single major policy launch by either of the two parties about Aboriginal issues. It went off the agenda.

The reason for that is because the Labour party decided that banging on about Aboriginal issues too hard and too loud was not going to win any votes for them. There were no votes, they decided, in being very, very pro-active on the Aboriginal front. So it just went off the agenda - now it will come back, I have no doubt about that because it has to come back - it must come back. It is a running sore, it is the great blight on this nation, so it will come back. But the Labour party developed a strategy which, at the time, seemed like a good one, which was to try to be as small a target as possible, to have as few policies as possible, to have as few controversial policies as possible and hopefully win government that way. In fact the way international events went, they got overtaken and they became invisible and that's really why they lost.

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