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Thursday, 18 November 2004
Page: 55

Senator BARNETT (1:33 PM) —For a moment during the lead-up to the United States elections I felt this uncanny experience of deja vu: same style and margin of victory, same identities, same issues and the same lessons learned less than a month before when John Howard thrashed Mark Latham at the polls. Naturally some of the comparisons were obvious: two conservative leaders, seemingly divided community opinion, a steady and buoyant economy, the terrorism threat and national security. Both George W. Bush and John Howard won by handsome margins. In percentage terms, President Bush won by 51 per cent to 48 per cent and Prime Minister Howard by 52.75 per cent to 47.25 per cent. The Republicans increased their vote in both houses of congress and retained control of both houses while in Australia the coalition increased its majority and regained control of both houses of parliament for the first time in more than 20 years. Both leaders faced a challenge by opponents who ran vigorous but failed campaigns against the incumbency of Bush and Howard. These opponents also enjoyed the fascination and at times considerable support of the mass media, and both were still resoundingly defeated.

Why? Like the coalition in Australia, the Republican Party in the United States won control of both houses of congress because, like the Australian experience, a clear majority of voters in the United States knew who to entrust their support to on issues such as the economy, national security, the fight against terrorism and moral issues. In both Australia and the United States the elections have demonstrated a complete failure of the Left in mainstream politics to produce and promote policies, governance and a leadership style which are broadly acceptable to the majority. The issues, however, were similar. In the US elections, the issue of gay marriages and gay adoptions took their place along side the economy, national security, world terrorism and Iraq. One report showed that 22 per cent of US voters put moral issues as the most important. These same issues resonated with Australian electors. In all of the 11 state based referendums on gay marriage in the United States, they received a resounding no. The Democrat candidate, Senator John Kerry, even though a Catholic, was seen as soft on the issue.

Likewise in Australia, the ALP was and still is split. It initially refused to support government legislation to ban gay marriage. The strength of feeling within the church and in middle Australia was and is underrated. You know where John Howard stands, but Mark Latham is equivocal. Those general issues resonated with both US and Australian voters. The healthy condition of the economy in both countries became a massive hurdle against the voters either changing horses or opting for unknown quantities. In the US last month unemployment was 5.5 per cent, while in Australia it is currently 5.6 per cent. In the US, growth in GDP stands at 3.7 per cent, while in Australia the forecast for 2004-05 is 3.5 per cent. Inflation in the US is around two per cent and in Australia the May budget forecast for 2004-05 is also for two per cent inflation.

Against these signs of strong economies with low interest rates the challengers had neither credible arguments nor credible alternatives. They certainly had little scope for philosophical flexibility and versatility. Both Mark Latham and Senator John Kerry suffered from well-founded accusations of being complicated individuals who were fickle and made flip-flop decisions. Both Latham and Kerry suffered from their equivocation over Iraq and the need to finish the job—and even Hillary Clinton voted to support the war in Iraq.

George W. Bush and John Kerry each had a war chest of more than $400 million. John Kerry's was thanks partly to his wealthy wife. In Australia the ALP enjoyed an historical advantage of funding from affiliated unions, which has allowed the party to at least match or outspend the coalition in election campaigns. The parity of funding between the two American contestants and Labor's inherent advantage in Australia was still not enough to produce close contests. In short, the Left in both countries was routed at the hands of two disciplined parties with leaders who stuck by their policies and core values while exuding a leadership style that was both reliable and resolute. John Kerry flip-flopped over Iraq, initially voting against it and then for it. Similarly, Mark Latham pulled a shallow stunt of a policy by saying that he would bring Australian troops home from Iraq by Christmas. This policy had no bearing on the reality of the Iraq conflict. It was a crude Whitlamesque exercise based on the decision to `bring home' Australian troops from Vietnam in 1973.

According to newspaper reports, Mark Latham even poached cliches such as `ease the squeeze' and `ladder of opportunity' from the Democratic Party in the US. John Kerry was seen as weak on terrorism and national security. Mark Latham flip-flopped over issues such as the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme when Labor dropped its two-year opposition to an increase in co-payments. This was sheer electoral expediency which was exposed on another front when Latham dramatically flip-flopped over the environment and betrayed Labor's own constituency by telling timber workers in Tasmania what they wanted to hear on one day, and then telling environmentalists and the Greens what they wanted to hear the very next day.

The moral of the story from both elections is one about leadership. John Howard and George W. Bush may be hated by the Left and ridiculed by cartoonists but they are in no doubt about what they both stand for. They are resolute, they share commonsense values and they are prepared to stay the course with tough decisions when they believe it is in the country's best interest. Such qualities, especially proven qualities, are untroubled by the challenge from opponents who might debate well and remember their lines.

I find the US presidential elections a fascinating celebration by Americans of their culture and their democracy. They certainly know how to make an election a major entertainment event. At the Tuesday, 2 November US election, Americans chose not just a president, but one-third of the 100-member senate, all of the 435-member House of Representatives, most of the 7,000 state members of congress, 11 of the 50 state governors, and thousands upon thousands of local mayors, councillors and officials. But there is more—much more. Americans also elected school board members, the boards of fire departments, county auditors and, in many states, the local sheriff. Then there were the judiciary, county court, appeal court, and state supreme court justices. Washington political consultant Earl Bender says that the US has more than 170,000 elected officers. According to one report there are at least 83,000 units of government in the US. The US founding fathers designed the system this way to ensure power devolved down to the people rather than being centralised in Washington, DC. With so many elections on one day the political party on the ascendancy in the race for the White House could expect a certain amount of this popularity to flow through the system down to local governments and counties. This is the winner-take-all capacity built into the US electoral system, and the recent elections reflected this capacity.

On funding the election campaigns the story was always big. One recent report estimated the cost of the elections, plus the referendums that go with them, to be $US3.9 billion, or $A5.3 billion. The Centre for Responsive Politics said it represented a 30 per cent increase on the cost of elections held four years earlier. US politics requires big money, big donors and big IOUs. A standard Senate campaign cost over $5 million in 2002 and a House of Representatives campaign cost around $1 million. A New York Senate race cost an estimated $28 million and in California the cost was $20 million. The bigger the state, the higher the cost. In the House of Representatives approximately $8.5 million was raised in Texas District 32 and $5.7 million was raised in South Dakota District 1. Interestingly, in 2002, 98 per cent of the House of Representatives incumbents won and 85 per cent of the incumbent senators won. US elections are held every two years on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November. Presidents and state governors are voted in for four years; senators, federal and state, are voted in for six years, as in Australia; and members of the House of Representatives, federal and state, are voted in for two years.

I campaigned for former Republican Governor Jim Rhodes in Ohio in November 1986 when I was working with the Taft law firm in Washington, DC. My boss was former Republican Senator Bob Taft Jr, whose father was `Mr Republican', also a senator. His grandfather was William Howard Taft, the US president from 1908 to 1912. President Taft was responsible for introducing income tax and, as the largest President in history, for getting stuck in the bath at the White House. My boss's son is Bob A. Taft II, current governor of Ohio.

The US places a limit of two consecutive terms, or eight years, on presidents and governors. Former Governor Rhodes from Ohio created history by winning two terms, having four years off, then winning two more terms. Then, after having another four years off, he attempted another term and lost. As you may have noted from the TV coverage, the US campaigning techniques are far more in-your-face than in Australia. There are huge rosettes and buttons on lapels and megaphone politics in the streets. Pre-recorded phone calls from politicians are commonplace. Australians are far more guarded. Australians put up with a few weeks of hard and heavy campaigning and being bombarded with TV and other media advertisements as well as heaps of direct mail. The US public, however, have to endure up to two years of campaigning for the presidential elections, with the campaign proper going for at least three months following the national conventions of each party.

The US presidential campaign will cost the protagonists and their allies the equivalent of the entire budget of my home state of Tasmania, just for advertising, direct mail and travel costs. In 2004 we saw the first billion dollar—US dollars—presidential campaign. According to one report, President George W. Bush raised $US360 million and Democrat candidate John Kerry raised $US320 million, and a further $US450 million was raised by associated entities and what are called political action committees or PACs. A recent article noted that 50 per cent of the campaign budget was spent on advertising and that the bulk of the remainder was spent on direct mail and travel related costs. In addition, an estimated $US200 million of the campaign expenditure is taxpayer or publicly funded, and this includes funding for the Republican and Democratic national conventions. These are the party conventions that formally choose their presidential and vice-presidential candidates. Every state has a certain number of delegates. The conventions these days serve as a public relations fiesta designed to `sell' the candidates and their policies and to energise the campaign. Thankfully, in Australia you do not have to be a millionaire or have big-money backers as they do in the US. It does help if you are a sporting hero, pop star or cultural identity. Australians appreciate being able to relate to their MPs in a genuine way.

So many people ask me how the US electoral system works. In Australia it is compulsory to register to vote, and given that less than six per cent of Australians vote informally this shows how compulsory voting has successfully encouraged engagement with our political system. Unlike Australia, voting in the USA is voluntary. In 2000, 54.5 per cent of the voting age population turned out to vote, and only 49 per cent in 1996. In the 2 November election the voter turnout across the US was much better than expected and was closer to 60 per cent. Contrary to public perception, the US President is elected not directly by the people but via what is known as the electoral college. Each of the 50 states in the US has electoral college votes equal to its number of senators, which is two per state, and its number of members of the House Of Representatives, which depends on the size of its population. For example, California has 55 electoral college votes, while the seven smallest states and Washington, DC have only three. So 100 senators, 435 members of the House Of Representatives and three representatives from Washington, DC make up the 538 electoral college votes. Thus, a majority of 270 is required to win.

The candidate who wins the popular vote wins all the electoral college votes in that state. The electoral college voters are real people who cast their `electoral college' votes on 13 November, by convention according to how they were chosen from the popular vote. Historically, none of these people have ever broken ranks and voted for the other candidate, but if they did it would no doubt spark some sort of constitutional crisis. This is the `winner takes all' system. Although Democrat Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, with 48.4 per cent to George W Bush's 47.9 per cent, he lost the election because Bush won a majority of the electoral college votes, with 271 to 266. This has occurred on three other occasions in US history: John Quincy Adams in 1824, Hayes in 1876 and Harrison in 1888. This system encourages the presidential candidates to focus their efforts on the major city or population centres in each state that are marginal or `not in the bag'. Not since 1960, when Richard Nixon visited every state, has this occurred, and he lost anyway. Clearly it would not be a clever use of time. Similarly, in Australia it is the marginal seats that receive the most attention. The winner of the election is inaugurated, officially takes office, on 20 January following the election, in this case 20 January 2005.

In Australia public funding was first introduced at the federal level in 1983 by Labor Prime Minister Bob Hawke, with the support of the Liberal Party. Funding for the political parties some years ago doubled from $15 million to $30 million per election. In 2001 the parties received $1.79 per vote, and in 2004 they received $1.94. The total amount paid to eligible candidates for the 2001 election was $38.5 million.

Australia has to some degree followed the US experience because, more than ever, the contest is promoted by the media as a gladiatorial battle between two protagonists, as seen in the 9 October elections between John Howard and Mark Latham. I do not think that presidential style elections are necessarily a good thing. I believe that policies rather than the charisma or otherwise of one person ought to be the defining criteria for ballot box appeal, but I expect that with the mass media mentality prevalent in both countries it is here to stay. Thankfully, voters in Australia tend to judge contestants by their policies at least as much as by their personalities. From the time he was elected as Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham was afforded celebrity status in the media by journalists who wanted a contest, a change of government or both. The media swallowed his political message of being the youthful agent of change while happily portraying the PM and the coalition as being on the reform backfoot. Thankfully, voters did not buy this superficial hype and the better leader, the better team and the better policies won the day. As I have argued, they got the same result in America—for similar reasons.