Gettin' happy, Australia!

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The last thing Labor’s candidate for the blue ribbon inner Sydney seat of Wentworth wants is for the disendorsed Liberal Peter King to stand as the ‘Not happy, John!’ candidate. If he did, he might just take the seat from Malcolm Turnbull and cruel Labor’s ever-increasing chances of stealing the seat.

Labor polling shows the biggest swings against Howard’s regime are coming in some of its safest seats. It’s no accident that Turnbull recently told a community meeting that invading Iraq was ‘an unadulterated error’, after King finally spoke out about Howard’s abandonment of two Australian citizens in Guantanamo Bay.

The Liberal heartland is at last in revolt. It’s in the heartland that the Government’s grotesque response to the call for truth in government by 43 retired senior public servants, diplomats and defence chiefs hurt most, as did the proof that Howard lied his way to power in 2001 over ‘children overboard’.

The refugee activist movement which sprang up after Tampa, and which has grown and strengthened ever since, was the springboard for the emergence of an alliance of disenchanted Liberal and Labor voters — plus Greens and Democrats — to topple the Howard regime. Liberals are not used to being treated without respect as Australian citizens, and the Government’s behaviour towards visitors to detention centres and its heavy censorship and rough treatment of asylum seekers have incensed many Liberals.

I wrote my book Not happy, John! to try to prove that Howard has betrayed the Menzies legacy so thoroughly that it is now deceptive and misleading to include the ‘liberal’ in the party’s name. I argued that Australia’s democracy is now in crisis. And that it’s time for all Australians who believe in democracy, and in the egalitarian values which make us special, to stop beating each other up and start working together.

Former Liberal Party President John Valder obtained my permission to use the book’s title and publicity stickers to mount his ‘NHJ’ campaign to unseat Howard in Bennelong. Money and volunteers are pouring in. The campaign has now taken aim at Howard’s top three gang members — Ruddock, Downer and Abbott.

This is a new idea for Australia — a citizens’ movement, comprised of people of most political persuasions, and dedicated not to electing a particular party but to defeating the incumbent government. Moveon.org in America has been doing that for years, garnering a huge list of citizens prepared to donate between them enough money to run prime time ads urging the defeat of George Bush.

It’s at the grassroots where citizen activism really counts, as the Howard Dean campaign for the US presidency showed. Australians never before involved in politics are starting to put on their hard hats and perform their democratic duty where they live. They’re off political Valium, and they’ve started to realize they can — if they choose — make a difference. Howard must be ruing the day he decided not to call an election for August 7.

Renata Kaldor, impeccable society matron and establishment Liberal, recently appeared on the Sunday program to say this:

‘I would ideally like to have a Liberal government without John Howard as the leader. If you’re asking me the lesser of two evils, if I had my choice, I’ve got to say, after a lot of thought, I would prefer to have a Labor Party in power, at least for three years, and I think probably — perhaps — [that would]be enough. I think the damage perhaps that a Latham government would do to the country economically, to my mind, wouldn’t be quite as harmful as the damage to the social fabric that’s happened under the John Howard leadership.’

That sounds like what many Labor voters thought in 1996 when they were sick and tired of Keating, and decided Labor needed a term in Opposition to sort itself out.

Is Howard now in the same squeeze play that he inflicted on Labor in 2001? Labor moved with him on Tampa to save its battler vote and sent other voters off to the Greens. Today, Howard can’t take his traditional support base for granted by pitching wedges at the battlers. He could alienate that support base to the extent that Liberals in safe seats will be tossed out.

That’s why ALP candidate for Wentworth David Patch fears a Peter King decision to join Valder’s ‘NHJ’ campaign. If King dares verbalise what many truly liberal constituents believe, then Turnbull’s vote — already dangerously low — could collapse in King’s favour and win him the seat.

My plea to the big media — please live in and report from seats like this, the interesting seats, daily. Forget top-down running around with the leaders. This election will be won and lost on the ground where the people are. An unholy alliance is emerging to defend our democracy. Don’t miss the story!

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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