I suggested in a previous post that there wasn't a lot of difference between Labor and Liberal* policies in this election, and Keith and Lee both pointed out that there are nonetheless significant differences. They're right, and over the last week I've been thinking about why.
* I hate using that term for the Liberal party - non-Australians should realise that our Liberal party is not a liberal party, and a capital or small 'L' should be observed to distinguish between the party (big 'L') and the ideas (small 'l').
Accountability/process: I really struggle to explain this, but I've had real problems with the way the Liberals have governed. They played fast and loose with truth on some things like children overboard, which is something that can be said of many governments, but in hindsight its shocking that no-one really was held to account for that. Of more concrete concern are things like their guillotining of debate in the senate and their failure to listen to reasonable non-government amendments. I also have a real problem with spending a half million dollars a day during their time in office, and $350 million last fiscal year. Lee mentioned that ALP figures like Lindsay Tanner and Penny Wong are making good noises about avoiding that kind of spending if they take office. We also went to Iraq for all the wrong reasons, which weren't those given us when Howard decided to send troops. Howard's apparent reluctance towards multilateralism in foreign policy is disturbing, and the "free" trade agreement with the US was a real sellout, particularly on issues like copyright term extension.
Education: I just feel like Rudd and Stephen Smith (who speaks very well, incidentally) are saying more appealing things about education. In particular, they seem to have a more real commitment to universities, which makes me think they have a greater appreciation that education is not the same thing as training (although both are important). Their mid-career research fellowships announcement (in many ways an expansion of the existing federation fellowships scheme) appeals to me as someone who has come back to Australia to make a career in research and found it frustrating that the best jobs for me are still overseas.
Spending and pork: How can a party claiming (by name) to be liberal be so convincingly winning the drunken sailor spend-a-thon? John posted a rundown of their election spending the other day, which included an astonishing $12 billion on roads, a domain that is normally the remit of state governments. This is at the same time as university and research funding have essentially been frozen at 1996 levels (as I understand it).
Federalism: If John Howard wants to dissolve the states and federalise the things they historically take care of (health, schools, transport, etc), then he should come out and say it. Personally, I can't help but feel that he's just playing games out of frustration with the present weakness of the Liberals in state politics (nowhere moreso than Queensland, perhaps). I support the idea of the GST, but I don't like the idea of using it to control state issues to the extent that Howard seems to be doing.
Civil liberties: The sneak and peek powers (including non-judicial warrants), sedition laws, and other anti-terrorism laws seem to me (not versed in legal stuff) as gross infringements on basic civil liberties established going back hundreds of years. Whether they're applied to Australian citizens (Izhar ul-Haque) or others (Mohamed Haneef), its just not on. Its an easy electoral sell to blurt "we need more powers to catch bad guys", but its cheap and unworthy. It remains to be seen whether Labor will be any better, or repeal any of these laws.
Environment: I would be quite happy if, as Keith suggests, Garrett is playing possum and will be much more aggressive if/when he becomes environment minister. I don't really understand Kyoto, but I've heard that we're on track to meet the targets anyway, in which case a symbolic non-signing is just being a dog in a manger. I also don't feel like the Libs actually believe in acting on climate change; it feels too much like they're just trying to keep up with public opinion, not leading it.
Industrial relations: I think the Liberals have a vendetta against unions, which at the end of the day are just employee advocacy groups, even if they have had problems at times with the manner in which they represent workers. Labor was the party that moved against centralised wage-fixing, and I can't see them being regressive in this, but I do believe they will move to limit employers (who have an intrinsic advantage in contract negotiation) convincing workers to trade away their rights to things like penalty rates and overtime.
I've probably missed some issues.
In the end, I have some problems with the Labor party, in particular in terms of the way they're set up in terms of unions' role in party voting. However, I feel like Howard and the Libs have been bad for Australia on a number of issues, and don't ascribe them as much economic credit as they have taken. Perhaps they can find some more small-'l' liberal roots if they lose an election, Howard retires, and they have some time in opposition to have a good hard look at themselves.