Held on October 9 2004
, the ruling conservative Liberal
and agrarian National Party
coalition lead by John Howard
decisively defeated the centre-left Labor
party run by Mark Latham
. It was Howard's fourth victory, having won power in 1996
and beating off challenges by Labor
leader Kim Beazley
Overall after the allocation of preferences from minor parties, there was a 2.05% swing to the Coalition. In the 150 seat House of Representatives the Liberals have increased their hold from 65 to 75 seats with their partner National party loosing one seat to be left with 12, versus the Australian Labor Party (and their Northern Territory equivalent, the Country Labour Party) falling from 65 to 60 seats. Three independents remain, while the Labor won the sole seat occupied by the Greens since a 2002 bi-election.
The coalition, for the first time since Malcolm Fraser's rule in the late 1970s/early 1980s, seized control of the Senate. With strength of numbers the government may be able to push through legislation that previous Senates have held up, especially laws relating to industrial relations and the full privatisation of Telstra. Australian politicians vote on party lines far more strictly than in the United States or Britain.
The biggest losers in the election are the centralist Australian Democrats, who with a swing of -4.2% against them have lost all three Senate seats. Traditional Democrats voters are likely to have chosen the Greens this time, who scored a 2% swing. One Nation also lost its sole Senate seat, with voters presumably prefering the stability afforded by the Liberal party. Pauline Hanson failed in her bid to return to federal politics as an independent, despite increased public sympathy for her personally (if not her convictions). Family First, a new party with its support base coming from eccumenical churches, gained its first Senate Seat.
Australia, enjoying economic growth, strong employment figures and a feel-good glow from winning a swag of medals at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, was not ready to change leaders. The Coalition capitalised on the successive years of low interest rates, attributing this on its own economic stewardship (a bit of a tall story, asinterest rates in Australia are determined independently by the Governor of the Reserve Bank).
They contrasted their economic performance with the interest rates Australia faced when the Australian Labor Party was in power, and the irascible behaviour and background of Mark Latham. Having barely served a year as Leader of the Opposition, the 43 year old nicknamed 'Biff' was better known for nearly bankrupting a Sydney local council, breaking the arm of a taxi driver in a dispute over a fare, and calling George W. Bush the the most dangerous and incompetent president in living memory (he used even more colourful language to describe the Howard government's close relationship with the United States). Liberal party advertisements featured Latham's name with the 'L' represented as a learner driver's plate.
Even though there were around 900 soldiers in and around Iraq, and the unfolding story of pre-war intelligence being doctored in Australia and abroad, there was little debate on foreign matters, except Latham stating his preference for the United Nations to become involved in Iraq, and Australia to redeploy forces to counter terrorism in the region. During the election campaigning period Western hostages captured by various militants appeared on television, and the Australian embassy in Jakarta was bombed by Jihadists killing eight non-Australians; those concerned about Australia's presence in Iraq regarded the Greens as being the most honest and capable party (including ex-intelligence analyst and whistleblower Andrew Wilkie, who campaigned against John Howard in his own electorate).
The depth of the victory was so significant that nobody had even considered the Coalition controlling the Senate. In hindsight, the Australian Labor Party could have capitalised on the fear of what economic restructuring the Coalition would be capable of. However, ultimately the public chose the Howard government - now destined to be Australia's second longest running government, on the basis of economic performance.
Not having any body bags coming from Iraq probably helped too.