Aussie expats might swing tight election

1st September 2004, Comments 0 comments

With polls indicating a tight federal election, Australia's expat community could decide the nation's new leader and the immediate future of the land Down Under. Andrew McCathie reports.

Australians head to the polls on 9 October - and the expat vote is likely to play a key role in what is widely expected to be a tight election.  

A generational battle between John Howard and Mark Latham

So it is vital for Australians living overseas to note that electoral rolls close on Tuesday 7 September at 8pm Canberra time.   

Some analysts believe just 10,000 votes could decide the election and with an estimated 450,000 Australians currently living in Europe — including the new European Union member states and Moscow — those living outside the country could influence the outcome of the election back home. 

But only a relatively small number of expats normally end up voting, partly because of laws that place residential restrictions on Australian citizens wanting to vote in Australia's elections. It has been estimated that some 500,000 Australian expats worldwide are currently disenfranchised.

The latest polls show the two major parties neck and neck in the primary vote. But  the opposition Labor Party led by federal politics newcomer Mark Latham is ahead of the centre-right coalition of the long-serving Prime Minister John Howard on the more important two-party preferred basis.

But Labor's lead in the polls is based on votes for smaller parties such as the Greens and Democrats with pollsters in the nation reporting signs of considerable volatility among voters.

Many voters are not expected to make up their minds until the last week or so of the election campaign, which falls between the Athens Olympics and the US Presidential election in November.

Moreover, while 43-year-old Latham needs a swing of only about 2 percent to form a majority government and oust the 65-year-old Howard, it is far from clear even if he managed to achieve that whether the swing would be across the board and in particular, in the marginal seats which will decide the election.

In the last election held in November 2001, Labor won the Victorian seat of Ballarat, which required a 2.8 percent swing, but failed to win Aston or LaTrobe, in which the swing required was less than 1 percent.

*quote1*Although Howard goes into the election campaign backed by a strong economy and with voters in general convinced about his tough stance on security issues, he is seeking a fourth term in government and the question facing many voters is whether they think it is now time for a younger leader to take over. 

Another key election issue will be honesty. In announcing the election date on Sunday, the prime minister confronted allegations of dishonesty levelled against him by Latham, agreeing that the October election will be an issue of trust.

"Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia's behalf against international terrorism? Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards?" Howard said.

The issue relates back to claims Howard knowingly lied that asylum seekers stranded off the coast in the Norwegian tanker ship Tampa in 2001 threw their children into the Indian Ocean to thwart efforts to turn their boat back towards Indonesia.

With the government refusing the asylum seekers entry to Australian territory, Howard's strong anti-illegal immigration stance helped secure him a remarkable election victory after a politically disastrous year.

But a Senate committee has been set up to investigate the "children overboard affair" and claims of government dishonesty. Public hearings were adjourned on Tuesday 1 September.

On the economic front, despite Howard's attempts to beat up support among home owners in key marginal seats by claiming a Labor government will result in interest rate hikes, financial markets do not see major differences in the two parties' economic and financial policies. 

That said, however,  the mortgage belt has already started to emerge as the key election battleground.

Latham has also sought to st

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