Sat, Nov 24, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Howard slips as fewer people find ways to advance

Working-class Australians are turning away from the Liberal Party in droves as interest rates and the cost of living grate

By Barbara McMahon  /  THE GUARDIAN , PENRITH, AUSTRALIA

Lying on the western fringes of Sydney, Penrith, a key battleground in today's election, is the epitome of blue-collar Australian suburbia. It is a town of sprawling houses, well-kept gardens with giant barbecues and cars in every driveway; some of the houses are already extravagantly decorated with Christmas lights and Santas on sleighs.

This used to be one of Labor's traditional heartlands until Australian Prime Minister John Howard and his right-wing Liberal-National coalition came along 11 years ago. He persuaded ordinary working men and women in modest circumstances, those who would never own stocks and shares or investment property, that they too could join in his great Australian dream of prosperity for all.

For many years they did well under "Little Johnny." With the economy growing strongly, inflation at moderate levels and with low unemployment, blue-collar men and women bought bigger houses, better cars, plasma TVs and even the occasional boat.

Now they are feeling the pain. While middle to upper-class Australians in the inner cities are at least able to service their mortgages and other personal debt, the spending power of working-class Australians has plummeted. Rising interest rates -- six successive increases since the last election in 2004 -- as well as the cost of living are hitting hard.

The economy is the key issue for voters. A new poll shows Labor still on track to win but Howard claims his government can still emerge victorious.

"I believe that as we get closer to the election people will focus on one simple question -- who is better able to manage this A$1.1 trillion [US$869.5 billion] economy?" he told Southern Cross Broadcasting.

That question is being asked with increasing urgency in Penrith -- and Howard may not like the answer many are coming up with. The town could fall to Labor, with only a 2.9 percent swing needed to take it away from the Liberals.

Successive interest rates have forced some people to consider downsizing because of worries about meeting their mortgages, only to find that house prices have stagnated, trapping them. There is a plethora of For Sale signs and not enough buyers. Many people have seen the value of their home, for many their main financial asset, fall by at least 10 percent.

One of those who will be switching sides to vote for Kevin Rudd is housewife Wendy Croft.

"I think [Howard's] just told a lot of lies. People are losing their jobs. They're worried about their mortgages and the price of food. Rudd might not be any better but I've decided that I'm fed up and it's time to have somebody else," she said.

Another considering giving her vote to Rudd is Jackie Gow, a cleaner at a hospital and a mother of four children, aged 2 to 22.

"It's hard to make ends meet," she said. "The cost of living, the cost of childcare, it's all gone up."

She is also unhappy that the government's industrial relations reform will hit her pay and conditions: "Sunday is just going to become a normal day under individual contracts ... That's more money that I'll be losing."

Security officer Jackie Will-mington, mowing the lawn at her parents' house, said she hasn't decided who to vote for.

"I was going to vote for Kevin Rudd but now I think John Howard hasn't done such a bad job. I don't think we can put all the blame for the interest rate rises on him because it's happening all over the world," she said.

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