Rising Fuel Prices Become Political Liability for Canberra

Published November 20th, 2000 - 02:00 GMT

Australian truck drivers blockaded oil refineries here to protest rising fuel costs Monday as resentment at higher pump prices is translated into anti-government sentiment among voters, a motorists' body said. 

The protest was reminiscent of similar demonstrations in Europe last month, which were also precipitated by record global crude oil prices. 

The truck drivers' blockade of refineries in and around Melbourne, as well as the city's docks, threatened to drain fuel reserves in the southern state of Victoria dry by midweek, the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria (RACV) warned. 

And while Victorian motorists were panicked into hoarding fuel stocks, poll results showing rising voter discontent with Australia's conservative coalition government over rising petrol prices were also released. 

With the government of Prime Minister John Howard having revealed it is sitting on a 4.5 billion Australian dollar (2.34 billion US) budget surplus, the cost of fuel, pushed upwards by record crude oil prices and the introduction of a broad-based consumption tax here in July, could become an electoral albatross, analysts said. 

Almost 70 percent of voters thought the government should move to ease petrol prices by freezing tax and excise duties levied at the petrol pump, the latest poll results found. 

The RACV said the political implications of the survey results for the Howard government "could not get much clearer". 

"People believe the government is taking too much from them in petrol taxes," RACV spokesman David Cumming said. 

"The prime minister must order a freeze on the February consumer price index rise." 

The poll also found that just over half of all respondents nominated the sharp rise in petrol costs as likely to be a major factor determining their vote in the next federal election. 

Just a quarter of voters cited fuel costs as a primary concern in a corresponding poll 12 months ago. 

In response to growing criticism from consumer groups and the Labor opposition, the Howard government has said it would channel its windfalls from petrol taxes into improving roads around the nation. 

However, the latest voter surveys, conducted by respected local analyst Rod Cameron, found the government's promises, along with its better-than-anticipated budget surplus, had only further alienated many voters. 

"Roads will always be important, particularly in provincial Australia, but hundreds of kilometers of newly laid bitumen are of little electoral value if motorists cannot afford to drive on them," Cameron said. 

The government, however, appeared determined to maintain its present stance, ruling out any offer of support for the Victorian truck drivers' demands for an increase in freight rates as a means of compensating them for the effects of rising fuel costs. 

"We simply will not engage in supporting that sort of anti-competitive behavior," Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson said -- MELBOURNE (AFP) 





© 2000 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)

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