TCS Daily

How 'Bout Howard!

By Alan Oxley - October 11, 2004 12:00 AM

Ever since US Pacific forces stepped in to protect the South Pacific after Japan demolished the supposedly impregnable British garrison at Singapore in 1940, Australians routinely contribute to US military campaigns as payment for continuing guarantees by the US of its national security. This was why Prime Minister John Howard was among the first to join the Coalition of the Willing.

In a national election on Saturday, the Opposition Labor Party promised to withdraw troops from Iraq by Christmas. Voters were not interested. They returned the conservative Howard government that committed them to Iraq with a slightly increased vote.

On the eve of the Iraq War, one former Australian Cabinet Minister was asked if he thought Australia would commit troops. His response was laconic: Australia had a tradition of going to every war and every Olympic Games. (They even went to the Moscow Games).

When the Weapons of Mass Destruction never materialized, it did not matter in Australia, nor did the failure to link the 911 terrorists to Saddam Hussein. Australians understood Iraq was the response to 911. Sympathy for the War in Iraq has ebbed as the occupation founders, but that was not reason enough to vote the government out of office.

The election was decided on who voters thought would provide more dependable government in a period of rising risk. Like in the US and Britain, domestic house prices and land values have risen (the average Australian has never been wealthier) and so has debt on them. Interest rates are expected to rise. People want confidence the government can manage that. The security environment for Australia is worsening. Australia has been bombed twice -- 100 citizens killed in Bali and its Embassy in Jakarta.

Occasionally pleas are made to engage in dialogue with the terrorists. Most Australians think synchronized swimming with Great White Sharks would be more effective. The bombers are affiliates of Osama bin Laden and operate in South East Asia. Their aim is to create a radical Islamic state across several countries in the region including northern Australia. (This bemuses rather than frightens Australia -- there is nothing out there but desert and camels).

Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific are also less stable. Australian forces were used to driving irregular Indonesian forces out of Timor (with US logistic support) after the people voted for independence in a UN referendum in 1999. Australia has used force to end civil ward in the Solomon Islands and has placed the backbone of an external administration in Papua New Guinea which faces the threat of collapse like an African failed state.

Australians wanted a government that offered the greatest prospect of stable economic management and firmness in an increasingly volatile military environment. The challenger, Labor Leader Mark Latham was younger than John Howard by nearly twenty years, but inexperienced. His policies did not differ greatly from Howard, except over Iraq, the environment and labor regulation.

Labor recruited Green radical lead singer Peter Garrett from Midnight Oil to boost its green vote. It offered to ratify the Kyoto Climate Change Protocol and reduce logging of native forests. Polls show most Australians think the Government should do more on global warming, but not enough to change a vote on who should run the country. The forestry policy flopped, costing the Labor Party two seats in a forestry region.

Labor also had policies to restore control of unions in the work place. That was very unpopular with business. Left wing unions vainly argued that Australia had lost manufacturing jobs offshore. With unemployment at historically low levels, no one took any notice.

Australians saw no good reason to change government. Iraq might not be going too well, but a steady hand in Government is what they wanted. Perhaps it also helped that Australia got a record tally of medals at the Athens Olympics.

Alan Oxley is host of the Asia Pacific Page of Techcentralstation and Chairman of the Melbourne Olympic Park, one of Australia's premier sports and entertainment facilities.


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