Election notes from Oz

by John Quiggin on September 13, 2004

After a week or so of largely phoney campaigning[1] and a pause following the Jakarta bomb atrocity, the Australian election campaign kicked off in earnest on Sunday night with a debate between Liberal (=conservative) PM John Howard and Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham. The conventional wisdom was that the bomb attack had just about finished Labor’s chances and that Latham’s only chance was to avoid the issue and stick to Labor’s strong suits, health and education.

Instead, Latham pushed a strong line against Australian involvement in the Iraq war, arguing that it had diverted resources and attention from the real dangers in our own region. Howard had been undermined earlier in the day by his own deputy, John Anderson, who conceded the fairly obvious fact that our involvement in the Iraq war might have increased, rather than reduced, the risk of terrorist attacks on Australia.

But Howard also gave a lot of ground. Although he briefly pushed the line that opposition to the war implied support for Saddam, most of the time he implicitly conceded that opponents of the war had been right after all, arguing that even if you opposed the war, it was now necessary to “see it through” rather than “cut and run”. With the latest awful news from both Iraq and Indonesia, however, it’s increasingly unclear what good can be done by keeping Australian troops in Iraq.

All of this is an echo of World War II, when Liberal PM Menzies sent troops to the Middle East, despite the danger posed by the Japanese. After his fall from office and a short interregnum under another conservative, he was replaced by Labor PM John Curtin , who withdrew the Australian 6th and 7th divisions of the AIF from the Middle East overriding an attempt by Churchill to divert the 7th division to the defence of Burma en route.

It remains to be seen whether the debate will affect the opinion polls, where Labor has been marginally behind on balance. Howard is generally regarded as a poor debater but a clever campaigner, and there are still four weeks to go. Still, it seems clear that the national security issue is not the easy winner for him that many pundits supposed.

fn1. In Australia, as in the UK, the Prime Minister has almost complete freedom in choosing the election date. But Howard delayed to the point that it was a political embarrassment to wait any longer. He called the election shortly after the end of the Olympics and then ran into a further sporting obstacle. He’d planned for a short campaign but the earliest available date coincided with football grand finals and was therefore unthinkable. That meant, in effect, that the campaign started a week or so early. The extra time was largely devoted to a series of extraordinarily vitriolic attacks on the Greens, who have been increasing their share of their vote, but are still peripheral in terms of the outcome.



Alan 09.13.04 at 1:47 pm

Given that the publicly anounced reasons for the Australian government’s actions in Iraq and Afghanistan are questionable, it is worth asking what the real reasons might be.

Here is one hypothesis. The Australian Prime Minister lived with his parents until well into his thirties and left only to live with his wife, who is tremendously powerful albeit behind the scenes. This is the classic “Mummy’s Boy”. Characteristic of a “Mummy’s Boy” is an unconscious need to attach himself to, and follow, a more powerful male. Along came Bush.

Pop psychology? Maybe. Do Howard’s personal inadequacies shape Australia’s national security strategy? Maybe.


Giles 09.13.04 at 3:36 pm

The problem with this thesis is that Australia only has 800 military personnle in the area – so its pushjing it a bit to say its diverting a large proportion of rescources that could be better used elsewhere (like where?).

The other point is the obivous one that if Australia chooses to only think of its self, it cant expect others to help it. And does it think it could cope with, say an invasion of Christmas Island on its own?


David Tiley 09.13.04 at 3:47 pm

We don’t buy support by bleeding for our allies. They would bleed for us only if they perceive it to be of geopolitical value. As we do – sacrificing our army to make Daddy like us.

The contrary does work however. We can make the nations of our own region dislike us. What happened when we announced the cruise missile purchase? How do you think the Iraq thing plays in the Indonesian cabinet?

We may well accept that we antagonise our neighbours, as we did over East Timor. But let’s do it for good reason.


Giles 09.13.04 at 6:21 pm

“We don’t buy support by bleeding for our allies.”

How is Australia bleeding for its allies? – they’ve suffered a pretty much zero casualty rate for which they’ve bought the favor of alot of allies and an FTA.

And its of geoppolitical interest for anyone to defend an ally since that is how alliances are formed.

As for asking the question “how doe this play in Jakarta” it migh be worth asking what interest Jakarta has in Iraq that are afffected by the conflict there? None I’d say, in much the same way that you would ignore Jakarta’s views if they say, diapprived of a cricket tour to India.


David Tiley 09.14.04 at 9:47 am

We’ve been using the rhetoric of sacrifice at least since Gallipoli.

And yes, treaties are important, but mostly because they codify a group of mutual interests. Can you imagine the US going to war over (to use your example) Christmas island, solely because we are linked by Anzus?

It is fair to say that the war in Iraq has pissed off the entire Arab world. It is a pretty big cricket tour. You can’t seriously argue that the Indonesians don’t take our support for the war in Iraq into account.

And we bought the FTA by fighting in Iraq? Some privilege.


Nathan McDonald 09.17.04 at 3:50 pm

Giles, we may not have suffered any troop casualties in Iraq, but we may suffer more attacks such as the recent one in Jakarta and Bali in 2002.

And we suffer the indignity of being part of coalition of occupying powers in a country descending into civil war. As British Army Colonel Tim Collins (quoted here) has said: “There was very little preparation or thought given to what would follow on from the invasion.”

The question is whether or not we are helping or hindering by maintaining our presence. On the basis of Abu Ghraib, I can’t see how we are helping. And on the basis of recent events, we appear to be harming our own interests.

“its of geoppolitical [sic] interest for anyone to defend an ally since that is how alliances are formed”

Sorry, who are we ‘defending’ by invading Iraq? And I am certain that the alliance with the US is founded on more than our membership of the coalition of the willing. Think of Pine Gap and uranium reserves to state the most obvious examples.

Meanwhile, in the words of Robert Manne, Australia’s actions have ‘reinforced throughout South-East Asia the most unhelpful portrait possible of Australia, as an anti-Muslim Western outpost acting as proxy for American power’.

If you want more on that particular cricket match, try this story.

You question Jakarta’s interest in Iraq, which is absurd. Aside from the fact that conflict in the Middle East affects the entire planet in some way, I will give you a hint: Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world.

Comments on this entry are closed.