ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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War and Australian Elections

Australia's ruling Conservative coalition is set to reap the advantages of its recent 'tough' policies, following the September 11 strikes on the US and Australia's willing participation in the US-led alliance. Yet the ailing economy and rising unemployment remain a cause for worry as election day nears.

Australia’s conservative prime minister John Howard could not have chosen a better time to call elections right in the middle of the US-led war against Afghanistan’s Taliban regime and the Osama bin Laden-led al-Qaeda terrorist movement. Howard was on an official US visit when America was hit by terrorist attacks on September 11. He wasted no time in strongly voicing his sympathy and support for the US. And has been repeating and refining it since.

The US is Australia’s ally and is perceived by its government and people as their ultimate security shield. There is, therefore, tremendous support in the country for what the US has gone through. Not surprisingly then that Australia should join US military operations. And its incumbent conservative government would most likely reap the reward of being returned to power in the scheduled election on November 10.

Only a few months ago, the Howard government was in all sorts of trouble. The conservatives had lost key state elections. The government morale was low and the opposition Labour Party seemed assured of victory during the forthcoming elections. Then came the boat refugees, and the stalemate over the Norwegian ship, Tampa, carrying over 400 Afghans it picked up from their sinking boat on the high seas. The government refused permission to unload them on Australia’s Indian Ocean territory of Christmas Island. Instead, it bribed the tiny South Pacific island country of Nauru to accept the unwanted human cargo for detention and processing there.The government’s ‘tough’ stand against the refugees won it kudos at home. In the midst of it all came the terrorist attacks in the US. John Howard further fortified his status as a tough leader with his unstinted and strong support for theUS.

Politics is a mercurial mistress, testified by the sudden upswing in the fortunes of Australia’s conservative government. Earlier, the government was unpopular over a whole host of issues. Its policy of economic rationalism (market fundamentalism, as George Soros would call it) had antagonised rural and regional Australia. It had also adversely affected older people, with greater emphasis on user-pay principle. Competition and productivity gains became the buzzwords. The curtailment and withdrawal of services (as in the closure of bank branches) created too much popular discontentment. The introduction of the complicated goods and services tax (value added tax) resulted in the closure of small businesses and much heartache all round.


Stemming Discontent

At the same time, the widening economic gap between the rich and poor is a matter of growing concern. Unemployment remains high at about 7 per cent. And much of the new employment is part-time. Nearly two in every three jobs created in the past three years have been part-time. An Australian under-class (of working poor and long-term unemployed) is growing. And as one economic commentator has pointed out, “More than 700,000 Australian children, one in six of our children under 15, are growing up in homes where no one has a job”.

Lately, there have been a number of spectacular corporate failures, adding to economic uncertainty. Tourism, an important earner, has been badly hurt. Australia’s depreciating currency is giving it the image of a third world country, though it has helped the export sector. Which may not last because of global economic slowdown. All this is creating a general sense of unease and insecurity.

But faced with the fear of terrorism and boat refugees, people seem less worried about economic and social issues. The twin issues of terrorism and asylum seekers have become intertwined in their minds; the latter being seen as potential terrorists and criminals from Afghanistan and the west Asia. In such a climate, people generally would not like to experiment with a new government. And this will work against the opposition Labour Party, led by Kim Beazley.

Beazley, considered a likeable bloke, is also perceived as wishy-washy and a windbag. And is not considered by many as leadership material for the country’s prime ministership. His heart is in the right place but is seen as indecisive. For instance, his party first, voted against a government bill to exclude boat refugees from entering Australia’s island territories. But soon changed its mind to pass the slightly modified version to achieve the same broad objective. In the process, Beazley was neither decisive nor popular.

At present people are more occupied with the US-led crusade against terrorism. There is a sense that the conflict will be protracted and deadly, and Australia could be a target for the terrorists. As prime minister John Howard said, “I don’t want to overdramatise, but equally I don’t want to underestimate or understate the obvious, and that is that all those who stand with our American friends (Australia included) are potential targets”.

Even though everyone from president Bush down to Tony Blair and John Howard is keen not to posit the conflict in terms of Islam versus the west/christianity, the feeling still appears quite pervasive. Huntington’s thesis predicting future global conflict between clashing civilisations (Islam vs Christianity) could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. According to John Keegan, a British journalist and military historian, (in an article reprinted in the Australian newspaper, The Age): “...Western response to Islamic aggression is now well under way...” He added, “It is no good pretending that the peoples of the desert and the empty spaces (Arabs et al) exist on the same level of civilisation as those who farm and manufacture (settled people of the Christian west). They do not. Their attitude to the west has always been that it is a world ripe for the picking...”

He wrote, September 11 was their declaration of war. And October 7 was the beginning of western counter-offensive. And in this, according to Keegan the west will prevail.

If bulk of the Australian people (and western people elsewhere) share Keegan’s mindset, then in Australia, at least, prime minister John Howard has more or less won the election. Or could it be that bread and butter issues will eventually prevail! We will get to see this in Australia on November 10 when the votes are cast.



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