“I love free speech,” said George Bush, smiling between gritted teeth, as Australian M.P.’s heckling his speech to the Australian parliament were booted out into the street, and as street protesters against his war in Iraq struggled to make themselves heard from behind a far-distant police cordon.
Bush was down under for about 20 hours to thank the Australian for its support government in the war on terror and capping a lightning tour of Asia. A short time for a visit, but compared to other legs of the whistlestop (a couple of hours here, an afternoon there), it was pretty lengthy, reflecting, surely, his expectation that this ally would give him a warm welcome.
Prime Minister John Howard was psyched to see him; not so the Australian people. Aussies are upset over the war in Iraq and about two Australians the U.S. is holding as terror suspects in Guantanomo Bay, Cuba.
While Bush was expressing his love of free speech, the Australian press was expressing its outrage about limited public and media access to Bush. For the first time ever, the public was barred from Parliament, aka “the people’s house.” Organizers of an anti-war protest were banned from using a public address system anywhere in the precinct near Parliament, and they had to face away from the building so their voices wouldn’t offend the presidential ear.
Of course, many in Australia realize the importance of keeping up good relations with the U.S. But that doesn’t preclude a healthy opposition to policies. The Sydney Morning Herald writes:
“The basic right of freedom of speech will adopt a new interpretation during the Canberra visits this week by the U.S. President, George Bush, and his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao. Protesters will be free to speak as much as they like-just as long as they can’t be heard.”
Two Senators from the Green party, Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle, began a ruckus in Parliament heckled Bush about the Guantanomo Bay prisoners. Australian government MPs were so concerned about the abuse that they formed a “human shield” around Bush. As one Australian paper put it, he was surrounded by a “protective rugby scrum” in an attempt to avoid protests and heckling shouts from the audience.
Anger toward Bush took many forms. Between 3,000 and 5,000 protestor marched in Sydney before Bush arrived. Forty-one Labor M.P.’s wrote Bush an open letter stating their opposition to BushÕs Iraq policy. Tanya Plibersek, a Sydney Labor MP, said: “The point of the letter is to let Mr Bush know that a large section of the Australian community does not share the Prime Minister’s support for the war. We also want to ensure that we can use this visit to engage the President in a constructive dialogue on our great concerns about the dangerous precedent of pre-emptive self-defence this war has set.”
Despite obvious tension in the country, the Australian press was not allowed to question Bush. When asked, officials said there would be no press conference because it simply wasn’t on the itinerary. How convenient, writes an Australian reporter:
“George Bush’s word is apparently beyond question. At least, by the Australian press. The US President has declined a customary joint press conference after his address to the Federal Parliament tomorrow. The media event, which normally allows two or three questions from Australian media and an equal number from the visiting press, would have been the only official opportunity for Australian journalists to quiz Mr Bush on the Iraq war and its aftermath.”
One columnist for the Sydney Morning Herald laments the lost opportunity to grill Bush, saying reporters wanted a chance to ask tough questions that, in his opinion, the U.S. media avoids for fear of being denied future access to the president. (Er, maybe that explains why he didn’t want to talk to them.)
“Will there be an opportunity for Australian political journalists to freely question George Bush tomorrow? While our parliament has “questions without notice,” the US relies on journalists to ask those questions. But no administration has had as few press conferences, and US journalists who have “access” play ball with the president so their “access” is not denied. While the president is in Australia he must play by our rules or clear off. If free access is denied, this must be the biggest story tomorrow, surely. If there is free access, I hope our journalists take the opportunity for some more robust questioning than “W” is used to.”
Many Australians were ticked off that Bush called their country a “sheriff” in the war on terror. An Australian columnist points out that perhaps Bush should have taken the time to talk with the Australian public, or the media, since he is clearly out of touch with their opinions:
“What’s the point of this Bush whistlestop? Bush is so ignorant of our circumstances that he thought it was a compliment to dub us sheriff of our region, yet while he’s here he won’t see real Australians, hear them or meet them. The trip is for our ‘representatives’ to swoon before him, our businesspeople to beg him for favours and our defence people to salute him. It’s a strange free world Bush leads …”