John Howard, Australia’s three-term prime minister, tomorrow faces what promises to be one of the closest elections in his nation’s history. The polls of the past few weeks have shown Howard taking a slight lead for the first time since his opponent, Mark Latham, claimed leadership of the opposition Labor Party in December. In those ten months, Howard has tried steering the discussion toward the robust economy he’s overseen, while Latham campaigns on social programs like health care and education.
But the war in Iraq could prove the pivotal issue, with Howard the first of the Big-Three coalition leaders (the others being Bush and Blair) to face the electorate since combat began.
From the start, Howard has been one of George Bush’s closest allies in the war, sending 2,000 Australian troops to Iraq and publicly pushing Bush’s “weapons of mass destruction” and “links to Al Qaida” arguments for removing Saddam Hussein. (This despite widespread popular skepticism on those scores.) As former senior intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie told MotherJones.com in August:
“Howard was in the U.S. on Sept. 11, and I think that’s one reason why he feels so much a part of this. But his personal ideology is strongly inclined that way, much more than even his Liberal Party’s ideological position. The Iraq war in Australia is very much John Howard’s war; it reflects his obsessive relationship with the Bush administration.”
The war was, of course, unpopular worldwide, and Australia was no exception. Polls showed anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of the population opposed the decision to send troops. When Bush traveled to Canberra last October to address Parliament, he drew — depending on the estimate — the largest protests in Australia’s history, or merely the largest since Australian troops were dying in Vietnam.
As in the U.S., opposition Down Under was further galvanized by revelations about pre-war intelligence failures, allegations that government politicized intelligence, and the absence of WMDs in Iraq. Wilkie resigned his intelligence post in protest on the eve of war because on the grounds that Howard “completely reengineered” the pro-war case by exaggerating intelligence. The Senate gave Howard a no-confidence vote after no weapons were found. The official government inquiry, the Philip Flood report, found that Howard went to war on the basis of “thin, ambiguous and incomplete” evidence. And this week’s release of the Duelfer report gave Latham a fresh opportunity to question the prime minister’s judgment:
“On the front of honesty and integrity in government he should today, at long last, ‘fess up to the fact, the fundamental truth, that there were no WMD in Iraq.
“You’ve got report after report, now you’ve got the inspectors in the United States saying that the stockpiles of weapons of destruction never existed. Surely an honest prime minster, someone big enough to handle the truth, would ‘fess up to his responsibility today and just say straight to Australians: ‘I made a mistake.'”
It’s not terribly surprising, then, that voters have questioned prime minister’s integrity. According to a recent poll of nearly 5,000 Australian voters, the three words most often used to describe Howard were “experienced,” “boring” and “liar.” By contrast, Latham was labeled “inexperienced,” “down-to-earth” and “visionary.”
On the Iraq front, Latham has promised to withdraw all remaining troops by Christmas. That’s obviously a concern to the Bush administration, as that deadline precedes the planned national elections in Iraq. With Howard in Washington for a June visit, Bush took the opportunity to rip into Latham’s promise:
“It would be a disastrous decision for the leader of a great country like Australia to say that ‘we’re pulling out.’
“It would embolden the enemy. It would dispirit those who love freedom in Iraq. It would say that the Australian government doesn’t see the hope of a free and democratic society leading to a peaceful world.”
Iraq aside, the alliance with the U.S. remains popular in Australia, and Howard has tried to paint Latham as hostile toward that alliance. The prime minister has played up Latham’s now-famous comment that Bush is “the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory,” and made hay of any Labor stance that can be spun as anti-U.S. (such as when Latham objected to certain farm subsidies in the free-trade agreement). The government has also made campaign issues of Latham’s admittedly hot-tempered past (he once broke a cabdriver’s arm in a fight over a fare) and Latham’s status as a relatively unknown commodity to many voters.
Like Bush, Howard polls well among voters on national security issues, despite the war and a series of terrorist attacks targeting Australians – including the October 2002 Bali nightclub bombing and last month’s attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta. As Hugh White of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute put it:
“There’s a sort of national schizophrenia. Intellectually, people acknowledge Australia is at greater risk of terrorist attacks than ever before. Yet Australia remains, perhaps unwisely, much more relaxed and easygoing about it. It’s just not as visceral an issue here as in the U.S.”
Howard obviously hopes voters are more concerned with the economy, where he has a strong track record. Job numbers released this week showed a drop in unemployment, the Australian dollar has gained significant strength in the past year, and Howard successfully steered his country through the 1990s Asian financial crisis.
If enough voters are willing to overlook Howard’s foreign policy, Wilkie said, “that will of course be very worrying, because it will almost legitimize what they did.” As Derek Mitchell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told AFP:
“Even if Iraq is not the deciding issue in the Australian elections, it could be perceived as such, and there could be tremors (if Howard loses).
“It clearly would give heart to Democrats in the United States – first of all they can make the case that our allies in the ‘coalition of the willing’ are losing in the elections, which demonstrates an essential mistrust of their following of the United States. I am sure if that theme takes hold, if Kerry thinks it is a winning theme, he will pick up the issue of Blair and use Howard as another data point.”
Australian voters make their choice Saturday, while Howard hopes his relationship with George Bush doesn’t prove his political undoing.