Victory for the Man of Steel
By TOM SWITZER
October 11, 2004
Shortly after the Spanish election in March, the Economist published the photos of four leaders of the Coalition of the Willing – Tony Blair, John Howard, George W. Bush and Jose Maria Aznar. Under the headline “One down, three to go?,” the Spanish prime minister’s face was crossed out. And the magazine reflected the emerging conventional wisdom when it pondered “the real possibility that all three could follow Mr. Aznar’s party into defeat.” For that reason, this year’s Australian election received much more international attention than is usual.
On Saturday, the people down under did not follow the Economist’s script. Not only has the staunchly pro-American and pro-war prime minister been re-elected for a historic fourth term, but Mr. Howard’s governing Liberal-National coalition is set to gain seats in the House of Representatives as well as come close to capturing the Senate for the first time in over 20 years. Not bad for a government that was supposed to suffer a political backlash over Iraq.
To be sure, the election was not primarily a referendum on the war; it was fought on classic bread-and-butter domestic issues like economic management and health care. Still, the broader national-security issue was always lurking in the background. And to the extent that Iraq was a political issue, it hurt – not helped – Mr. Howard’s Labor Party opponent Mark Latham. How so?
Well, for starters, Mr. Latham became opposition leader after he made a national name for himself by savagely (and crudely) ridiculing Mr. Bush and Mr. Howard on Iraq. In the process, he won the hearts and minds of most of the nation’s media and intellectual sophisticates who complain about Mr. Howard’s close ties with President Bush and his “neocon” sidekicks. In the lead-up to the war, Mr. Latham described Mr. Bush as “flaky,” “incompetent” and “dangerous,” while dismissing Mr. Howard as the U.S. president’s lap dog and conservative parliamentarians as “a conga line of suckholes” doing the Texan cowboy’s bidding on Iraq. Of course, legitimate criticisms of the Iraq venture were welcome, and Australians like a larrikin, but apparently most do not want a Michael Moore impersonator to be the nation’s commander in chief.
Apart from the vulgarity, there was an important policy issue. While a solid majority of Australians opposed the invasion of Iraq, they also opposed Mr. Latham’s plan to withdraw Australia’s 850 soldiers by Christmas. The Labor leader was forced to hedge his bets and play down his original pledge. But the gaffe, made almost off the cuff on talk-back radio shortly after the Madrid bombing, did not play well with middle Australia. The accepted wisdom even among many opponents of the invasion was that an immediate pullout would not only have amounted to cutting and running on the eve of Iraq’s scheduled elections; it would also have been tantamount to undermining Canberra’s great and powerful friend in Washington’s hour of need.
Add to this the fact that a reluctant Mr. Latham virtually had to be coerced into offering support for the U.S.-Australia free-trade deal, and his cozy relationship with the Greens – a far-left party whose leader Bob Brown made international headlines a year ago when he rudely interrupted the American president’s speech to the Australian parliament – and it’s easy to see why national security was an electoral liability for Labor. The U.S.-Australian alliance has been Canberra’s most important diplomatic relationship since World War II, and many Australians clearly feel it is simply too important to entrust a maverick with the security of the nation. No wonder the outspoken Labor leader zipped his lips and scarcely mentioned Iraq during the six-week campaign.
But it wasn’t just that Mr. Latham’s controversial defense statements concerned the electorate. His defeat also reflects the fact that Australians are a conservative lot, wary of change and positively hostile to disruptive change, especially when the good times are rolling. Everything that should be up – incomes, economic growth, the stock market, the budget surplus, consumer and business confidence and the standard of living – is up, while everything that should be down – unemployment, inflation, interest rates – is down. Why then would the people rock the boat by electing an untested and untried commodity? The point bears underlining when you consider that Australians have changed governing parties only four times in the 22 elections since 1949. (In America, by contrast, the political party controlling the White House has changed seven times in the 13 elections during the same period.)
Then there were doubts about Mr. Latham’s governing agenda. His interventionist industrial-relations agenda was a throwback to the bad old days of Australian socialism. His party’s record of high interest rates scared the many Australians who are mortgaged to the hilt. His cozy relationship with the Greens came at the expense of Labor’s historic blue-collar constituency, and this betrayal culminated in Labor’s losing valuable support among its timber workers on the issue of logging old-growth forests in Tasmania. All of this raised serious doubts about the inexperienced 43-year-old Labor leader’s ability to handle the job.
By contrast, the 65-year-old Mr. Howard – Australia’s prime minister for eight and a half years, a 30-year parliamentary veteran and one of the great conservative leaders of the modern era – is trusted to get the job done. He may not be the most charismatic politician in the Antipodes. But critically he is regarded as a safe pair of hands running a competent government and a booming economy that has weathered both the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98 and the U.S. recession in 2000-01. True, despite his vaunted commitment to small government, Mr. Howard is hardly the second coming of Adam Smith. During the election campaign, he threw money at tightly targeted voters with abandon and cynicism. While leading a party that values self-reliance, he showered approximately $45 billion on people whether they needed it or not. For young apprentices, he promised to buy tool kits. For pensioners, he promised to pay power bills. But the point here is that this long-time supporter of economic reform is cut from an entirely different cloth than his opponents.
And when it came to homeland security, Mr. Howard was considered more capable of dealing with terrorist threats than the inexperienced challenger. When bombs are going off in the backyard – Bali in 2002; an attack on Australia’s embassy in Jakarta last month – the very last thing the nation needs is what Mr. Latham’s mentor and former Labor prime minister Paul Keating once promised to give the people: “a touch of excitement.”
Mr. Howard’s fourth consecutive election means that the man widely disparaged as “Little Johnny” will soon surpass Bob Hawke (1983-91) as the nation’s second longest serving leader and will earn a place at the right hand of his political hero Sir Robert Menzies (1939-41, 1949-66) in the pantheon of Australian prime ministers. Not bad for a man who has had to weather a hysterical campaign of abuse for committing Australian troops to the liberation of Iraq. George W. Bush, who has described Mr. Howard as a “man of steel” and a “close personal friend,” should be delighted.
Mr. Switzer is opinion page editor of the Australian in Sydney.