australian election

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    On to Australia
    September 23, 2004

    When Australians go to the polls next month, they will not only be choosing a parliament and government but also facing a test of how resolute they are in confronting terrorists. Prime Minister John Howard of the Liberal-National coalition has been one of the staunchest allies of U.S. President George W. Bush. He was one of the first national leaders, along with Britain's Tony Blair and Spain's José María Aznar, to send troops to fight alongside the Americans in Iraq.

    Mr. Howard's principal opponent, Labor's Mark Latham, has chosen to make an issue of Australia's participation in the alliance seeking to build a democratic Iraq. Following the lead of Spain's José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who defeated Mr. Aznar's party last spring after the terrible terrorist attack on commuter trains in Madrid, Mr. Latham promised to pull out of Iraq if his party is chosen to form a government.

    This promise, if the Spanish case is any guide, is practically an invitation to Jemaah Islamiyah, based in neighboring Indonesia, to commit another atrocity against Australians, this time on Australian soil. In the logic of terrorism, such an assault would be designed to frighten the Australians and swing the election to Mr. Latham, just as the Madrid attack apparently scared Spanish voters into choosing Mr. Zapatero.

    Mr. Latham, adopting a line similar to that of the Spanish socialists, has also been saying on the stump that Canberra's close association with the U.S. subtracts from relations "closer to home." He clearly figures that "the Yanks" are a juicy target.

    The Howard government deserves praise for consistently countering Mr. Latham's Yank baiting. In a speech just this week Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said that Australians need to understand "that in the context of not just traditional security threats but the kind of asymmetrical security threats we have today, particular the war against terrorism, our alliance with the United States is fundamental to our security and we will gain nothing as a country out of downgrading that alliance relationship for the sake of politics."

    In response to such direct rebuttals, Mr. Latham has had to hedge his bets. In a July attempt to show greater resolve, he appointed as his defense spokesman Kim "Bomber" Beazley, a defense minister between 1984 and 1990 who has a reputation as being solidly pro-American. The pledge to withdraw the troops from Iraq has also been modified. Some of the 850 Aussie soldiers now in and around Iraq may be "home for Christmas" in the event of a Labor win, but many may remain for such duties as embassy guarding.

    This is different from the absolutist position that Mr. Zapatero took in Spain when he withdrew all his troops from Iraq after unexpectedly winning power in March. There may be another major difference: Unlike in Spain, where the terrorist attack days before the elections caused chaos and a surge for the opposition, Australians have already experienced terrorist attacks -- in Bali in 2002 where many Australian tourists were victims, and against their embassy in Jakarta earlier this month. They have had time to absorb these shocks and haven't flinched.

    On Tuesday, Mr. Howard leveled with Australians, telling them another attack in Southeast Asia was "a near inevitability." But his response to this threat, he said, would be to spend billions on the war on terrorism, and to base counterterrorism teams throughout the region.

    A poll just out this week shows Mr. Howard leading his opponent by a wide margin head to head as Australians' first choice for PM, 47% to 37%, and his coalition beating Labor 43% to 41%. Ironically, the opposition gets a slight majority support after "preference votes" are counted under the nation's complicated system. But statistically, the race is dead even for the 150-seat house, where Mr. Howard has an eight-seat majority.

    If Australians decide to give Mr. Howard a fourth term in office they'll know pretty much what they're getting. The economy is growing at a 4.1% clip, the main stock index is at an all-time high, and the job market is so tight that some companies are having problems finding new hires. On the foreign policy front, Mr. Howard has also been clear. Australians may also have a sense that Mr. Latham, with his redistributionist promises, is proposing to lead Australia down the welfare state path that has brought countries like Germany so much grief.

    Now, it is, as it should be, up to Australians to decide.
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