Australians turn on government over US alliance

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Relatives had barely begun mourning the victims of the Bali bombings when the Australian government found itself faced with growing criticism.

Relatives had barely begun mourning the victims of the Bali bombings when the Australian government found itself faced with growing criticism.

Newspaper letter-writers and pundits were quick to draw attention to Australia's alliance with the United States in the war on terrorism and the campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, citing this as provocation for the attacks. Doubts were cast on the ability of John Howard, the Prime Minister, to guide the nation through its worst peacetime calamity. Next in the line of fire were the intelligence services, which appear to have deliberately buried warnings of a possible terrorist attack on Bali.

Such debate, part and parcel of Australian political life, seems refreshingly frank and a little disorientating when compared with the reaction in the United States after the September 11 attacks.

In America, criticism of President George Bush evaporated overnight. Anyone attempting to link US foreign policy in the Middle East and elsewhere with the atrocities at the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon was immediately branded a pariah by mainstream society. One congresswoman who questioned the competence of the government and intelligence services was vilified as a paranoid, crypto-Marxist "pinata of inanity".

Though some of these issues have finally surfaced in American political debate, the prevailing view remains: this was a national tragedy – if you don't have anything positive to say, don't say it at all.

No such self-censorship exists in Australia, even while the country mourns the dozens feared dead in the car bombing of the Sari club in Kuta Beach. A few days later, Bob Brown, a senator from the Australian Greens party, suggested that the government adopt a stance more critical of US threats to invade Iraq. Mr Howard found himself caught in an imbroglio as he was forced to admit that potentially crucial information had not been passed on by the intelligence services. Relatives of victims waiting to identify loved ones have accused the Australian government of incompetence and a lack of resolve.

Geoff Kitney, political editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, wrote in an editorial: "A new style of leadership is called for. More than at any time since the Second World War, Australia needs a uniter."

The startling difference in style between the US and Australia is partly explained by the difference in magnitude between the two events. The 11 September attacks were carried out on American soil in shockingly audacious style. The Bali bombings happened in a foreign country, following a method of guerrilla warfare that the world has seen many times before.

But differing political cultures have clearly played an important part in determining the reactions of each country to terrorist attacks on its citizens. Australia's political system is parliamentary, based on the Westminster model; adversarial sparring is in its very marrow. The US presidency, on the other hand, has always been regarded as virtually untouchable in times of crisis.