The lessons of Australia for Bush and Blair

Iraq lies at the heart of the debate about our future in a way that is not true in Australia
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The Independent Online

It's little wonder that the first foreign dignitaries to ring John Howard to congratulate him on his electoral victory in Australia last weekend were President George Bush and Tony Blair. After a prolonged period of tight polls in which it seemed likely that all the warmongers of Iraq - Aznar, Bush, Howard, Blair and even Berlusconi - would be booted out of office over this year and next, the mood among the political commentators has changed. The consensus now has shifted to the view that all of them, with the exception of Aznar (who would have probably won had it not been for his handling of the Madrid bomb), will retain office, starting with "little Johnnie Howard".

It's little wonder that the first foreign dignitaries to ring John Howard to congratulate him on his electoral victory in Australia last weekend were President George Bush and Tony Blair. After a prolonged period of tight polls in which it seemed likely that all the warmongers of Iraq - Aznar, Bush, Howard, Blair and even Berlusconi - would be booted out of office over this year and next, the mood among the political commentators has changed. The consensus now has shifted to the view that all of them, with the exception of Aznar (who would have probably won had it not been for his handling of the Madrid bomb), will retain office, starting with "little Johnnie Howard".

It's a grim thought, not least for the Australians, for whom Howard was cocky enough in his last three terms, never mind adding a fourth which he had promised he would never seek. But there are special factors, and before liberal opinion gets too disheartened, it is worth remembering them.

In the first place Iraq was not a major issue in the Australian election, despite the fact that the country saw some of the biggest anti-war demonstrations in the world and the public opinion polls still show a substantial proportion of the population opposing it. Having gone too far in promising to bring the troops back by Christmas, Howard's Labor challenger, Mark Latham, decided to back off the subject for fear of looking as if he wanted to cut and run, a vow of silence that the government was all too happy to go along with considering its own problems in justifying its reasons for going to war.

The election thus turned heavily on the economy, where the public trust in the opposition was lacking. To that extent, the nearest parallel to this election was the British election in 1992 when the voter, faced with a choice of either the sitting John Major or the new Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, decided virtually at the last minute that it simply didn't have the trust in the latter to throw out the former (the UK voter may have lived to regret that decision after Black Wednesday, but that is a different story). Latham is young, thrusting and aggressive, but there is also something unpredictable about him that seems to have unnerved the swing voters of a country which has enjoyed some 13 years of uninterrupted economic growth.

The question is whether the same factors will play in next month's US presidentials and the British general election, expected in May. America is in some ways the reverse of Australia. In the US the opinion polls show the Democrat contender, John Kerry, actually ahead on the issues of the economy. Hence the way the debate has tended to concentrate, until the Arizona confrontation last night directed specifically to domestic issues, on Iraq, with Kerry trying to play up the President's lack of judgement in what has happened and Bush trying to show up his opponent's lack of consistency and authority in coming out against it.

The parallels with Australia are much closer in Britain, where Tony Blair, or rather Gordon Brown, has a much better standing on economic issues than the leaders of either the Tory or the Liberal Democrat parties.

Listening to Tony Blair's speech at the Labour conference, and to him speaking on other recent occasions, one can sense how desperately he wants to be in the John Howard position, running a campaign where the Iraqi issue is kept on the margins, a subject which can be used to embarrass the leader of the opposition as much as the Prime Minister and therefore to be played down.

Judging by Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday, Tony Blair won't be so lucky. Iraq lies at the heart of the debate about our future in Europe and the wider world, our relationship with America and with our own minorities in a way that is simply not true of Australia.

The greatest fear of Blair's advisers is that his supporters will, come the election, sit on their hands because of Iraq. Howard had the luxury of a compulsory system that forces even the most disenchanted to come out and vote. Blair has to convince the public to renew their faith in him, hence his obsession with proposing "big ideas" for the next election. Howard had merely to convince them not to go to the other side.

But in one sense all these warlords are similar. In their view of the world, and the part their countries should take in it, all are backward looking. George Bush seeks a Manichaean world in which the US can act as umpire and its Christian virtues triumph, just as it did in the Cold War, although the world is moving clearly to a multi-polar future which rejects that vision.

John Howard seeks a place for a white interventionist Australia that keeps itself culturally inviolate at home and militarily aggressive abroad, although Australia is clearly a country of limited weight more and more dependent on China for its future.

Tony Blair dreams of reviving Britain's position as world player acting as an independent bridge between America and Europe, although neither side is any longer ready to support its role.

Australia has chosen to vote looking backwards. But that is no reason why America or Britain will, or should.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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