Greg Barns: Australia is now a damaged and divided land

Howard has built his electoral success by appealing to a darker side of our character
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The Independent Online

These days, television footage of young children and pregnant women behind razor wire in detention centres is as familiar an image of Australia as its golden surf beaches.

This sullying of the "lucky country's" image has come about on the watch of the man who has been its Prime Minister for the past eight years - John Howard. Yet he looks likely to be returned to office at tomorrow's general election.

Mr Howard has been able to build his electoral success largely by appealing to a darker side of the Australian character in which narrowness, selfishness, and xenophobia prevail.

But the Australia Mr Howard inherited from the reformist Australian Labour Prime Minister, Paul Keating, in 1996, was creative, independent, and Asia-focused. Australia had driven the foundation in 1989 of the powerful free trade Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation group (Apec). A final cutting of the ties with the British monarchy was in reach, as was a formal acknowledgement of Aboriginal dispossession. There was a recognition that Australia's future lay in greater economic and cultural integration with Asia.

The Howard government has been content to let Apec languish without direction, and instead pursue a free trade agreement with the US, which is of questionable long-term value to Australia.

In dismantling the progressive agenda he inherited, Mr Howard has created bitter and lasting divisionamong Australians. But throughout, he has remained indifferent to world opinion. When the UN condemned Australia for its policy of mandatory detention of asylum-seekers, including young children and pregnant women, the Prime Minister was not in the least deterred. In the 2001 election campaign, he demonised asylum-seekers by alleging that they threw their children into the sea from a leaky boat. It has since emerged that the "children overboard" claim was a lie.

This is a prime minister who killed off Australia's chance to become a republic in 1999 by cynically setting up a vote on the issue, then campaigning against it. Two years earlier, he rejected well- founded claims for compensation by Aboriginal Australians whose children were "stolen" by the state and resettled in missions. And when 250,000 Sydneysiders marched across that city's Harbour Bridge in 2000 calling on their premier to make a formal apology on behalf of the Australian people, Howard refused.

Instead, he has focused on satisfying the economic aspirations of suburban voters, and reinforcing the conservative values of rural Australia. Lashings of money have been forthcoming to address the concerns of homeowners and the urban middle classes. Most crucially, the Howard administration has presided over a consistent reduction in interest rates.

But much of the economic success for which he takes credit has been built on record credit growth at home and China's demand for Australia's minerals. A downturn on either front could shake the lucky country's sense of prosperity.

Mr Howard's enthusiastic involvement in the Bush administration's foreign policy follies - particularly the war on Iraq - has not won any friends in the Asian region. Since 11 September 2001, Australians have been targeted by terrorists twice in Indonesia, our nearest neighbour and the world's largest Muslim nation. The October 2002 Bali bombing killed 88 Australians and a bomb last month ripped through the front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta.

Indonesia and other near neighbours such as Thailand and the Philippines have been outraged by Mr Howard's crass assertion that Australia is the US's "deputy sheriff" in the Asia-Pacific region. Nor have these countries taken kindly either to his decision in June to sign up for the "son of star wars" missile defence program, or his suggestion that Australia could launch a pre-emptive strike against a nearby country if its interests were at risk from terrorism.

And even if he wins tomorrow, there are some black clouds on Mr Howard's horizon. If his conservative soul-mate George Bush is defeated in the US presidential election next month, Mr Howard is unlikely to find himself such a welcome guest in John Kerry's White House. He also faces, in common with Tony Blair, an ambitious colleague in the Treasurer Peter Costello, (Gordon Brown's equivalent) who has waited patiently for Mr Howard to retire so he can take the reins of power in Canberra.

The opposition Labour Party, a spent force for most of the Howard years in power, is re-energised. Its enthusiastic young leader, Mark Latham, has made the prime minister look defensive and tired in this election campaign.

John Howard's premiership has damaged Australia internationally. For that, despite his undoubted political success, history should surely judge him harshly.

The writer was an adviser to the Australian government from 1996-99. He resigned from John Howard's Liberal Party in protest at government policy on refugees