- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

The incumbent unapologetically defends his decision to send troops to Iraq. The challenger denounces the Iraq campaign as a distraction from the real war on terrorism and promises to start bringing the troops home.

Meanwhile, a closely divided electorate has pollsters uncertain of the outcome.

An American voter would feel right at home Down Under these days.

With some eerily similar parallels, Australia’s Oct. 9 parliamentary elections are proving a dress rehearsal for the U.S. presidential vote to be held 24 days later. Both Republican and Democratic strategists will be watching the vote closely for signs on how Iraq, terrorism and national security play as issues in a country that is one of Washington’s closest democratic allies.

The Liberal/National coalition headed by conservative Prime Minister John Howard, an ardent supporter of the U.S.-led war to oust Saddam Hussein, will be seeking a record fourth term in next week’s vote.

Heading the center-left opposition is Labor Party leader Mark Latham, who has tangled with Bush administration officials over his promise to bring troops in the Persian Gulf region home by Christmas.

The Australian candidates even sound like their American counterparts.

“Whether popular or not, I will never hesitate to do whatever is right and necessary to protect Australia and the Australian people against the threat of terrorism,” Mr. Howard told supporters in Brisbane this week.

In the only face-to-face debate of the campaign, the prime minister charged Sept. 12 that Mr. Latham’s pledge to bring the more than 800 troops home would “send a message that one of the original coalition [nations] has weakened and buckled.”

“He cannot escape the heavy burden of that reality.”

Mr. Latham, who at 43 is 22 years younger than the incumbent, strikes many of the same themes adopted by Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry, denouncing what he terms the government’s “foolhardy, risky and dangerous foreign policy.”

“I’ve no doubt that if all of the time, the effort, the money [and] the resources that went into Iraq had been used to break up al Qaeda and to find Osama bin Laden, the world today would be a safer place,” Mr. Latham said in the last month’s debate.

Hugh White, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said: “Mark Latham is trying to make John Howard look hairy-chested and a bit like George Bush, and John Howard’s trying to make Mark Latham look a bit hesitant and a bit wimpish.”

Dana Dillon, an Asian security specialist at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, predicted the Australian election would turn more on domestic concerns than on the war on terrorism.

“I don’t know if you can see this as a bellwether on the global war on terror,” Mr. Dillon said.

He noted that polls show Mr. Howard to be personally more popular with voters than Mr. Latham, but that economic and other domestic issues have given the opposition a real chance of unseating the prime minister, in office nearly nine years.

Mr. Howard’s tough stance on the U.S.-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq “is one of the reasons he is personally so popular,” said Mr. Dillon. “Australians have been attacked by terrorism in a very direct way, and they see the terrorists as aiming directly at them, not just the United States.”

Australian front

Australia became a front in the global war on terrorism when a radical Islamic group bombed a Bali, Indonesia, nightclub in October 2002. Eighty-eight Australians were among the 202 persons killed in the attack.

This year, a suicide attack outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta on Sept. 9 killed nine persons and wounded more than 180.

But no Australian troops have been killed in the Iraq campaign, and public opinion polls offer contradictory signals on whether Canberra’s participation there helps or hurts the government.

The Morgan Poll, which tracks popular Australian attitudes, found that 51 percent of those surveyed a week after the latest Indonesian attack believed Australia should be out of Iraq, compared with 46 percent in favor of participation and 3 percent undecided.

But the poll also found that, with Australia already committed to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, 53 percent of voters said the country should stay there until the job is done, 42 percent disagreed and 5 percent were undecided.

Even the U.S. debate over pre-emptive attacks on countries that abet terrorists has found an echo in Mr. Howard’s pledge during the campaign to carry out pre-emptive strikes in neighboring countries if presented with proof that an attack was imminent.

The comment — a restatement of what Mr. Howard has long espoused — brought nervous and irritated reactions from Australia’s Southeast Asian neighbors and sharp condemnation from Mr. Latham.

A Labor government “won’t be launching unilateral strikes on other countries, on their sovereign territory without telling them,” Mr. Latham told Australian radio last week.

Adding to the international scrutiny of the Australian vote was the unexpected defeat in March of the party of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, another staunch U.S. ally in Iraq. Mr. Aznar’s loss came days after terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Madrid killed nearly 200, and those attacks prompted heightened security measures in Australia.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to call an election by next spring, meaning that three of the most prominent leaders of the Iraq war will face voters in the coming months.

Cost of a loss

Some already say that a Howard loss would be a blow for U.S. foreign policy comparable to the ouster of the Aznar government in Spain.

The new socialist government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero quickly withdrew Spain’s troops from Iraq and moved to repair relations with France and Germany, two of the most vocal opponents of the war in Iraq.

The Asian Wall Street Journal criticized Mr. Latham in a recent editorial, saying his pledge to pull out of Iraq would only embolden Islamist terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiya, the Indonesian group believed to be behind the Bali and Jakarta bombings.

“This promise — if the Spanish case is any guide — is practically an invitation to Jemaah Islamiya … to commit another atrocity against Australians, this time on Australian soil,” the paper said. “The Howard government deserves praise for consistently countering Mr. Latham’s Yank-baiting.”

Labor foreign policy spokesmen protest that the party is committed to the U.S. alliance and the global war on terrorism. They argue that Iraq has diverted resources from the fight against terrorism, and that Australia should focus on regional instability in Southeast Asia.

“We don’t believe our permanent interests lie on the other side of the world,” Mr. Latham has said.

Perhaps with the Spanish example in mind, the Bush administration has taken an unusually outspoken tack ahead of the vote in Australia.

U.S. intervention

President Bush, meeting with Mr. Howard at the White House in June, said it would be “disastrous” if Australian troops pulled out of Iraq. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell added: “I don’t think that’s the Australia that I have known and respected for so many decades.”

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, in an interview with the Australian, the country’s leading newspaper, infuriated Latham supporters by saying the Labor Party’s platform calling for better strategic and cultural relations with Washington would not work if bilateral economic and political relations suffer.

“Now, you either have a full-up relationship or you don’t,” said Mr. Armitage, who added that he believed Mr. Latham’s own party was divided over the Iraq policy.

Asked later why he did not include the standard diplomatic disclaimer against commenting on an ally’s domestic political debate, Mr. Armitage replied: “I just ran out of time, I guess.”

The Howard government immediately seized on the Armitage comments, accusing the Labor Party of “crocodile tears” over the remarks.

But U.S. policy also has posed headaches for the Howard government, often unintentionally.

When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Congress last week that U.S. troops may begin leaving Iraq before the country is completely “peaceful and perfect,” it left Mr. Howard vulnerable to opposition attacks.

Mr. Rumsfeld’s comment “just exposed the contradiction of what the Howard government got us into,” said Mr. Latham. “Labor opposed the war in the first place and our strategy for the future now is very clear.”

Terrorism and security are not the only issues in play.

Economic advantage

Mr. Howard’s government benefits from one of the strongest economies in Australia’s history, and Mr. Latham and Labor have had to fight voter fears that an opposition win could spark labor unrest, declining investor confidence and — worst of all — higher interest rates.

With homeownership and housing values a critical concern of middle-class Australian voters, the fear of higher mortgage rates is proving a potent political weapon.

In his campaign kickoff this week in Brisbane, Mr. Howard focused heavily on doubts that the center-left opposition could sustain the country’s recent economic growth.

“Without a strong economy, you cannot deliver security and certainty to Australian families so that they can live their lives in peace and plan carefully for their future,” he told supporters.

Mr. Howard promised voters a $4 billion package of tax cuts and new spending programs, provoking Labor spokesman Wayne Swan to accuse the prime minister of “spending like a drunken sailor” in an effort to win votes.

At the polls

Mr. Howard portrays himself as a steady, experienced hand at the tiller, but the youthful Mr. Latham boosted his chances with a strong debate performance. A snap audience poll of undecided voters suggested Mr. Latham clearly outpointed Mr. Howard in the hourlong session, which covered foreign affairs, immigration policy and the economy, among other topics.

Polls paint a contradictory picture.

Several recent surveys have Labor inching ahead by up to five percentage points, but an A.C. Nielsen poll this week put the government coalition out front by 14 percentage points.

One poll issued Monday found Labor with 52 percent to 48 percent for Mr. Howard’s coalition, but also found that Mr. Howard outpolled Mr. Latham by a 48 percent to 35 percent margin.

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