- The Washington Times - Friday, October 19, 2001

SYDNEY, Australia This country, one of a handful to have pledged forces to the U.S.-led war on terrorism, is going into full-campaign mode.

With a national election coming up, it is the first major Western country to test its leadership since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. The Nov. 10 vote takes place amid an economic downturn sweeping much of the developed world.

But in this country of 19 million, the international turmoil has dramatically altered the domestic political scene, reviving the fortunes of an unpopular government.

Prime Minister John Howard, seeking a third term for his conservative coalition, has praised the U.S. air strikes against Afghanistan's Taliban.

"What is at stake here is a fight between those who believe in freedom, liberty and peace, and the right of men and women of good will, of all faiths, around the world to go about their lives free of terror and intimidation," Mr. Howard told reporters last week outside his campaign headquarters in Melbourne.

Australia so far has contributed a navy frigate, two aircraft and 150 elite Special Air Service commandos to the U.S.-led anti-terror effort.

Mr. Howard also appears to be counting on his hard-line stance toward Afghan and other refugees to win votes. "I emphasize how determined this government is to maintain not only the integrity of our immigration program but also the integrity of our border-protection system," he told at a campaign rally last weekend.

His strategy seemed to be working after the first week of campaigning, Agence France-Presse reported from Sydney. A Morgan poll last weekend, published Wednesday in the Bulletin magazine, showed Mr. Howard's Liberal-National coalition had jumped 10 percentage points clear of the opposition in terms of a two-party contest. The survey showed that support for Kim Beazley's Labor Party had dropped five percentage points to 45 percent.

However, AFP said, the poll was conducted before Sunday night's debate, in which Mr. Beazley, a former defense minister, scored a decisive win, forcing domestic issues like taxation and education to the fore.

The situation now seems much more fluid than it was just two months ago, when an unpopular value-added tax, rising unemployment and a string of company collapses, including that of the nation's second-biggest airline, Ansett, appeared to doom Mr. Howard's re-election hopes.

But the arrival by boat of thousands of refugees from Afghanistan and the Middle East, seeking political asylum from the Taliban and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, has changed the political landscape here.

The problem reached a crescendo on Aug. 27, when a Norwegian freighter rescued 433 Afghans from a sinking Indonesian vessel trying to make its way to Christmas Island, an Australian territory. The government ordered the ship to leave its waters. The captain refused, beginning a six-day standoff. Australia would not accept them, and Indonesia refused to take them back.

The New Zealand government eventually brokered a deal, accepting 140 refugees, with the rest going to the tiny South Pacific atoll of Nauru, a nation of 11,000 people. Australia's navy later intercepted another 230 refugees, mainly Palestinians and Iraqis, and took them to Nauru as well.

The navy has since picked up another 260 boat persons and is ferrying them to Nauru, prompting one of the Pacific nation's 12 parliamentarians to declare: "The Australians are turning Nauru into the Alcatraz of the Pacific."

The Australian public has seemingly embraced the government's hard-line tactics, linking illegal arrivals of Afghans to the terrorist attacks.

Talk radio, an influential form of entertainment, has crackled with conspiracy theories about "sleepers" among the refugees, who could be readying themselves for a covert strike against Australia.

At JT's Hair Salon, a popular meeting place in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta, "all the people want to talk about is the asylum seekers," said owner J.J. Jun. "Some people think they might be terrorists," he said. "They believe John Howard did the right thing and should not let them in.

"They used to talk about not having jobs, but now it's just about boat people, and maybe a war."

Defense Minister Peter Reith has implied that the refugees could be a threat. Illegal immigration "can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities," he declared.

It is a view that troubles refugee advocates such as professor William Maley of the Defense Force Academy in the capital Canberra, chairman of the Refugee Council of Australia. "There is a lot of false rhetoric about refugees getting places in a queue," he said. "Our offshore refugee program is far more like getting a ticket in a lottery."

In the border camps of Pakistan, he said, the United Nations often is forced to stop registering new refugees, whose numbers top 1.5 million. "The officials had to ask people to stop presenting themselves for interviews because they could not cope. There is no orderly queue out of Afghanistan," Mr. Maley said.

But such views seem to have little support in a nation shocked by terrorism and fearful that reprisals could provoke a flood of new refugees to its shores.

Mr. Beazley, the opposition Labor leader, is trying to dispel fears that boat arrivals could be terrorists in disguise, saying modern terrorists are well-dressed, carry convincingly forged passports and visas, and "usually travel by airplane in first class."

This week, Reuters reports, Mr. Beazley promised a two-prong policy to combat people-smuggling involving diplomatic missions to Asia, in particular Indonesia, as well as the creation of a coast guard.

The Labor leader pledged on Tuesday that if he became prime minister, he would send his foreign minister to Jakarta within 10 days to seek Indonesia's help in stemming the flow of boat people on Australia's remote northern coast.

"And I will make Jakarta my first overseas destination as prime minister," Mr. Beazley told reporters, according to Reuters.

A ministerial mission to Jakarta in September led by Alexander Downer, Australia's foreign minister, failed to stop hundreds of boat people arriving in recent weeks.

Mr. Beazley also is trying to turn the security issue in his favor by linking it with the fallout from the slowing economy, promising "security at home and abroad."

In the meantime, hostility to foreigners abounds.

Women in Muslim dress have been assaulted on Sydney streets. Last month in Brisbane, a bus carrying Muslim schoolchildren was stoned and a mosque was fire-bombed, in revenge attacks similar to those in the United States.

In a move with international implications, the government used the last days of the latest session of Parliament to pass laws barring people who are refused refugee status from appealing to the federal court. Human-rights groups argue that the legislation violates the rule of law by curbing judicial review of bureaucratic decisions.

Green Party Sen. Bob Brown says the new laws which also remove offshore Australian territories from the migration zone, preventing arrivals from claiming asylum there send a dangerous message to the world. "I believe there is a real danger of a copycat effect in other countries that face a much bigger refugee crisis than Australia," he said.

The Immigration Ministry has confirmed that Britain and Canada are monitoring the new laws as they consider similar measures.

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