- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

SYDNEY, Australia — The Bush administration has gotten a boost from an improving employment picture in Australia, which was being credited by analysts yesterday for a solid weekend re-election victory by Prime Minister John Howard, a staunch ally on Iraq.

President Bush took time out from campaigning yesterday to call Mr. Howard with congratulations on his victory over Labor party leader Mark Latham, who had pledged to bring his country’s roughly 850 troops home from the Iraq theater by Christmas.

“Australia is a great ally in the war on terror, and John Howard is the right man to lead that country,” Mr. Bush said later at a campaign stop in St. Louis.

But analysts said Iraq was less of a factor in Mr. Howard’s convincing victory — which gave him a slightly strengthened coalition in Parliament — than the robust state of the economy.

The prime minister’s campaign for a fourth straight term got a lift from a recent announcement that 63,500 new jobs had been created, the biggest increase in nearly two years.

And with low unemployment and interest rates at a low 5.25 percent, voters saw little reason to turn to the relatively inexperienced Mr. Latham.

“Middle-class Australians have doubled and even tripled their mortgages in the last few years, and with current low interest rates, low unemployment, these voters are not interested in looking much beyond their own back yards,” said Paul Williams, professor of politics at Griffith University in Queensland.

Even so, analysts say that in the coming months, Mr. Howard is likely to shift his attention in defense matters from the Middle East to threats closer to home.

“The government is moving to the view that, for Australia, the front line of the war on terror is in this region of Southeast Asia and around us, not the Middle East,” said Hugh White, the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra.

“I think Howard’s objectives will be to maintain the commitment on Iraq, but not be drawn into any sort of increased contributions in that region, but in fact, to manage it down — although that’s not likely to be easy as he does not want to be seen as abandoning the U.S. in Iraq,” Mr. White said.

During the campaign, Mr. Howard proposed a $15 million spy-training center that would train Australians and their neighbors.

The Center for Counter Terrorism Cooperation and Joint Intelligence Training will oversee the deployment of Australian spies in the region and host foreign intelligence agents.

Mr. Howard earlier conceded that Canberra’s commitment to the war on terror makes Australia vulnerable to terrorist attacks, and he pledged to boost national security. Australians have already been targeted overseas — 88 were killed in a 2002 bombing in Bali, Indonesia, and a car bomb killed nine Indonesians this year outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.

“Timely and credible intelligence is the best defense against terror and effective cooperation with our regional neighbors in intelligence sharing is critical to our national security,” Mr. Howard has said.

Mr. White said the plan will have to be managed with great finesse.

“To be sure, cooperation with our neighbors on the ground makes a lot of sense, but when you are bound to involve countries like Indonesia and the Philippines in your spy ring, then you have to use the utmost diplomacy and very careful negotiations.”

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