Prime Minister John Howard's Liberals steamrolled over Labor to win an unprecedented fourth term in Saturday's Australian elections. With the help of the nationalist, anti-union Nationals Party and the relatively new socially conservative Family First Party, his coalition amassed over 52 percent of the vote. The Liberals took control of the Senate, the first time that a government has had both houses of Parliament since the Fraser administration, which ended in 1980. Labor supporters are already calling for new party leader Mark Latham to resign after his failure to gain any traction against Howard on the Liberals' handling of the economy, the environment, or Iraq.
It was an impressive achievement, but it received about as much ink in major U.S. newspapers as Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles. USA Today Monday buried a brief item on page 13A. The New York Times ran a pair of articles Sunday, on page 16 of the first section and buried in a week-in-review section further back in the paper. The first piece, by reporter Raymond Bonner, made the sketchy anecdotal case that this vote was mostly about the economy, not Howard's decision to go to war alongside the U.S. in Iraq and to continue to stick it out there with a small troop presence. In the second piece, Jane Perlez argued that the two candidates "differed primarily about who can hand out the most money to maintain the hedonistic lifestyle of many Australians" and then accused the nation of ethnic insensitivity toward its Asian neighbors.
Many bloggers and conservative media critics have pounced on a sentiment articulated by the L.A. Times write-up of the election (on A3, while we're playing the placement game): "Howard's defeat would have been a setback for President Bush, who counts on Australia as a key contributor to the international forces deployed in Iraq." John O'Sullivan charged in the New York Post that "Al Qaeda has received a serious setback, Kofi Annan a rebuke, France and Germany a disappointment -- and the media elites a slap in the face so stinging that outside Australia Howard's victory has been a non-story."
Well, maybe. I try to resist the urge to attribute poor foreign coverage by the American press to an ideological bias. Usually, it's more a combination of reportorial incompetence and proven uninterest on the part of their audience in things foreign. Marina Malenic had a really excellent piece in these cyber pages last week about attempts to get North Korea to give up its pursuit of nuclear weapons which drew precious little comment. This piece, I remind, involved one of the three spokes in President Bush's Axis of Evil, and had something to contribute to the debate over whether the U.S. will ever have to go to war on the Korean Peninsula, and crickets could be heard chirping over the collective non-response.
BUT SOMETIMES THE CRITICS have a point. In this case, you have a stunning win by a "center-right" party that has, in the terms of modern small 'l' liberal parlance, shrunk in office. Howard's Liberals have refused to sign the Kyoto climate treaty and sided with loggers against greens in a conflict over harvesting old growth timber in Tasmania. They have restricted immigration and taken a hard line on asylum seekers (as a result of the government's policies and campaign finance scandals, support for the Buchananite One Nation Party utterly collapsed). Parliament this year banned gay marriage. The new government is poised to cut taxes and ink a free trade agreement with New Zealand.
It's possible that all of that wasn't enough to warrant a lot of attention in the U.S. press, but the issue of Iraq should have tipped the scales. Ever since Spain's Popular Party government was ousted this March over its mishandling of the several al Qaeda-planted bombs that went off on commuter trains in Madrid, killing hundreds, there has been the lingering question of what caused the party's loss.
As people sifted through the results, they wondered: was the problem the government's bizarre initial insistence that the bombers were Basque separatists, or was there something deeper at work? Had the Spaniards decided to tell the U.S. that they had had enough of our foreign adventures, thanks, and, if so, was this sentiment likely to be widespread among our putative allies? As several other nations, including the Philippines, decided to take a bye, and as initial polling revealed that Australians increasingly don't buy America's rationale for having marched on Baghdad in the first place, things did not look good for Howard and, by extension, for Bush.
John Kerry's little sister, running an organization called Americans Overseas for Kerry, agitated against the Howard government. "Australia has kept faith with the U.S. and we are endangering the Australians now by this wanton disregard for international law and multilateral channels," she told the Australian. For his part, Labor leader Latham promised to punish the Bush administration's approach to world affairs by removing all of Australia's troops from Iraq.
Latham thought withdrawal would be a popular proposal but he miscalculated. It's not that most Australians are gung-ho about having gone to Iraq, but the literature of Australia's Family First Party captures a certain pragmatism about such things. Though the FFP believes that "all diplomatic avenues in Iraq had not been exhausted," and the U.S. should have tried harder to go down those roads, the party concedes that "now that Australia has committed to the rebuilding process in Iraq, Australia must meet its obligation both to protect other Australians working in Iraq and the Iraq people."
The unspoken word here is Bali. When a bomb ripped through a bar in the popular Indonesian tourist spot in October of 2002 -- killing nearly 100 Australians on holiday and injuring others -- the country was pulled into the growing conflict between what we call the West and fanatical mutations of Islam. I remember seeing a picture of would-be bathers and partiers on an Australian beach at the time, all standing, all facing toward their fallen countrymen for a few minutes of contemplation and silence. It was a powerful image. At the time, I wondered what kind of impact this would have on a nation and a people. I don't think it's reaching to say that in the elections this weekend, the world received a partial answer.
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