SYDNEY — A United Nations resolution of the Iraq crisis cannot come too soon for Australia. Each day of delay gnaws at the easygoing tolerance that marks the Australian lifestyle.
Half a million protesters carried antiwar banners through the streets of major Australian cities last weekend. Talk-back radio is running hot with for-and-against outbursts from frustrated listeners. Proud soldiers are told to wear civilian clothes in the northern port city of Townsville. Little wonder the silent majority dread this apparent return to the vicious antiwar mob’s noise during the Vietnam War years.
Canberra remains solid with the United States and Britain in committing forces to the Persian Gulf. What divides this country is whether we should go all the way with U.S. President George W. Bush against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the event of the U.N.’s inability to resolve the Baghdad standoff.
Voter support for Prime Minister John Howard in his dogged support of Washington’s drive to disarm Hussein remains firm, although the latest Newspoll shows Howard’s personal approval rating has slipped to an eight-month low of 48 percent. While his popularity rating is strong enough to shrug that off, he must start to worry that only 18 percent of voters support the Australian military’s involvement against Iraq without a mandate from the U.N. Security Council. With the Security Council’s backing, 57 percent of Australians would approve our troops going into battle.
What little comfort Howard is getting from the Newspoll is that his chief opponent, Labor Party leader Simon Crean, is down to a 31 percent approval rating. Crean was heckled when he joined antiwar protesters marching in a Brisbane peace rally. His long-continuing miserable popularity can only lead eventually to his own party’s moving to dump him. A “lost cause” the newspapers are already dubbing him.
The unhappy Crean still has egg on his face from a contretemps he had with the U.S. ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer. The row hit the headlines when Crean said Schieffer should be “counseled” for criticizing Labor’s stance on Iraq. Labor’s former foreign affairs spokeswoman, Laurie Brereton, went further, urging that the ambassador be recalled home.
Recovering in the hospital from an operation, the luckless ambassador maintained his diplomatic cool. A delighted Howard chastised his political foes.
The irony is that, like Howard, Crean supports armed Australian involvement in Iraq with U.N. approval. His Labor Party, strong in pacifism, remains divided on the issue. That division was reflected among the street marchers. And the longer the U.N. dilly-dallying, the greater the Australian public’s confusion and the greater the possibility of overall support for armed intervention falling off.
Stand-firm Howard is not immune from any voter backlash during these divisive times. The Liberal-National Coalition he leads in Canberra is keeping its head down. The stay-quiet attitude comes from the knowledge that Australians are still smarting over the Bali bombing in October and the underground presence of Islamic terrorist cells in this country. What these cells will do in the event of an Iraq attack is exercising the full resources of Australia’s upgraded security force.
The public dismay as controversy mounts during the U.N. delays must test Howard’s well-known staying power. He shows no sign of wavering. That was clear following an alert by Israeli security forces that Hussein has plans to inflame Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network to attack Asia and Australia.
Panicky protesters such as Greens leader Sen. Bob Brown called on the prime minister to hold a national plebiscite. A dismissive Howard snapped: “Governments are elected to govern.”
Besides, he knows single-issue politics cannot persuade Australians for long. Three years ago the streets were filled with protesters noisily demanding more rights for Aborigines. An aloof Howard looked like an electoral dead duck. Came the next election and he romped back home. Comes the next election in 2004 and he’ll probably romp home again.
Domestic issues will determine the 2004 election and again Howard is looking good. The economy is doing so well that the New York ratings agency, Standard and Poors, has just raised Australia’s credit rating to triple-A. The only fly in the ointment is the worst national drought in 100 years. Grain crops are a write-off. Livestock, a major contributor to export income, are dropping like flies.
And Tokyo seems intent on worsening that bleak export outlook. Trade Minister Mark Vaile has returned with a warning that Tokyo will raise to 50 percent its tariffs against Australia’s $1.3 billion beef exports there in order to protect its hopelessly inefficient farmers.
Still, Canberra is too preoccupied with Iraq and the unpredictable North Korea to be too angry with Tokyo. Australian Embassy diplomats there have been apprising Tokyo of the reaction in Washington, London and Jakarta to Howard’s “peace mission.”
Australia’s standing has never been higher in Washington. Indeed, Howard basked in the fulsome praise Bush handed him in front of TV cameras. The warm glow continued in London where Prime Minister Tony Blair declared they were in “total agreement” on handling the Iraq crisis. This chumminess irked Blair’s Australian Labour Party colleagues who have had to bite their tongues over the British party’s Iraq stance.
Even the Indonesia leg of the Howard trip, the part made sensitive by the Bali bombing that killed 100 Australians, went off like clockwork. Talks with the entire Megawati Cabinet emphasized solidarity in fighting terrorism. One senior minister later announced that Jakarta will ensure that the Indonesian public understands that Western opposition to Hussein does not equate to Western sentiment against Islam. Australians are hoping the message gets through to the largest Muslim nation.
Tensions within the Australian community may yet play odd tricks in the current climate of domestic politics. Who would have thought a month ago that people would have been loudly debating whether defense personnel should be allowed to refuse to be vaccinated against anthrax?
It started when 11 sailors heading for the Persian Gulf were sent home for refusing the protective shots. Then 40 soldiers destined to stand with allied troops rejected the jab. All because of rumors of unwelcome side effects.
Next, 28 servicemen, fearing they might be rendered infertile by Iraqi chemical attacks, put samples of their semen into frozen storage. Another controversy, another fear.
Was there ever a war so hotly debated before the first shot was fired?
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.