Search Friday July 2, 2004

Australia: All politics is local
By Philip Bowring (IHT)
Thursday, July 1, 2004

SYDNEY: In 1966, Australia's right-wing parties won an electoral landslide in support of America's war in Vietnam. Prime Minister Harold Holt went "all the way with LBJ." Six years later, the left-leaning Labor Party swept to power, bringing radical changes to Australia's social and immigration policies and a shift of emphasis away from the alliance with America and toward engagement with Asia.

Could a 2004 election, which may happen as soon as August be decided by attitudes toward the United States and the Iraq war?

Or will this be a race that confirms that contemporary politics, however raucous, revolves around a narrow set of economic and foreign policy options?

Both sides would like a campaign that presents greater differences between the parties than are the case. Taking his cue from 1966, Prime Minister John Howard is making every effort to portray Labor, and its opposition to the war in Iraq, as likely to threaten Australia's alliance with the the United States.

Howard is playing up the importance of the U.S. alliance by emphasizing terror threats and promoting the merits of a free-trade pact with Washington, which is widely seen as having more political content than economic benefits. The prime minister's fidelity to President George W. Bush and his criticism of Labor have even received some undiplomatic accolades from the U.S. ambassador in Canberra.

Labor is sensitive to the jibe of being anti-American. There are few votes there. But there is plenty of criticism of Bush and the Iraq war, so Labor may well be a net gainer. Howard is aware of this, too. Support for the Iraq occupation is largely rhetorical. Australia's low-profile troop contingent is just 450-strong which limits the danger of body bags upsetting the voters.

Howard has also wrapped himself in the national flag, campaigning for it to be flown at all schools. That has puzzled many who see flag-worship as more in the U.S. than the British tradition. But it may counterbalance Howard's firm monarchist, anti-republican views, which offend much nationalist sentiment.

As for Labor, its new leader, Mark Latham, is espousing a "new politics" revolving around such issues as overweight schoolchildren. In reality the platform is more old politics such as of promises on health care and populist bank-bashing. Latham is young and dynamic. but appears to lack both the radical ideas and gravitas that marked Gough Whitlam, Labor's victor in 1972.

The result is likely to be very close. Polls have generally shown the right's coalition ahead in the primary vote but Labor winning overall with preference votes of the third parties - especially the antiwar Greens, who have replaced the Democrats as the "third force" in Australian politics.

A change in power is unlikely to make much difference to domestic policies but would be well received in much of east Asia, which resents what it sees as Australia's patronizing manner and too-close ties to Bush.

But two issues that will affect Australia more than any of the above - even the U.S. relationship - are unlikely to be on the campaign agenda. The first is the weather. The biggest challenge of the next decade may be how to reconfigure social expectations and policy to cope with climate change, which is making the driest continent even drier. That may also involve fundamental changes in the state-federal relationships, and hence the way Australia is run.

The second is the current account deficit, which has been averaging over 4 percent of gross domestic product for many years and hit 6 percent in the first quarter of 2004 despite a surge in commodity export prices. As in the United States, foreign money has been financing much of the GDP growth, and a real estate boom.

So many of the nation's mines, factories, power stations and commercial buildings have now been sold that it is worth asking how much longer the process can continue. It is certainly a far cry from 1972, a time when Australia had a large external surplus, when "buying back the farm" was part of Labor's agenda.

But after a dozen years of prosperity and successful navigation of the Asian and other crises, such big issues seem remote. The election will be decided on taxes, health care, personalities - and perceptions of Australian identity.