AUSTRALIA’S Tory prime minister, John Howard, is one of George W Bush’s staunchest backers.
He slavishly followed Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and recently signed a free trade agreement with the US to further cement the “special relationship” between the two countries.
Despite its relatively small population of 20 million, Australia’s economic and military clout makes it an important junior partner to US imperialism in the Asia-Pacific region.
Its close relationship with Washington allows the Australian armed forces to acquire the latest military technology, and maintain a decisive edge over neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
For its part, Australia is expected to keep order in an unstable region. In recent years Howard has deployed troops to troublespots like East Timor and the Solomon Islands, earning him the tag of the US’s “deputy sheriff” in south east Asia.
The 2001 Australian general election took place in the shadow of the World Trade Centre attacks and the war on Afghanistan. Howard was able to win another term by presenting himself as a strong leader.
But three years on, his “national security” credentials have worn very thin.
Mass movements against the Iraq war and the incarceration of asylum seekers have led to a big shift in public attitudes.
A clear majority believes the war in Iraq was not worth it.
As a result, the election campaign opened with Howard looking very weak.
He had one important asset to fall back on—the economy.
The Australian economy has been growing for 13 years straight. Everyone knows this can’t last forever. The boom is built on a housing bubble, massive consumer debt and increased working hours.
But in the short term Howard and his government are happy to claim the strong economy is a result of their good economic management.
Most importantly for Howard, shifting the focus to the economy wrongfooted the opposition Labour Party, which had been ahead in opinion polls for months.
Labour opposed the Iraq war and has promised to withdraw Australia’s small contingent of combat troops if it is elected.
However, once the election was called Labour dropped all talk of Iraq and echoed Howard’s claim that the contest would be fought on domestic issues.
Polls show that the vast majority of people want increased government spending on vital public services like health and education.
Labour instead offered tax cuts to middle and upper income earners.
Unsurprisingly, Labour’s campaign has not inspired anyone. But the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta by an Indonesian terrorist group on 9 September meant the campaign shifted back to the “war on terror”.
A popular backlash—similar to what happened to the Aznar government in Spain after the Madrid train bombings earlier this year—cannot be ruled out.