CANBERRA OBSERVED: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
After Iraq: the challenge facing John Howard
, March 22, 2003
The usual doomsayers and critics of the Howard Government who say the Prime Minister's political thinking is dominated by George Bush are both wrong and right at the same time.
If John Howard is thinking about an American leader at all as a kind of guiding message to frame the rest of his third term, then the ageing George Bush Senior is the man.
Observers will remember that President Bush won the war (the first Gulf War), but lost the following election to Bill Clinton, and in the process created nearly a decade of Democrat domination of the White House.
The Bush defeat was one of the most salutary lessons of modern day politics, and cemented the old idea that no matter how well a political leader performs on the international stage, it is grassroots politics that matters most.Distracted
In recent Australian politics, our Prime Ministers have also paid a price for taking their eyes off the main game as they eyed northern skies. Certainly, Gough Whitlam was the most outstanding example of a PM who appeared often to be consumed by Australia's role in the international arena while ignoring mounting problems at home.
Whitlam loved travel, but the European tour in late 1974 was his "piece de résistance".
Whitlam had to interrupt a grand European tour across several countries when Cyclone Tracey hit on Christmas Eve.
Of course, he rushed home to inspect the devastation of Darwin in ruins, only to hop back on the plane soon afterwards to resume the tour of more attractive ancient Greek ruins.
It was one of the major public relations disasters of Whitlam's brief term of office - and when you think of some of the others, that is really saying something.
Malcolm Fraser's seeming obsession with black Africa's quest for democracy also got him into strife and the attempted boycotting of the Moscow Olympics in 1980 was a stand of doubtful benefit, but which cost the careers of many young athletes.
Ironically, Fraser's protest then was over the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
More recently, Paul Keating's hubris over the secret treaty with Indonesia in the dying days of his Prime Ministership was astonishing. It was meant to be the great masterstroke to return him to office in 1996, instead it was the final nail in the coffin of the Keating Government as voters saw it as confirmation that the "big picture man" was ignoring the concerns of ordinary Australian voters.
Even John Howard has fallen victim to the lure of the "big" overseas trip. The over-the-top Centenary of Federation celebrations in London two years ago involved an entourage of dozens of political hangers-on including, literally, a travelling military brass band.
Kim Beazley boycotted that trip too late for the government to cancel, leaving Howard high and dry taking part in an unpopular extravaganza just as the GST was coming in.
Howard was glad when it was over, and he certainly won't be engaging in a repeat performance.
Of course a war, in this case against Iraq, is very different and in a totally different league from an overseas junket or a politician's preoccupation with a remote part of the world.
The stakes in the current crisis are exceedingly high and no country can afford to ignore the ongoing battle against international terrorism. However, Howard's local political problems are twofold.
Firstly, Australians are, at best, reluctant supporters of a war against Iraq, and more likely to be ambivalent about whether it will achieve much at all.
And the risks of war never go away, no matter how heavily the odds favour one side.
The unpredictable nature of any conflict, the chance of casualties, and the extended assistance which needs to be given to the defeated (in this case to Iraqis), add to this uncertainty.
On the one hand, any successful outcome will be muted politically because it is seen by many as a war of doubtful necessity, but if anything at all goes wrong, Howard will also cop part of the blame.
Secondly, and probably more importantly in a political sense, Howard knows that once the war is out of the way domestic matters will surface very quickly again.
As the budget is being drawn up, defence is likely to suck hundreds of millions from other areas of government and the price of Australia's backing of the United States will become apparent as cuts are made to other areas of government.
People watching John Howard recently have noticed an increased edginess. It isn't nervousness about the war, although this must play very heavily on the mind of any national leader.
What's really troubling Howard is his inability to see what's on the other side.