Australia’s prime minister John Howard has called for elections on October 9. Howard, already one of the longest-serving of Australia’s prime ministers, will seek a fourth term for his conservative government. The Labor Party, led by political newcomer Mark Latham, has vowed to highlight “the failures of the Howard government, the dishonesty, the attacks on Medicare, the loss of affordable education, the way it has made Australia less safe in the war against terror,” while “putting forward positive solutions for the benefit of the Australian people.”

Although the Australian elections will take place a month before the US elections, they’re not likely to be of concern to many Filipinos, who’re currently less focused on the fiscal crisis that isn’t a fiscal crisis than on where the next meal’s coming from, and how to survive the wet season. They should be concerned, or at least interested. What kind of government Australians elect could be crucial to the rest of Asia including the Philippines.

Tens of thousands of Filipinos have made their homes in Australia. It’s regarded by those eager to escape the poverty and the seeming hopelessness of the country of their birth as an alternative to the United States, since it’s a developed country where better paying jobs are available. The wealthiest Filipinos also invest and have vacations there, among other reasons because, unlike their home country and some of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, it’s more stable politically.

But Australia’s more than a destination for either immigration, investments, or Philippine mangoes. Although it does accept Asian immigrants, under the Howard government Australia has a policy that, if not racist, says the New Internationalist Magazine, is “a form of white chauvinism… —a disdain towards non-white people.”

Howard came to power in the 1990s by pandering to white racism, with its contempt for aboriginals and non-white immigrants and refugees. Once in power his government adopted such policies as the mandatory detention of refugees—who in the late 1990s included large numbers of Middle Eastern people—in desert areas.

In 2001 a Norwegian tanker that had picked up 438 refugees was denied entry by Australia. After a ten-day standoff, the Howard government paid the Pacific island of Nauru to accept the refugees, where many lived in tent cities under miserable conditions for months.

In October of the same year a fishing boat with asylum seekers, most of them Iraqis, sank in heavy seas; 353 drowned. The Australian navy knew about the boat, but did nothing to help save those who drowned.

The consequence of the policies behind these acts, continues the New Internationalist, is “more prejudice, hostility, reactionary ugliness and short-sightedness in Australian politics than at any time since the early 1950s.” Australians who believe in a Whites-Only Australia want to keep the country “pure”, and either don’t know or prefer to forget that their being there is the result of the British colonial policy of shipping off convicts to the sub-continent, the original inhabitants of which were the aboriginals. If white people have a right to be in Australia given its history, the more so do non-whites, especially those fleeing persecution.

Howard’s exclusionist policies, however, have helped keep his Liberal/National coalition government in power. In 2001, three weeks after the drowning of the 353 refugees, it won the November elections.

Although previously better known for its white chauvinist policies, the Howard government has been better known internationally since 2002 as, in the words of such US right-wing think tanks as the Heritage Foundation, “Asia’s Tony Blair.” It’s a seal of approval he gained by supporting US President George W. Bush’s drive for war against Iraq, and for sending troops as part of the “Coalition of the Willing” in 2003.

Like Blair and Bush, Howard argued for war by alleging that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the world, including Australia. In February 2003, he claimed in an opinion article published in the pro-war US business newspaper Wall Street Journal that Iraq not only had WMDs, it also “could use her chemical and biological weapons against her own people and also other countries…” In addition, “other rogue states will be encouraged to believe that they too can join the weapons of mass destruction league.”

In the same piece Howard claimed—apparently with his tongue firmly in his cheek—that he too abhorred war, but claimed that those opposed to an attack on Iraq were ignoring the “human suffering that could flow from the world’s failure to deal once and for all” with Iraq. The hypocrisy of this moralizing was obvious, given Australia’s refusal to consider the “human suffering” that undoubtedly flowed from its refusing refugees entry, and its allowing the mostly Iraqi boat people to drown in October, 2001 a few miles from its shores.

Just like Bush’s and Blair’s claims, Howard’s have also turned out to be total lies. In Howard’s case, the lies have included his claim in October 2001 that the refugees his government allowed to drown were throwing babies into the sea. But just like Blair, who’s managed to hang on to power, and Bush, who can still be reelected this November, Howard’s lies may not be enough to cost him the October election.

As in the US, in Australia one of the keys to the possibility that even a lying and ineffectual leader can remain in power is to what extent they can tap into the pools of racism and chauvinism that exists among the white population. Those pools– apparently vast enough to counter anti-war sentiments, among others—could be enough to keep both Bush and Blair in power.

The US historian Gabriel Kolko has argued that Bush’s remaining in power could ironically lead to better prospects for peace. By undermining US alliances, Kolko argues, Bush has limited the US’ capacity for global destruction.

A John Kerry victory this November, on the other hand, could lead to attempts to repair US alliances, particularly with Europe. “Because it is much more saleable to past
and potential allies,” who are repelled by “the inept, eccentric melange now guiding American foreign policy” a Kerry victory would result, says Kolko, in a far more dangerous situation in which the capacity of the US to wage war across the globe could be sustained.

The same cannot be said of a Howard victory. While gaining US support, Howard has alienated much of Asia through his transparent attempts to transform Australia into the US’ Asian policeman. One of the most recent indications of this direction in Australian policy was its August 25 announcement that it would arm its jet fighters with long-range missiles, less than two weeks after Alex Downer, its foreign minister, warned that North Korea has missiles that can reach Australian cities.

North Korea is among the countries the US includes in “the axis of evil,”and where it would bring about “regime change” if it had the means to do it. Indonesia has diplomatically stated that Australia’s military plans—which could go even farther given US support—are no threat to it. But the brazenness with which the Howard government is projecting Australian power in the region, and the possibility that it will result in an Asian arms race, is sure to alienate the countries of Asia, and worse, to alarm China.

In contrast, the Labor Party has not only promised to bring back Australia’s troops from Iraq before Christmas. The Labor Party did not oppose Howard’s plan to purchase long-range missiles, but did argue for the need to carefully explain to Australia’s neighbors why it is doing so.

Unlike in the US elections, the better choice for Asia and peace could be a Labor victory, if only for the possibility that if it does pull out Australian troops from Iraq, the US would have to shop around for another patsy—Japan is likely—to do its bidding in Asia.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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