Hollow ring to Sir Echo

By Alan Ramsey (Sydney Morning Herald, March 15 2003)

John Howard "proved" nothing two days ago except the time has indeed come when he should get out of public life. His was the speech of a tired, soiled leader with a tired, soiled message. Tony Blair's misreading of his party and his people will likely destroy his prime ministership. There was a strong sense, to this ear, in our Prime Minister's pleading that he, too, now realises his folly in having been so thoroughly seduced by the most disliked and distrusted US President we have so come to fear.

And now it is too late.

Does anyone really believe, in the face of the UN refusing to bend to Washington's will, that George Bush will order home from Iraq's borders his massive build-up of US military might? Or that the frightening zealots who lurk behind this cowboy-booted caricature would allow him to do so? Or that the Prime Minister of this country, a man who, ever since he met Bush at the very time of the September 11 carnage two years ago, has been in his thrall, will not ape the Americans in whatever it is they do, like the devout Sir Echo he has become to the Bush White House?

Of course not.

Just as offensive as Howard's threadbare "justification" on Thursday for making war on Iraq was his behaviour beforehand. He had been scheduled to speak at Canberra's National Press Club. Instead, after his advisers learnt of a planned "anti-war" demonstration outside the club, Howard decided instead to hole up in the Parliament, raise the drawbridge and give his speech to a heavily vetted lunchtime audience in the Great Hall.

Think about it. Howard and his cabinet have sent 2000 troops to Iraq as a symbolic gesture of support for Bush's militaristic obsessions, the only ally outside Britain to do so. They've been gone for almost two months. Yet Howard refuses, so far, to let the Parliament vote on whether or not we should go to war, and now he refuses to go out in public and face protesting Australians who oppose what his Government is doing. Instead he hides behind a wall of security in the "coward's castle" of the so-called people's Parliament. That's political courage for you.

More than 35 years ago I saw our then prime minister troop the country to argue, in halls at night and on street corners by day, and even from the back of a truck in provincial Queensland, why Australian troops were fighting and dying in Vietnam, again in support of Washington's deceit, and why his government was sending 20-year-old conscripts to do the same.

At one night-time rally in suburban Sydney, I saw a chanting mob so angry it fought police and tried to overturn the prime minister's car with him in it. That prime minister was Harold Holt. I never once saw him shirk facing up to demonstrations. And do not think some of those crowds were not ugly.

Our Prime Minister these days has a permanent armed bodyguard, around the clock, of 13 so-called "federal agents" - we cannot help copying the Americans - who work in relays. It used to be a unit of seven when Paul Keating was prime minister. It has all but doubled for his successor. And yet still John Howard will not take his argument for war out to the Australian people. Instead he does it by interview from the safety of his office over the phone with a clutch of favoured radio talkback hosts or from television studios. Courageous, indeed.

The truth is, Howard has grievously misjudged Australian sentiment and, for the first time, cannot marshal the case to manipulate it. The reason is his fawning attitude to Bush, whom he has a habit of calling "the President", as if he's our president. Yet Australians dislike and fear Bush. Even more, they hate to see our Prime Minister's head perpetually stuck in the presidential backside. ANOP's Rod Cameron, a pollster with 35 years' experience of the Australian electorate, thinks Howard is doing himself in.

"I've been saying since January I think the fundamentals of politics in Australia are changing," he says. "I think John Howard's vice-like grip on the swinging voter has loosened. Really, he's no longer in tune with the majority of voters. I think he's made a serious misjudgement to become so overtly aligned with the US, and whatever the rights and wrongs of a war with Iraq the Australian electorate does not support a subservient relationship with Washington.

"I think John Howard has forged just such an overly compliant relationship. It's not so much anti-Americanism. There's some; there always is among the elites. But there is a very strong anti-Bush feeling and it goes right across the political parties. Why? I don't think Australians like Bible-bashing leaders invoking God, whether they wear tea towels or cowboy boots. And I think Howard became, and continues to be, this bloke's deputy sheriff. Bush is deeply unpopular and distrusted in middle Australia. I can't express too strongly how deep these feelings are. So that's the first factor: I think the fundamentals of recent years really are changing, with the key reason Howard becoming so close to Bush.

"And I think that's over and above a growing and entrenched opposition to the Iraq war. Without UN backing, it's overwhelming opposition. And even with UN support, in the current scenario of bribery and arm-twisting, Australians would, at best, be reluctantly accepting, I think, on the surface. But they'd be very confused and disquieted in their hearts. It would be a very unpopular war - very unpopular - and John Howard would not win the issue, even if were a short and sharp encounter.

"Another factor, I think, is that he keeps on making political misjudgements. For Australia's best-ever political prime minister, he's now making significant political misjudgements. I mean, what was he thinking of to invoke the Bali victims with the war in Iraq. It's crazy stuff. And I think, despite his frantic searching, he just can't find a wedge in this issue. He has, quite superbly, controlled the political agenda by wedge politics - by dividing the electorate on some emotional issue and forcing the Opposition to side with the moral but unpopular position. But there's no wedge in the Iraq issue. The numbers are now, and will remain, opposed to a war. I think that's true with or without UN backing."

So how has he allowed this to happen?

"I just don't know. And why is he doing it? I watched his speech this week and clearly his own instincts, his pulse, has been telling him that's the question he has to answer. And he can't. In his speech he said, I've forgotten the words, but he said something like, 'I know many Australians want to know why I'm doing this.' You know, what's in it for Australia? Well, indeed! And he didn't tell them; he did not. He gave a typically workmanlike John Howard performance, and he's good when he has the apparently unscripted, debate-style address. He might have swung some middle-ground voters some months ago. But he won't swing them now. And he won't swing them on that performance, because there was no passion, there was no guts, there was no commitment."

Do you think he realises he's stuck on the wrong horse?

"That line, 'I know many of you are worried', or whatever it was, 'I know many Australians want to know why I'm doing this,' that was the giveaway. And why I think the fundamentals are changing, is that, OK, he's not getting the wedge, he cannot now win this issue, and yet that's his lifeblood. His whole success as prime minister has been intimately involved with the wider security issue. You know, security/refugees/asylum seekers/immigration/defence. All that is one overarching issue.

"And now it is changing into, more specifically, war/Iraq/subservience to the Americans. And that is one he isn't winning. And I don't think he can now. The short little dash back to domestic politics, like Medicare last week, shows him there's a whole stack of issues banking up there, just waiting to be turned back on the Government. So, you know, I don't think there's much joy for him, whichever way he looks. The only joy would be, of course, is that it's not converting to Labor's advantage. And yes, it's out there to be won, it sure is. It is certainly out there to be won, by somebody."

Cameron concludes: "You ask why Howard is doing this. I don't know. I've no idea. Why has he not just been the good ally? Why has he taken that extra step and become so committed to something for which there is no obvious advantage for himself or for the country? Thursday's speech was about justifying why he's sending Australians to war. He didn't answer his own question. And the longer this charade and all the UN politicking goes on, the weaker will be Australian voter reaction to any contrived UN endorsement, because they'll see through it as politics, bribery, vote-buying, all of that.

"Even though a recent poll showed Australians are fine with this if it gets UN backing, I don't believe it. This is a deeply unpopular situation he's got himself into. Any sort of war will not be a winner, politically. You ask about Bush. I think the key reason for the deep antagonism here is, as I said, we really distrust people who invoke the Almighty and do it in such a cowboy way. It may play well in midwest America, but it won't play here. I don't think it plays well elsewhere in the world either, but it certainly doesn't play in cynical, secular Australia."

Happy war games, John Howard.

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