Howard the (Lame) Duck

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, November 27, 2007)

The world stage just keeps getting lonelier for President Bush.

In the acceptance speech at the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City, Bush took a break from criticizing John Kerry’s vote on the infamous $87 billion in invasion funding to criticize the senator for calling Bush’s “coalition of the willing” a “coalition of the coerced and the bribed.”

“About 40 nations stand beside us in Afghanistan, and some 30 in Iraq,” the president said that night. “I deeply appreciate the courage and wise counsel of leaders like Prime Minister Howard, and President Kwasniewski, and Prime Minister Berlusconi – and, of course, Prime Minister Tony Blair.”

With this weekend’s Labor-intensive election in Australia, every one of those world leaders, save Bush himself, has now left office. And in the case of John Howard, his regressive positions on Iraq, immigration, and the environment helped lead to his undoing and signal a major change in politics Down Under.

Howard — who won his first term in 1996 and was Australia’s second-longest serving prime minister — always considered close ties to the United States a key part of his foreign policy. But that became increasingly true after he was in America for an official visit on Sept. 11, 2001, and soon Howard and Bush regularly became parallel acts some 10,000 miles apart.

Before 2001 was out, Howard and his Liberal Party (despite the name, it’s the mainstream conservative party in Australia’s multi-party system; Labor is the mainstream liberal party) had cast themselves as a man and party “tough” on national security and border protection. Even after the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings killed many Australians among the 202 victims, Howard inexplicably continued to poll well on security issues.

At the same time, he joined Britain’s Tony Blair in parroting the Bush Administration’s case for an invasion of Iraq.

As in Washington, the government in Canberra politicized intelligence by removing qualifying language and cherry-picking from the available information to create a case for military action. Howard made the same public cases about supposed Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda that Americans have heard for years, and committed 2,000 troops to the attack. In the process, he ignored both the caution of his intelligence agencies and polls showing roughly three-quarters of Australians opposed to an invasion. Shortly before the invasion began, senior intelligence analyst Andrew Wilkie resigned and went public with charges that Howard was misrepresenting and misusing intelligence. “The Iraq war in Australia is very much John Howard’s war,” Wilkie told Mother Jones in 2004. “It reflects that obsessive relationship with the Bush Administration.”

When Bush came to Canberra for a visit in 2003, he sparked the largest protests Australia had ever seen, complete with papier-mache versions of the PM as a dog on Bush’s leash and as a marionette dancing on the president’s strings. A number of prominent former supporters turned against Howard because of Iraq, with former Liberal Party president John Valder even saying, “I’ve branded Bush, Blair, and Howard as war criminals. I make no apology for branding them war criminals. It is the greatest act of aggression, by any Western nation, since the days of Adolf Hitler.” And polls showed the majority of the public had grown to doubt Howard’s integrity — “liar” was one of the words most often chosen to describe him in a 2004 poll, along with “experienced” and “boring.”

When Howard faced a stiff challenge from young Labor leader Mark Latham that year, it looked like Iraq might prove his undoing. But Howard successfully moved the debate away from foreign policy to the strong economy and to Latham’s inexperience.

This time around, Howard wasn’t so lucky.

Labor chose Kevin Rudd as its candidate for prime minister, selecting the most outspoken war critic among its leadership and a man who’d spent years serving as shadow minister for foreign affairs. He vowed to pull all Australian combat troops out of Iraq, avoiding the equivocation that often hampers Democrats in America. Rudd took economics off the table by endorsing views similar to Howard’s policies — which have led to low unemployment, a strong Australian dollar, and the paying off of a large chunk of debt. Instead he focused his campaign on the problems with Howard’s Bush-like domestic policies.

Partly due to the country’s large size and sparse population, Australia is the largest per-capita polluter in the world, and Howard consistently ensured it would also be the biggest country outside the U.S. to avoid international agreements on climate change. Rudd promised to sign the Kyoto Protocol, a popular position in Australia. He has vowed to issue a national apology for the treatment of Aboriginal nations, an apology Howard swore would never come. And he has long been a critic of Howard’s using “border security” as a pretense for locking up asylum seekers and subtly injecting racial prejudice into electoral politics.

Ironically, Howard’s long-term opposition to Asian immigration may have had a hand in his personal defeat days ago. His home district of Bennelong in the northern suburbs of Sydney has seen a recent influx of immigrants, where about 36 percent of voters are now non-native English speakers. And Howard is now only the second prime minister in Australian history to lose his own race, with former broadcast journalist Maxine McKew ousting him from the seat he first won in 1974.

Just hours after the election ended, the vote was still creating aftershocks. Labor truly dominated, with a national swing of 6 percent in its favor and double-digit swings in rural and suburban areas. Labor now holds power in every state as well as at the federal level. Already, the Liberal Party is turning on itself, with expected Howard successor Peter Costello declining to run and a wide-open field a likely scenario.

Like George Bush and Tony Blair, John Howard survived his first major accountability moment at the polls in 2004. Now he joins Blair in political exile, with Bush counting down the months before he joins them.

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