August 29, 2006

A US Eye On Australia

It’s not often that Australian politicians are role models for their US parallels (normally it works the other way round, with Canberra two steps and six months behind the latest exploitative political stunts from London and Washington). So it’s interesting to read the WaPo's E.J. Dionne, Jr. paying attention to Howard:
What's exportable about Howard's politics is his shrewd understanding that conservative parties embracing hard-line market economics need to provide those threatened by economic change with something to hang on to -- tradition, nation, family, flag -- so their world doesn't fly apart. Except on the immigration issue, where he used a sledgehammer, Howard has pulled off in a subtle way what Republicans in the United States have pursued with less finesse and a greater emphasis on religion than would work in this more secular country. Interestingly, though, the political role of religion is on the rise here...

The next Australian national election is expected late next year. Watching whether Howard's model can work one more time will be instructive, especially to Republicans in the United States who will need all the ideas they can find to hold on in 2008.
Before the 2004 elections, I argued that a vote for Howard was a vote for Bush:
This year, a vote for John Howard is a vote that says "I don't care that Iraq is now over-run by violence, I don't care about accountability in politics, I don't care about international law and domestic civil rights, I don't care about the separation of Church and State, I don't care about global warming, I don't care about blatant, overwhelming media bias, I don't care that globalisation is being hijacked by big business while millions continue to live in poverty, I don't care, I don't care, I don't care.
Despite such concerns, Howard won re-election anyway. As I noted, it was a sad day for Democracy in Australia:
Elections are the final accountability system for any government that embraces immorality and refuses to hold itself accountable for failures, lies and willful deception. If the electorate fails to hold such governments accountable, then there is simply no accountability. And if there is no accountability, our so-called Democracies become a shallow form of something far more sinister.
And of course, the warning to the USA was ignored: Bush went on to win as well. But for anyone interested in comparing US and Australian politics, it's worth re-visiting some of the issues from the post-election post-mortem :
Nobody I know likes John Howard. Even those who vote for him tend to joke about his obvious inadequacies. He is a squinting, sneering, diminutive excuse for a human being, bloated with delusions of self-importance, a worthless, soul-less man who has dragged our once-proud reputation as a free and fair society through the mud. Sounds familiar?

There is one major dissimilarity between Bush's USA and Howard's Australia which should be kept in mind: Australia's economy has been strong for eight years under Howard, while Bush has taken the USA from a massive surplus to an unimaginably huge deficit in just four years.

But aside from this, there are many frightening similarities between Howard's re-election and the Bush campaign. So-called "Bush-bashers", eager to vent their own frustrations with an emminently hate-able man, should keep the following facts in mind.

Howard's re-election was fuelled by a massive scare campaign. In Australia, this was based on his opponent's weaknesses (primarily inexperience) and the prospect of increased interest rates. These fears were totally unfounded, as even the Chairman of the Reserve Bank admitted. But that didn't seemt to matter to the voters, many of whom have huge mortgages in an uncertain employment environment. The scare campaign was very, very well targetted.

Then there were the bribes. Howard promised electoral bribes worth $6 billion. That's a lot of money in a country with a population around 20 million. Mind you, he's not talking about fulfilling those promises today - he's talking about privatising the national phone company, tossing more people off welfare and even removing Australia's long-standing compulsory voting law. Anyone who believes the promises of a proven liar cannot complain when they are deceived.

Finally, there were the outright lies. Howard lied to win the 2001 election, claiming a boatload of refugees had been throwing their children into the water when - as was proven after the election - his own people told him that was not true. He lied again to support Bush's invasion of Iraq, even when Australian intelligence officers warned him that the "proof" being proffered by the US and Britain was not reliable. He lied again to say he was not informed of the Abu Ghraib torture scandal before the media broke the story. All these lies - plus many more - were exposed to the Australian public well before last Saturday's vote.

Amazingly, it just didn't matter. Our Prime Minister lied to us repeatedly, it was proven beyond doubt, nobody was ever held accountable, but still it did not matter.

In the end, perceived self-interest and fear won out over altruism, common decency and even self-respect. In the privacy of the polling booth, Australians voted for Howard. Many of them will probably never even admit it.
And remember, John Howard's son was part of the Bush-Cheney campaign (and still works in Washington as a Bush staffer, I believe).

As I said back then, Bush is a symptom of a much wider social malaise afflicting the USA. Howard reflects a very similar disease in Australian society. Ultimately, the battle for truth, honesty and justice will not be won in polling booths, but in the flickering darkness of our souls.


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