Australia: Wallets trump war

Prime Minister John Howard, Australia's staunch supporter of the Iraq war, dodged the fate of Spanish leader José Aznar and came out of elections this weekend with a decisive victory and a stronger hand in Parliament.

Mr. Howard's challenger, Mark Latham, attempted to play on discontent over the war by promising to pull out Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas, echoing the promise that swept socialists to victory in Spain earlier this year.

The "bring the boys home" message, however, found little traction among Australian voters, a majority of whom oppose the Iraq war but turned out to be far more concerned that a change in government could rattle Australia's strong economy and real estate boom. The outcome might hold a lesson for President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair: economic stewardship can outweigh war discontent.

"[Australians] have big mortgages and are more keen that things stay the same in a good economy where interest rates are low and unemployment is low, rather than inviting in an unknown factor to upset the applecart," says John Hart, who teaches political science at the Australian National University.

During the six-week campaign, Howard could point to the creation of 63,500 new jobs, the biggest increase in nearly two years. And interest rates held at a low 5.25 percent. Howard trumpeted his record and raised doubts about whether voters could bank on the relatively inexperienced Mr. Latham.

Iraq remained hardly a blip on the voters' radar in part because Australia's 850 deployed troops have suffered no casualties. Widespread opposition to the war proved shallow in comparison with other issues, meaning that it was "by default, rather than any conscious support that voters gave their endorsement of the status quo on foreign policy and defense issues as well," explains Paul Williams, professor of politics at Griffith University in Queensland.

President Bush announced on the campaign trail that he had rung Howard to congratulate him. "Australia is a great ally in the war on terror and John Howard is the right man to lead that country," Bush said.

A conservative, Howard has been one of Bush's staunchest allies. On top of Iraq, he has pursued a like-minded interventionist policy in Southeast Asia to combat potential terrorist threats. When Bush described Howard as his "deputy sheriff," Howard's opponents seized on the phrase. Had Howard lost, his close relationship with Bush might have been partially credited on both sides of the Pacific.

Howard, like Bush, refused to backpedal on controversial issues like not finding weapons of mass destruction and has kept his unified, tight coalition speaking with one voice. The approach paid off, says John Warhurst, professor of politics at the Australian National University.

"Bush and Howard are singing from the same song-sheet when they refuse to apologize for mistakes in foreign policy or otherwise, while Blair, faced with critics from his own party, is in a much more difficult position and has to be much more humble so as to avoid a split in his own party," he says.

But experts here caution that the election down under is not a great gauge of how Iraq will shape the American or British elections.

"Howard has much less invested in the Middle East than either of the other two coalition partners, and the war failed to cut across much of the electorate as an election issue," says Mr. Warhurst.

Analysts here expect that in the coming months Howard will shift defense policy even more to Australia's backyard and away from the Middle East.

"The government is moving to the view that for Australia, the front line of the war on terror is in this region of Southeast Asia and around us, not the Middle East," says Hugh White, the director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in Canberra. "I think Howard's objectives will be to maintain the commitment on Iraq, but not be drawn into any sort of increased contributions in that region, but in fact, to manage it down - although that's not likely to be easy as he does not want to be seen as abandoning the US in Iraq."

During the campaign, John Howard proposed a $15 million Center for Counter Terrorism Cooperation and Joint Intelligence Training that would oversee the deployment of Australian spies in the region and host foreign spooks.

Australian antiterror efforts were spurred by the Bali bombings that killed 88 Australians, and the more recent attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta.

"Howard will continue to play his well established role as the US administration's 'deputy sheriff' in the region whoever wins the race for the White House," says Mr. Williams.

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