How war plays in Australia vote

Australia, one of a handful of nations that have pledged forces to the US-led "war on terrorism," is going into full-campaign mode.

With a national election in five weeks, it is the first major Western country to test its leadership in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

The Nov. 10 vote, announced Friday, takes place against a backdrop of an economic downturn sweeping much of the developed world.

But in this country of 19 million, the international turmoil has dramatically altered the domestic political scene, reviving the fortunes of an unpopular government.

Prime Minister John Howard, who is seeking a third term for his conservative coalition, praised US air strikes against Afghanistan's Taliban leaders yesterday.

"What is at stake here is a fight between those who believe in freedom, liberty, and peace and the right of men and women of goodwill, of all faiths, around the world to go about their lives free of terror and intimidation," Mr. Howard told reporters outside his campaign headquarters in Melbourne.

Australia has so far contributed a Navy frigate, two aircraft, and 150 elite Special Air Service commandos to the US-led antiterrorist effort.

Howard also appears to be counting on his hard-line stance toward Afghan and other refugees to win votes. "I emphasize how determined this government is to maintain not only the integrity of our immigration program but also the integrity of our border-protection system," he told a campaign rally over the weekend.

Recent opinion polls show that the government has surged to a lead of between 10 and 20 percent over the Labor Party opposition led by Kim Beazley, a former defense minister.

Surge in popularity

It is a remarkable turnaround from just six weeks ago, when an unpopular value-added tax, rising unemployment, and a string of company collapses, including the nation's second-biggest airline, Ansett, appeared to doom Howard's reelection hopes.

But the arrival by boat of thousands of refugees from Afghanistan and the Middle East, seeking political asylum from the Taliban and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, has changed the political landscape here. For each of the past five years, an average of 4,000 refugees have arrived illegally on rusting, unseaworthy boats via Indonesia and Malaysia. They are held in remote detention camps while immigration authorities decide whether to admit them as part of Australia's annual intake of 12,000 refugees.

The problem reached a crescendo on Aug. 27, when a Norwegian freighter rescued 433 Afghans from a sinking Indonesian vessel trying to make its way to Christmas Island, an Australian territory. The government ordered the ship to leave its waters. The captain refused, beginning a six-day standoff. Australia would not accept them, and Indonesia refused to take them back.

The New Zealand government eventually brokered a deal, accepting 140 refugees, with the rest going to the tiny South Pacific atoll of Nauru, a nation of just 11,000 people. Australia's Navy later intercepted another 230 refugees, mainly Palestinians and Iraqis, and took them to Nauru as well.

The Navy has since picked up another 260 boat people and is ferrying them to Nauru, prompting one of the Pacific nation's 12 parliamentarians to declare: "The Australians are turning Nauru into the Alcatraz of the Pacific.''

The Australian public has seemingly embraced the government's hard-line tactics, linking illegal arrivals of Afghans to the terrorist attacks.

Talk radio, an influential form of entertainment, has crackled with conspiracy theories about "sleepers" among the refugees, who could be readying themselves for a covert strike against Australia.

At JT's Hair Salon, a popular meeting place in the Sydney suburb of Parramatta, "all the people want to talk about is the asylum seekers," according to owner J.J. Jun. "Some people think they might be terrorists,'' he says. "They believe John Howard did the right thing and should not let them in.

"They used to talk about not having jobs, but now it's just about boat people, and maybe a war."

Defense Minister Peter Reith has implied that the refugees could be a threat. "[Illegal immigration] can be a pipeline for terrorists to come in and use your country as a staging post for terrorist activities."

It is a view that troubles refugee advocates such as Prof. William Maley of the Defence Force Academy in Canberra, the capital, and chairman of the Refugee Council of Australia. "There is a lot of false rhetoric about refugees getting places in a queue," he says. "Our offshore refugee program is far more like getting a ticket in a lottery."

In the border camps of Pakistan, he said, the United Nations is often forced to stop registering new refugees, whose numbers top 1.5 million. "The officials had to ask people to stop presenting themselves for interviews because they could not cope. There is no orderly queue out of Afghanistan," Professor Maley says.

But such views seem to have little support in a nation shocked by terrorism and fearful that reprisals could provoke a flood of new refugees to its shores.

Opposition leader Mr. Beazley is trying to dispel fears that boat arrivals could be terrorists in disguise, saying modern terrorists are well-dressed, carry convincingly forged passports and visas, and "usually travel by airplane in first class."

Beazley is also trying to turn the security issue in his favor by linking it with the fallout from the slowing economy, such as mass layoffs. He is promising ''security at home and abroad."

In the meantime, hostility abounds. Women in Muslim dress have been assaulted on Sydney streets. Last month in Brisbane, a bus carrying Muslim schoolchildren was stoned and a mosque was fire-bombed, in revenge attacks similar to those in the US.

More curbs on refugees

In a move with international implications, the government used the last days of the latest session of Parliament to pass laws barring people who are refused refugee status from appealing to the federal court. Human rights groups argue that the legislation violates the rule of law by curbing judicial review of bureaucratic decisions.

Green Party Sen. Bob Brown says the new laws - which also remove offshore Australian territories from the migration zone, preventing arrivals from claiming asylum there - send a dangerous message to the world. "I believe there is a real danger of a copycat effect in other countries that face a much bigger refugee crisis than Australia," he said.

The Immigration Ministry has confirmed that Britain and Canada are monitoring the new laws, as they consider similar measures.

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