Australia gets tough on security

The country swings right under conservative leadership, and amid terror fears.

When former President Ronald Reagan proposed his "Star Wars" defense plan in the early 1980s, Australia was one of the first US allies to oppose it.

But things have changed. The conservative leader of this country, Prime Minister John Howard, has decided that an aggressive defense posture and strengthening ties with the US is the way to go.

Earlier this year, Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, berated Iran and North Korea at a conference in Geneva of Nuclear Nonproliferation members - adopting the Bush administration's strident tone. Then in May, when a US Senate Committee voted to overturn a decade-old ban on research and development of low-yield nuclear weapons, Australia - which has pledged never to acquire a nuclear bomb - was quiet.

In the latest example of this heightened concern about security, Australia decided to station 1,200 reservists at key locations in the country to deal with potential terrorist threats.

"Part of being a right-wing politician is to be more nationalistic, and this show of armed forces at a time of peace is just that," says John Walker, a political scientist politics at University of New South Wales.

But other observers say the new "Howard doctrine" reflects something deeper: a fraying sense of security in this country, known more for its sublime beaches and its easygoing attitude.

While the previous Labor government in power from 1983 to 1996 was fully involved in forums like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Mr. Howard's conservative coalition is more likely to view the region primarily as a problem: an area that harbors terrorists and sends unwanted refugees to its shores.

"The Howard doctrine now favors a bilateral approach to foreign affairs rather than a multilateral one. This is a major change," says Wayne Reynolds, history professor at the University of Newcastle, referring to Australia's growing alliance with the US.

Recent events have contributed to this attitude. The nightclub bombing in Bali, Indonesia, last October - which killed 88, mostly young Australians - was a terrible blow. The arrest of five Australians in the past two years, suspected to have links to Al Qaeda, added to the sense of insecurity here. Domestic fear peaked last week, when Howard revealed in parliament that Al Qaeda had considered targets in Australia before the Sept. 11 attacks on the US.

Critics of Howard's policy say the pro-US stance has led Australia to neglect its regional duties. Ultimately, they warn, Australia's new world view could lead to isolationism.

"One of the downsides of being a junior partner [with the US] is that you adopt the behavior patterns of the senior partner blindly - with bad consequences for you," Dr. Walker explains.

Late last year, for example, Howard asserted the right of preemptive attacks on other countries while talking to a reporter. Indonesia responded with a stern warning not to flout international laws. "It was extremely foolish of John Howard to make that remark, as many of the countries in Southeast Asia are strongly armed. Australia is behaving like a big power when it's only a medium one," Walker says.

Meanwhile, some analysts are concerned that the decision to deploy military patrols in times of peace will only raise anxiety levels - and thus Howard's popularity.

Neal James, executive director of the Australia Defence Association, insists "the reservists will be used to cordon off buildings and do searches of sites rather than being used to attack terrorist groups or kill people."

The latest News poll shows that 61 percent of Australians are satisfied with the prime minister. According to some analysts, Howard owes part of his success to 13 years of Labor rule before him when racism was submerged.

"The undercurrent of racism that exists in the country among many people merely came to the surface under Howard, and people now feel free to air their views," says Katherine Gelber, political scientist at the University of New South Wales.

John Howard rejects the guilty "black armband" view of history and believes that an apology to the Aboriginal people serves no purpose. A highly controversial three-volume work published in 2002 challenges the long held claim that thousands of Aborigines were killed by white settlers.

This backlash against political correctness served to get Howard up in the polls prior to his third reelection in August 2001, when he refused entry to 433 illegal asylum seekers from Afghanistan who had been rescued off a leaky Indonesian boat by a Norwegian cargo ship.

His tough stance earned him the wrath of the international community, but gained him enormous popularity at home and returned him as prime minister.

Since then, "Howard has successfully deflected attention from domestic issues to focus on foreign affairs where his strength lies," Ms. Gelber says.

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