Letter to an expatriate friend


Dear Gill,

I imagine you saw the images from the Jakarta bombing: that pristine Australian flag flying in front of a wall of broken embassy windows.

Presumably that was a new flag, to replace one torn to shreds. It spoke of defiance and maybe that’s understandable. But the defiant nationalism of the image made me uneasy. I wondered who ordered the new flag put up so speedily.

Looking at it, I could almost see the nationalist heartstrings being pulled among an Australian audience. Such an image engineers a reaction of fear and anger, as well as defiance, and it is a dangerous mix.

Yet John Howard, when we first heard from him, was curiously muted. Almost as if he was talking about an event that had happened to someone else, to some other country. He only seemed to rouse himself when he said that no Australians had been killed (which he did repeatedly, as if the loss of Indonesian lives was no matter). Could it be, as some have claimed, that he was being careful not to be seen to be using the event for political purposes?

Perhaps. Yet the passivity, the manufactured calm, the arms’ length response, felt odd. He didn’t seem to be shocked, or even surprised.

I mentioned last week that national security had been a bit of a sleeper so far this campaign. The bombing has changed that. But the issue is still a double-edged sword for the Coalition. In the televised debate between Howard and Latham on Sunday night the studio audience was unimpressed by Howard’s comments on security. The more he says that joining the Americans in Iraq has nothing to do with Australia’s security risk, the less people believe him.

John Anderson got himself into a funk on the same issue on the Sunday program. I mean, you can’t keep saying that Australia is at risk but simultaneously deny that we have made ourselves vulnerable by joining the ‘Coalition of the Willing’. It just won’t wash. You remember ‘the worm’, the graph that measures the audiences’ reaction, which wriggles out each election debate? Well when Howard was talking security, the worm turned all right. People really didn’t like it. But when Latham started talking, it soared.

I think it had something to do with Howard’s delivery. He was so low-key and calm as to be positively flat. By contrast, Latham at least seemed to have a bit of life to him, an excitement and rearing-to-go enthusiasm. Howard looks remarkably fit but he suddenly felt old.

Latham well and truly won the debate, but so did Beazley back in 2001, and it didn’t do him much good. The election will be won or lost in the marginals.

I was up in a marginal last week, Richmond, in far northern NSW, the seat held by Doug Anthony’s son, Larry. He only needs a 1.7 per cent swing to lose it. But you couldn’t say the seat is being hard fought. You would hardly know there was an election on. I think I saw one candidate poster the whole time I was there. The Greens should get a reasonable vote – it’s Nimbin territory. The ALP candidate, Justine Elliot, seems to be hardly known. I was visiting with June and Jan (the twins from the Push) and they didn’t even know her name.

Larry Anthony could win out of sheer voter lethargy. And you can understand the reason for it. The sun, the sea, the quiet. Retirees nodding off on their front porches, teenagers surfing, the ferals mooching aimlessly. It’s a good life. And if people don’t have much money, or job opportunities, or even a train service any more, at least they live in a nice part of the world and no-one bothers them. Maybe that’s enough for most people. Maybe that’s why they don’t care about politics.

The sole ‘issue’ in Richmond at the moment seems to be whether the train service between Casino and Murwillumbah will be resumed, which I would have thought was a State issue. But not so apparently. Both Anthony and Elliot are promising large sums to get the service running again. The State Government is staying mum.

The whole State/Federal thing is a bit of an unknown quantity in this election. A lot of people like having one party in power federally and another running their State. But all the States are currently Labor.

And I’m not sure to what extent people differentiate between State and Federal issues. If you’re angry that the train you catch to work is late every day, and you blame the Carr Government, are you going to ‘trust’ the ALP to be a better job federally? The same goes for health, and for education.

I wanted to tell you about some people I know who are running as independents in rural seats, but I’ve run out of time. Will get to that when I write next week.

Till then,

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