By the mid-point of the election campaign, Mark Latham and even (to some extent) John Howard have shrugged off some of the shackles devised by professional advisers, and the campaign is the better for it.
If some pundits truly believe that Latham’s flashes of annoyance at the weekend represent ‘losing his cool’ the misjudgment lies with them, not him.
For these coming last three weeks of campaigning, recent history suggests that the harder task faces the incumbent than the challenger, so far as the national polls are concerned. In general, attitudes measured nationally will most likely firm in favour of Labor, but the outcome will still depend on the fall of individual seats.
Until last weekend, the polls used by the major newspaper groups showed a difference between the two sides that was still within their margins of error, and they are barely out of that range now. The Morgan Poll, out of favour with the publishers, has been consistently more favourable to Labor, both in general and on issues.
The party leaders have given away little about what their organisational polling is telling them, Howard saying only that he is ‘happy’ with what he is hearing about marginal seats. Yet his demeanour suggests that the Prime Minister is not as happy as he would like to be. His pursuit of the scare theme against Labor has been the liveliest feature of the campaign, sometimes bordering on frenetic.
This week, it turned around and bit him where he least expected. Howard has assumed the terrorist card to be the safest trump in the scare pack. But he has found that it can be over-played, and will need to think carefully about its use in the coming weeks.
Howard was disconcerted by Latham’s decision in their televised ‘debate’ to take security head-on by accusing the government of neglecting regional concerns in favour of faraway US alliance priorities. Perhaps that was what prompted his hairy-chested re-assertion this week of the policy of pre-emptive attack within the region. He even suggested that Latham’s failure to endorse such a doctrine demonstrated weakness on national security.
Regional governments were not impressed, and told him so. In the scramble to back off, it was probably a dead-heat between the Prime Minister and his Foreign Minister, Alexander Downer.
From Howard: ‘I wasn’t saying I was going to attack another nation …’ Oh? What, then?
From Downer came the suggestion that pre-emption would only apply to a ‘failed state’, ‘such as Solomon Islands was, but is no longer’.
If Australian regional diplomacy fails to the extent that a ‘credible, direct terrorist threat’ can develop in a Pacific Islands neighbour, we will need more than a pre-emptive strike to guarantee our security!
Military pre-emption is one of the most worrying concepts to have grown from the hysteria generated around terrorism since 11 September 2001. It is emotionally exploitative and irrational in its exclusion of serious policy debate. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney, after ‘9/11’, made it near-treasonable to even question what they were doing in response. Even now, with the Iraq adventure sinking into desperate straits, they live in denial and seem able to fend off effective challenge.
In the meantime, we have had experiences like Beslan, in the Caucasus, horrifying beyond imagination for most of us, but simplistically labelled by Russian politicians as ‘evil terrorism’. Of course, it is that, but such entities do not suddenly emerge full-grown. Never mind that the deaths of 45,000 people in Chechnya provided the opening for the international terrorist network. The need, says President Vladimir Putin, is for retribution based on toughness and greater authority.
His military Chief of Staff, General Yury Baluyevsky, says the situation justifies pre-emptive military action to liquidate terror bases in any region of the world. Mr Putin assumes political powers increasingly similar to those of the Soviet days.
In the US presidential election, it remains to be seen whether the Kerry/Edwards campaign can pierce the Bush/Cheney fog of obfuscation based on national security and the fear generated from terrorism. In Australia this week we have pierced the local fog just a little, but we face the question: If this is the sort of benefit that ‘experience’ in government brings us, who needs it?
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