This week

Photo: Reuters/ Dita Alangkara

Our Prime Minister has become a natural at large disasters over there. ‘These poor people,’ he says expressing genuine sympathy on our behalf and opening his arms wide to hug a distressed ambassador or weeping relative. Yesterday was no exception. We didn’t doubt his compassion for the victims of yesterday’s earthquake on Nias and Simeulue islands off Sumatra, people caught in another calamity which we are all now rather more capable of imagining.

The contrast between this and John Howard’s dry eyed response to the plight of individuals is inexplicable. Why can’t the man allow words of sympathy to form about people in our midst, people whose lives have been cycles of despair and dislocation, who have suffered torments to get here only to be tormented again and denied any prospect of sharing our affluence and comfort. What is there to be lost? A political point? And insofar as we can judge by his appearances on the media, the Leader of the Opposition seems to have taken a pledge not to feel strongly about anything at all.

Howard-style politics have been imported by the Tories into Britain’s looming general election campaign slated almost certainly for early May. Populist appeals to prejudice, fears about immigration pressures and asylum seekers are already taking root and playing out as they did in three elections in Australia. The political correctness tub is being thumped in the UK as it has been here for more than a decade. Culture wars are whipped up, minorities are demonized, elites are in the gun. The Labour party in attack-dog mode is already making Lynton Crosby and his mate and business partner Mark Textor a campaign issue, accusing them of dirty tricks and the kind of US style wedge politics we now take pretty much for granted in this country.

Meanwhile, back home in the Senate, the man who can’t be intimidated was at it again. Rod Barton insists that in mid-March last year another senior Australian member of the Iraq Survey Group told Foreign Minister Downer that there were problems with the report on the status of WMD, a claim that contradicts the Australian government’s version of events. Downer, who has elevated flannelling to a low artform, reacted predictably. He will deny it, his public servants will deny it, Liberal senators will try to discredit Barton – a standard response among Foreign Affairs types when someone breaks ranks.

Barton’s treatment has a good deal in common with Craig Murray who blew the whistle on US and UK collusion with the dictatorship in Turkmenistan to which he had been sent as Britain’s Ambassador. A sort of hybrid of Saddam and old Soviet style thuggery which in other circumstances might be a candidate for regime change, we of the Coalition of the Willing tolerate the Turkmenistan government for the military base it provides us for the war on terror and the democratic crusade. ‘Tolerate’ might be too cute: the Americans, Craig Murray says, send ‘enemy combatants’ or ‘high value detainees’ to Turkmenistan when their own interrogation techniques are not up to the job. Boiling people alive does not come under even the ‘enhanced interrogation’ rubric of the post 9/11 paradigm. What is more, according to Murray, the British and the Americans actually use the information extracted by these methods.

The duty of the British foreign office is obviously to discredit their former ambassador. We might think this course unworthy were it not that our own politicians and officials are almost permanently embarked on an even less worthy one: not only must they do what comes naturally and try to discredit any whistleblower, they must also maintain the moral fantasy that whatever is done by our great allies it is never done by us and in no way in our name.

Yet something seems to be shifting – or maybe it only took the right questions to unearth what must be sending some shock waves through a few portfolios. And the Australian public might not be as gullible as their leaders think.

‘US foreign policy poses as big a threat to world peace as Islamic fundamentalism, while the rise of China is the last on a list of potential threats according to a survey released on Monday of public opinion in Australia, one of Washington’s closest allies in the Asia-Pacific region,’ the International Herald Tribune said on Monday. The newspaper was commenting on a Lowy Institute survey of Australian public opinion on foreign relations.

More than two thirds of those surveyed regard the US as having too much influence on Australian foreign policy. America is less popular with Australians than Japan and China – 58 per cent have a positive view of the US, compared to 69 per cent for China and 84 per cent for Japan.

No doubt because it came as a surprise from such an unshakeable ally, and because it slots neatly with the big story of western distaste for Bush’s America, the results of the survey have been reported at least as widely outside Australia as within. There is perhaps not much joy to be had from a survey that shows we trust a regime like China’s before a democracy like the US: but it does make the point that at least under the Bush administration our alliance with the US can no longer be taken for granted. Who knows if it might not inspire our leaders to take us less for granted too.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.