Through his relentless acquisition of power, love of the limelight and position as Government spokesman on all issues over the past 11 years, John Howard has ensured that the next Federal election will be about him.
Although somewhat diffident at first, Howard has come to relish set-piece performances particularly with compliant media networks (such as Southern Cross). As a self-proclaimed ‘war-time leader,’ he has been able to indulge his fantasies of strength and decisiveness. Howard is the Presidential Prime Minister, the Brian Henderson or James Dibble of the political air waves. He makes the announcements. He flicks from pronouncements about our economic good times, to sport, to advising of plans to bring home the body of yet another Australian national hero.
But while Howard is as much a media spinner as he is a statesman, his influence is not just superficial. With the help of an ever-expanding retinue of advisers and staff, Howard has wrested control of policy formation and decision making from key departments, including Defence, Foreign Affairs, Immigration, Industrial Relations, Attorney-General’s and Finance. Treasury remains a bit of an arm-wrestle, but, as time goes on and Peter Costello’s lack of gumption becomes more and more apparent, Howard has even been able to white-ant his own Treasurer.
The truth is that Howard has benefited from good economic times which have been driven by an unprecedented demand for commodities but the prosperity enjoyed by an increasingly nervous middle class owes little to his management skills.
Howard has clattered his smiling teeth across thousands of hours of television and radio without accepting responsibility for anything except the good times. But recently there has been a change. People were waiting for an alternative and believe that they’ve found it in the ALP’s Kevin Rudd.
Howard still believes the old tricks of sending ‘queue jumping’ illegal arrivals to Nauru, or playing ‘Super Economic Man,’ will get him through.
They will not.
What we have witnessed since Rudd gained traction is a decline in the power of political spin. People are looking for the truth, and they have developed a much better idea of what it is despite the best efforts of a supine media and various spinmeisters and apparatchiks. At last, Howard’s policies are being seen for what they are. People have seen through him.
Take Defence. Howard says that the ‘coalition of the willing’ must defeat terrorism. In recent times, he has argued that Australia cannot be selective about where it fights the forces of evil the war must be fought simultaneously in Iraq and Afghanistan.
This argument lacks logic. The continued presence of foreign troops in Iraq is breeding an increasingly radical and determined opposition. The coalition of the willing is actually creating new terrorists. The terrorists don’t actually need another 9/11 attack as long as the US is locked in Iraq, bleeding and spending billions.
In Afghanistan, the US’s so-called ally, Pakistan, is harbouring and (indirectly, at the very least) nurturing terrorists. With a constant stream of well-trained and supplied terrorists and make no mistake, the Taliban are terrorists feeding across the border into a terrain greatly favouring guerrilla tactics, the UN forces can, at best, hold their bases in Afghanistan. At worst, they will be forced to abandon outlying posts and concentrate in the larger towns and cities. The task of building infrastructure will have to be abandoned. Already, effective construction work will be difficult this summer because of the activities of the Taliban.
Unless the UN is able to get Pakistan to cease supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, they should stop fighting there.
But none of this has any impact on Howard.
Thanks to Bill Leak
Some mistake his stubbornness and arrogance for strength and resolve. It is neither. If it were, Howard would pull out of Iraq and re-deploy to Afghanistan. And he would engage with Pakistan’s tinpot dictator, General Pervez Musharraf the pawn of Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI on the basis of securing regional stability (which will not be possible if the Taliban control Afghanistan).
Howard might consider directing his efforts through the UN, although the material that he has to work with is poor. Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has no standing or respect amongst his foreign ministerial colleagues (and little in Australia after his shrill attack on Rudd over his childhood memories). And Australia’s Ambassador to the UN, the former Senator Robert Hill, is but a feather duster.
Despite frequent spinning to the contrary, tight management of financial resources and long-term planning has not been a feature of this Government. As a stopgap measure, made necessary by a poor decision to buy the F-35 off the drawing board, the Defence Department has decided to purchase 24 Super Hornet jet fighters for $6 billion to cover what they claim will be a three-year gap between the retirement of the current F-111s and the delivery of the F-35s. The cost of the latter are now put at $14-18 billion.
For reasons best known to itself, the Government has also purchased 59 second-hand Abrams tanks each weighing 68 tonnes and thereby placing them outside regional deployment. The cost is put at $550 million, and the cost of transporting them four heavy lift C-17 transport aircraft a further $2 billion.
Defence aims to recruit 5000 extra troops at a cost of $1 billion. The cost of the failed Seasprite helicopter project is $1 billion. The cost of the Iraq adventure is around $3 billion and Afghanistan $1.5 billion. The Government is also planning to build three Air Warfare Destroyers of dubious strategic value, at a cost of $8 billion. The Collins Class submarines are getting a refit, and there are plans for a new naval oiler and supply vessel, adding up to around another $1 billion. All this comes to over $41 billion.
Yet, the Government has not spelt out who our enemies actually are, beyond Osama bin Laden in Pakistan and the ill-defined association known as ‘global terrorism.’ What is the threat that justifies such huge expenditures on US military hardware?
We are beginning to behave like some Third World client States used to during the Cold War rather than spending money on the environment, education, health, aged care and infrastructure, the Government is buying military hardware for eventualities it cannot yet identify.
In a sop to public opinion, Howard threw $10 billion at the Murray-Darling Basin (ostensibly) to improve the flow of water in the system with the money to be spent
over 10 years. The sum was decided without undertaking comprehensive studies. Considering the enormous problem in the Murray-Darling, one billion dollars per annum seems pretty conservative to me significantly, it represents what we are throwing away on the failed Seasprite program.
Where is the money for research into, or support for, renewable sources of energy? Where is the money for research into climate change and the sustainable use of water? Where is the money for the CSIRO, universities and other scientific institutions?
Eleven years of policy failure are coming home to roost and Howard stands exposed in a way that no amount of spin or bullying will deflect or overcome.
John Howard has indeed become the election issue. His character and his policies are in the firing line and exposed.
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