Soci-Political and Socio-Economic Challanges

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AUSTRALIA'S KHAKI ELECTION

By Mahir Ali

A certain phenomenon witnessed of late in parts of the Western world must have excited the envy of many a Muslim ruler, elected or - more likely - not. Nine-Eleven, as last month's horrific events in New York and Washington have been dubbed by the imaginative Americans, and the declaration of war against virtually defenceless Afghanistan appear to have been accompanied by an extraordinary surge in support for incumbent leaders, particularly in the US, Britain and Australia.

George W. Bush desperately required reaffirmation of his leadership, not least because in last year's farcical presidential contest he obtained less votes than his Democratic opponent. The recently re-elected Tony Blair, faced with insignificant parliamentary opposition, must have relished the globe-trotting opportunity that arose more for narcissistic reasons than short-term political gain.

No politician objects to approval ratings of more than 90 per cent, and Mr Blair has evidently been delighted to assume the role of de facto deputy leader of the so-called free world, oblivious of the irony that he has fallen in line with the absurdly simplistic "you're either with us or you're with the terrorists" dichotomy by his White House chum just when a "third way" could have offered a viable antidote to blunderbuss militarism.

The British prime minister would do well to note that when history takes them to task for perpetuating terror in the name of combating it, Mr Bush will at least be able to plead diminished responsibility.

It is conceivable, of course, that the momentum he has unexpectedly gained, courtesy of Al Qaeda, will help Mr Bush to overcome the re-election hurdle in 2004, although three years is a very long time in politics. As for Mr Blair, he will need little extraneous help to maintain Labour in power as long as masochism remains the driving force of his Conservative rivals. In electoral terms, therefore, the chief political beneficiary of the terrorism ruckus could well turn out to be Australia's John Howard, who has cynically been milking the crisis for all it is worth in the run-up to polling day on November 10.

Actually, Afghanistan had proved its value to Mr Howard even before September 11. A few months ago, he was lagging in opinion polls and most analysts were writing him off as a no-hoper. At the 1998 general election, Mr Howard had barely managed to be returned to power with a sharply reduced majority. His misnamed Liberal Party, which rules in a coalition with the even more conservative National Party, had polled fewer primary votes than the Labor opposition (which presumably provides grounds for a special affinity with Mr Bush). That didn't prevent the prime minister from claiming a mandate for his regressive GST - but in the years that followed, the problems associated with the introduction of that tax did little good to his image as an economic manager. On the basis of the 1998 result, Labor required only a one per cent swing in its favour to wrest federal power; with one exception, all the state governments are already in Labor's hands.

Then, a couple of months ago a Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa, was requested by Australian naval authorities to rescue more than 400 Afghan refugees, who were in danger of drowning while attempting to reach Christmas Island, an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean. They had apparently sailed from Indonesia, and Mr Howard's government told the Tampa to take them back to that country. The Tampa was closer to Christmas Island, however, and its captain felt, naturally enough, that since he had been alerted to the plight of the refugees by Australia, it was the latter's duty to take them off his hands. During the stand-off, Australia's inhumane intransigence was denounced the world over, but on the domestic front it was reported that up to 90 per cent of Australians supported the government's hard line. That was almost certainly...
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