Like his British counterpart, Australian prime minister John Howard is finding that being hand in glove with Bush et. al. means having difficulty sleeping soundly at home. "I think about it first thing in the morning and last thing before I go to sleep. Sometimes I don’t sleep very well, that’s true," he said in an interview with the Sun-Herald on February 9.
Just four days earlier, Howard found to his horror that his country’s anti-war movement was no mere lobby with loud protesters mobilized outside parliament. The Australian Senate passed an unprecedented vote of no-confidence in the government for deploying troops to join a war against Iraq, and condemned the way it was handling the Iraq issue, without proper explanation to the people. In Australia’s 102 years of political history, this is the first such censure of no-confidence in the government of the day.
The main dissatisfaction of many Australians is with Howard’s decision to deploy 2,000 troops and dozens of fighter aircraft with no reference to parliament or to public opinion, and without any request for troops from the UN. Weeks ago the writing was on the wall, with opinion-polls finding only six percent of Australia’s population in favour of troops going to Iraq. One such poll, jointly conducted by the Sydney Morning Herald and AC Nielsen, found that 62 percent believe that Australia should not support any unilateral US military action against Iraq; 30 percent said that Australia should not be dragged into war under any circumstances.
Most Australians wonder how they can benefit by participating in a war thousands of miles away. One theory is that Canberra is hoping that a new puppet regime in Baghdad will include a few Iraqi political opposition activists who currently live in Australia as political refugees. The hope of these political refugees showing their gratitude to Australia for its help may be one factor in Howard’s committing himself wholeheartedly to the US campaign, even ignoring the Americans’ failure to control Afghanistan by installing the puppet regime of Hamid Karzai.
Geographically detached from the rest of the world and, until now, seldom the subject of international attention, Australians have been contented with a sense of peace prevailing, despite having had to share some troubles from elsewhere by taking thousands of refugees. Until the mid-nineties, before the east Asian economic boom, multiracial Australia was a haven for many immigrants from Asia, with millions ending their educational career by going to live and work there. In spite of local ‘ultra-nationalists’ trying to take advantage of the economic downturn by blaming immigrants, Australia continued to be tolerant compared with most western societies.That, however, has changed. Since the attacks on the WTC and Pentagon there has been a surge in racist attacks, with those from Muslim or Arab backgrounds being victimised most often.
The Bali bombings, which killed 88 Australian citizens last October, provoked increasing anti-Muslim/Arab hysteria, and the government’s handling of the situation was not helpful either. Howard’s government has tried to use the Australians’ reactions to try to justify his decision to back the US "war on terror". With Singapore, the other main US ally in southeast Asia, Australia has accused Muslim groups in southeast Asia for the bombings in Bali, and launched a witchhunt against Muslims, breaking into their houses and ransacking their belongings. The racist violence has not spared even Sheikh Taj el-Din Al Hilaly, a 62-year old mufti, who was in hospital last month after being brutalised by police on a routine traffic check. He was suspected of carrying weapons in his vehicle, and man-handled. The police did not find any weapons.
Howard’s ill-thought-out comments have increased anti-Australian feeling among his already suspicious neighbours. The most notorious of such utterances is the announcement that Australia would make pre-emptive strikes on Asian countries harbouring terrorists. That prompted Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohammad to rebuke Canberra for trying to be the US’s "deputy sheriff" in the region.
Recently Canberra introduced an ‘anti-terrorism kit’ to be distributed to every Australian household. Its coming at a time when Australia has been relatively peaceful has confirmed suspicions of Howard’s real intention: to justify the country’s alliance with the US. The kit contains tips on how to survive an attack and identify ‘suspicious’ behaviour, with things like a fridge-magnet listing emergency telephone-numbers and a glossy 20-page information-booklet explaining what the government has done to protect the country. It also includes latex gloves, a first-aid kit, a battery-operated radio, and a torch.
Already the kit has drawn ridicule. Many Australians believe that the more the government whips up an atmosphere of war hysteria, the more likely Australia is to be attacked. Opposition leader Simon Crean said that the decision to send troops to Iraq has left Australians exposed to the threat of terrorism: "He has sent our best anti-terrorism troops 10,000 miles away and he expects those of us left behind to defend ourselves with a fridge magnet," he added.
A large section of Australian society not only opposes the present campaign in Iraq, but also has spoken out against the injustices in the Middle East. It would be a Herculean task for Howard and his colleagues in government to sway public opinion. Last year, for example, more than 90 professors in Australia, from a wide variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, from at least half of Australian universities, supported a call for an academic boycott of Israel and for research and cultural links with Israel to be severed. The majority were not Arab; a small number were Jewish.
With public opposition increasing against Canberra’s strong backing for anything Bush does, it seems that Howard and his cronies will be the only supporters of Washington’s policies in the Middle East. Clearly Howard’s route to war is a political minefield.