The Little Guy in Australia

On March 23, Australian opposition leader Mark Latham made a vital announcement to the public, declaring that, if elected, he would withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by Christmas. It was a bold maneuver. The U.S. coalition in Iraq—already flimsy since the terrorist attacks in Spain—needs unconditional endorsement from its remaining major allies, but the recent pattern suggests that the Bush administration’s support from the world will be further curtailed by the end of the year.

At present the political climate in Australia is favorable to the Bush administration. The Liberal Party presides in government—led by the feisty and determined John Howard, who fought long and hard throughout his last two terms to be at the constant beck and call of the United States. The Australian Labor Party (ALP), unable to engage the Liberals’ policies, has proved impotent during federal elections and—until recently—offered very little political competition.

Enter Mark Latham. With Simon Crean’s leadership of the ALP in serious doubt, several potential candidates began to make themselves known, but the outspoken Latham was the first to threaten the Liberals’ comfortable hold on the electorate. A little over a year ago, Latham delivered a speech to the Australian Parliament, declaring, “I am opposed to the government’s strategy for war in Iraq because it comes from a prime minister who is too weak to say ‘no’ to the Americans.” He continued, “Bush himself is the most incompetent and dangerous president in living memory.”

Make no mistake: Australians have never been shy to question the behavior of other world leaders. In 1993, Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating famously had the country denied membership to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by calling Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad a “recalcitrant” for refusing to attend an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting. Despite their country’s military insignificance, Australian leaders have rarely been afraid to chart their own course—except, that is, when blindly supporting U.S foreign policy.

So while Latham was not the first politician in the country to raise some eyebrows or provoke a smile, his words certainly turned some important heads. U.S. Ambassador to Australia J. Thomas Schieffer responded by attending a Liberal Party fundraising event, an unprecedented political gesture on the part of a foreign diplomat. In so doing, Schieffer essentially signaled his approval of the party that has given the Bush administration a verbal blank check for the War on Terror.

In response to the U.S. administration’s support of the current Australian government, Latham made some brave—though somewhat impetuous—decisions. He attacked the U.S administration and the Australian leadership, not only jeopardizing the tight relationship between the two countries and potential trade deals but also putting his leadership aspirations on the line. Sadly for John Howard, the demise of Latham never occurred—and the Australian political landscape soon took on a whole new shape.

In early December, Latham ascended to the ALP leadership, narrowly defeating his top rivals and promising to regain the government for the party. Closely watched with both fear and admiration, the new opposition leader steadily pushed away from Howard in polling since his ascension. Australia’s strange parliamentary system—majoritarian multi-party—means great difficulty in predicting likely election results. Most polling organizations simply give the option between the two major parties, which, for the latest results from the end of March, show the ALP at 55.5 percent against a 44.5 percent Liberal coalition.

From a practical standpoint, the United States need not worry about an opposition leader from a sparsely-populated nation with a small economy and an even smaller army. Irrelevant to the average American, Australia seems little more than a holiday locale and a former British colony. But Australia’s new disdain for U.S hegemony augurs worryingly for the world superpower.

Ever since the Second World War, Australia has followed the United States—often blindly—into many of America’s crucial ideological battles in the hope of securing a friendship and alliance. Joining the American military presence in Korea, Vietnam and twice in Iraq ensured a bond that neither of Australia’s political parties wanted to forego. Now, for the first time in some 50 years, Latham dared to challenge Australia’s unspoken commitment to its favorite ally.

The White House must surely feel its credibility in other coalition countries slipping away. The terrorist attacks in Spain quickly mobilized that country’s people to elect a new anti-war government, and the United States lost one of its few allies in the War on Terror. Thankfully, it didn’t take such violence to wake the Australian people from their slumber of submission.

If Latham wins in the upcoming federal elections in Australia, due to be held sometime within the current year, the Bush administration will suffer yet another grave blow to its international relations. Australia, which could be considered the United States’ most loyal ally, has now begun to question its foreign policy on Iraq. It is time the Bush administration sat up and noticed that the support for their global program of bullying is thinning.

Bede A. Moore ’06 is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.