Well-laid plans

When people calculate the likelihood of things going pear-shaped for John Howard, the usual assumption is of economic downturn, a bust in the housing bubble, sluggish world trade and increasing voter dissatisfaction over issues such as university education and Medicare. On international matters, the Prime Minister is thought to have both the initiative and the advantage. But most of the uncertainties of the year ahead are international, particularly in our region. John Howard will be lucky if things work out as he hopes. Indeed, they could throw all the disadvantages of his strategy into broad relief.

Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia will have elections over the next year. It is hard to predict outcomes, even harder to see how the results could work to Australia’s advantage. Indonesia will host the first popular election for the presidency: previously the president has been chosen by the parliament. It is doubtful that Megawati Sukarnoputri can win. While it is not clear who her opponent will be, at least one candidate should be a stalking horse for the TNI, the Indonesian armed forces, and his chances—it will certainly be a he—would have to rate highly. Not a few of the candidates will campaign from Muslim platforms, even among those who are secularist. They are unlikely to think that saying friendly things about the United States or its local deputy will be attractive to voters. The Bali bombings shocked Indonesians and do not assist extremist politicians; but Iraq and the anti-Islamic aspects of the crusade against terror, as well as lingering resentments about Timor, keep the West unpopular. Australia’s tentative renewal of relations—particularly involving police co-operation —may be difficult to sustain under a new regime.

Malaysia sees the exit of Dr Mahathir Mohamad, a long-time critic of Australia, but also one who has successfully suppressed Muslim tensions and maintained a broadly pro-Western outlook. His successors are likely to hold similar views, but may find it difficult to match his capacity for juggling balls in the air—not least as Malaysia aspires to champion the rights of developing countries in securing access to the agricultural markets of Europe, the US, Japan and Korea.

In the Philippines, it’s by no means clear whether Gloria  Arroyo will stand for the presidency again. Co-operation from her government in countering domestic Muslim separatists and international connections is patchy at best and unlikely to improve under her successor.

The outlook in the Pacific is hardly rosy. Renewed Australian determination to get value for money from its extensive aid to Papua New Guinea is already exciting deep anger at what is alleged to be Australian neo-colonialism. The day has long passed, if ever it existed, when Papua New Guinea had choices about whom it begged from, but that nation is too big and complicated to be liquidated
and restructured like the Solomons.

The situation in North Korea seems hardly likely to improve, so too the prospects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iraq is a nightmare—to the Americans and the British, if not for us—and it’s unlikely that anything in the next 12 months will repair the much sabotaged roadmap to peace between Israel and Palestine.

Dangerous and unstable times, which make voters look for steady, reliable and calm hands on the tiller, right? Perhaps, if not for the role John Howard has himself played in creating some of these hostilities, or in making them worse, while assuring voters that the worst would not happen, or that it did not matter if it did. Who seemed insensitive to how some of his smug statements, spoken for domestic consumption, sounded in the regional capitals? Who has helped undermine the United Nations and the role of international law and, now that America has rediscovered this body, is scrambling for a new position? Who has seemed impatient and ill at ease with Asian leaders, while unable to get Australia any political dividends from appearing as the pig in the minefield for American pre-emptive and unilateralist foreign policy, not least over the volatile stand-off with North Korea? John Howard is no more the man for nimbleness in a quickly changing and more hostile regional environment than his foreign minister,
Alexander Downer, seems the one to advise him.

Perhaps Simon Crean seems as ill-equipped. His flounderings in search of an umbrella position in the crusade against terror suggest so. But the times could suit him if he, or spokesmen such as Kevin Rudd, were developing the right positions now, anticipating Australia’s situation in nine months’ time, rather than the present moment. In the way in which, for example, Laurie Brereton was able, rather against Kim Beazley’s will, to reposition Labor on East Timor. A smart Labor Party, even with a strong pro-American wing, might recognise and respond more quickly than John Howard to the fact that, in Washington, the neo-conservatives are losing sway and that George W. Bush, swinging into election mode, becomes rather more conventional in his foreign policy. In areas such as this, Howard’s old clevernesses may do him in. To an old reputation of being mean and tricky, he has now added a reputation for looseness with the truth and a refusal to accept personal responsibility for poor outcomes. The electorate, on the evidence of the polls, sees this but, so far, does not much care. But it works its poison, even within the Government. Few of Howard’s colleagues trust him these days; fewer trust his instincts.

Unpopular as Simon Crean is, Labor is not that far behind in the polls. Importantly, once an election is on, the nature of campaigning means that Crean will get equal time and attention—if he has anything to offer. It can only be his fault if he has not.                   

Jack Waterford is editor-in-chief of the Canberra Times.



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