Trust Howard to try it again

Thursday, 7 June 2007 

Let’s start by getting one thing clear.

The winner for Howard on the ‘trust’ issue in 2004 was not interest rates or Latham’s character. Howard could only raise doubts about these issues and begin to clawback Labor’s lead when he had raised doubts about a much more important issue, Labor’s commitment to the US alliance. It was the unilateral tone of Latham’s promise to bring troops ‘home by Christmas’ made on Sydney radio in March 2004 that undermined Labor’s campaign. Latham had made the mistake of confusing the unpopularity of Australia’s involvement in the Iraq war with the alliance that made it necessary.

By itself, the interest rates debate had little substance, as there was little real policy difference between the two parties on the issue. Indeed the government goes out of its way to emphasise its lack of control on monetary policy by handing it over to the Reserve Bank. If Latham’s signing of a big ‘cheque’ to promise low interest rates was a meaningless gesture, it was because it was a meaningless debate. Interest rates was merely a way Howard could translate a fundamental concern about Labor’s international policy to the domestic arena.

Of course, things have now moved on. The War on Terror strategy has failed as a means of the US leading the international agenda. How the US can reassert its lead is the primary policy debate in the US political class and the over-riding theme of the US election. There is widespread recognition that the European global warming agenda is gaining ground and that the US needs to respond.

Howard’s problem now is that he has tied himself into an administration that no longer reflects the view of the US political class on either the Democratic or Republican side. This was graphically brought out in February over Howard’s comments on Obama, when Howard showed he was out of touch with the shift in US thinking. It gave the opportunity for a devastating censure by Rudd and it is interesting to see it again. In one of the most effective parliamentary performances in recent years, Rudd signalled to the coalition that the international agenda was now once again up for grabs and to his own side that the long agony was over. For the first time in many years, Labor’s policy is coming back in line with the international order. It is why, whatever issue ends up being the reason people vote, it is climate change that is the critical one in this election.

The US cannot afford to wait until there is a change in administration to recover lost ground and Bush has been forced to do a U-turn and try to re-take the initiative through a new post-Kyoto treaty. However, his personal association with the previous failed agenda is obviously a barrier as shown by the lack of effectiveness of the US intervention in the G8 meeting in Rostock this week. Howard has no choice but to tack along with Bush’s efforts and will try again at the APEC meeting in Sydney in September to show that he, not Labor, is in line with global trends. However, while Bush himself is struggling, it is unlikely that Howard will succeed.

Howard’s use of the international agenda is what has enabled a politician renowned for duplicity to campaign on trust. It is what has allowed a politician with little policy agenda to appear as one with conviction. It has enabled the survival of a government that was floundering almost from the start, despite the benefits of an opposition that had lost its historical role. But things change.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Thursday, 7 June 2007.

Filed under International relations

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