My initial thought this morning was that there was no point in writing a federal election post in advance of tonight’s Great Debate. But pondering a little further, I wonder whether the debate is likely to have a great effect anyway. In light of the Jakarta bombing, I suspect Latham would have to win the debate very decisively to turn the election campaign in his favour, and even then it might not be enough.
I expect Latham to be just as tough-sounding as Howard on national security tonight. But it’s still Howard’s issue. Why would any swinging voter change their vote (especially when the economy is strong) just because an unknown quantity Opposition Leader sounds like he might possibly be just as strong on the critical issue of national security as the Leader we’ve got now?
I’m not suggesting that I expect to see a huge change in the opinion polls in Howard’s favour over the next couple of days. What I mean is that, once Jakarta put national security back in centre stage, the election odds tipped (probably) decisively in Howard’s favour. With national security likely to continue crowding out other issues from the public consciousness for the next week or so, then a couple of weeks where most people are focused on footie finals not politics, that’s pretty much the end of the election campaign. That was in large part what I meant by my remark a couple of days ago that got the righties so apoplectic.
How should Latham react?
I’m not sure he can do much more than he is now: making constructive policy noises about national security and trying as best he can to get his health, education and other messages heard above the national security static. Does this sound disturbingly familiar? It should. It’s precisely the same dilemma Kim Beazley found himself in back in 2001, when Tampa and then September 11 drowned out everything else. And just like Beazley in 2001, Latham has left himself exposed to having his strategy completely derailed by an unexpected catastrophic event, by leaving his detailed policy releases far too late. I’ve been saying that all along, and it’s looking more and more as if I’ll be proved right (he says immodestly but sadly).
Fortunately, Latham has previously shown himself to be a great lateral thinker, with an ability to articulate an unexpected but effective “cut through” message from left field that reshapes the immediate agenda in his favour. He’s going to need that skill in spades to get his message heard in the current atmosphere.
One thing I reckon Latham most certainly shouldn’t be pursuing is the option both Tim Dunlop and Christopher Sheil are touting: announcing an immediate full troop withdrawal from Iraq. That would be disastrous in both electoral and policy terms.
I should qualify that I’m mostly gauging the likely electoral consequences by my own reaction. If Latham were to make such an announcement, I would (albeit very reluctantly) switch my vote back to the Coalition. That was what I’d initially decided to do when Latham first announced his troop withdrawal plan, but that position was subsequently modified so that it’s now more a force adjustment/repositioning than a wihdrawal (and will hopefully be portrayed as such internationally should Labor win).
Reverting to a full troop withdrawal stance would be both pointless and disastrous in policy terms. It would be pointless because, contrary to what both Tim and Chris assert, there’s no strategic need to pull troops back from Iraq to defend the homeland or redeploy them to South-East Asia. There are very few troops in Iraq anyway. Their presence is mostly symbolic (but no less important for that), and places little strain on Australia’s military capacity to deploy troops elsewhere if needed. And it’s unlikely to be needed anyway. The War Against Terror is an intelligence and police war, not a military one. Even if Indonesia or the Philippines launched military attacks on terrorist training bases within their borders, they’re highly unlikely to want overt Australian military assistance in doing so. That would be domestically divisive in both countries.
For those reasons, announcing an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq would be a cynical and meaningless political stunt on Latham’s part. As far as I’m concerned it would confirm conclusively that Latham was unfit to govern, notwithstanding Howard’s manifest deficiencies.
It would also be disastrous internationally, in the message that it would send to terrorists. Along with Spain’s similar actions not so long ago, it would be telling the terrorists that Western nations are susceptible to having their foreign policies manipulated and dictated by terrorist threats and actions. That message would inevitably lead to still further terrorist atrocities designed to frighten even more countries into bending to the terrorists’ agenda. In a very real sense Latham would have the blood of future terrorist atrocities on his hands. That’s why he shouldn’t do it, and that’s why I think wiser heads like Beazley and Rudd will persuade him not to follow the advice of anyone in his inner circle who thinks like Tim and Chris.
While I’m on an Iraq diatribe (having not blogged about it for some time), I should draw attention to an excellent post by Macgregor Duncan on Imagining Australia. His opinions pretty much reflect my own, but he explains it all much better than I could. Here’s an extended extract:
It is conventional wisdom on the left that Australia’s involvement in Iraq and our membership of the Coalition of the Willing has made us targets of Islamic fundamentalists in our region. But this argument, while obviously true to some degree, ignores the fact that the antipathy of JI owes much more to Australian involvement in East Timor than any misadventure in Iraq. The Bali bombings, for example, which occurred well before Australia committed troops to Iraq, were said to be in retribution for Australia’s efforts to secure East Timorese independence, disrupting the dream of an Islamic Caliphate. In this instance, Australia, albeit tardily, was prepared to risk the ire of terrorists to do the right thing. What then about Iraq? Was Australian participation in Iraq the right thing to do, even if it did increase our susceptibility to future terrorist attacks?
I think it is quite clear that neither Howard nor any other supporter of the war (including myself) would have entertained that option had we known then what we know now, namely that Iraq had no WMD. But we quickly forget that, at the time, there was widespread consensus that Saddam had WMD. …
Further, all other options open to the international community were bad. The sanctions regime had become indefensible, with Saddam profiting billions by siphoning from the Oil for Food program, while ordinary Iraqis were left to suffer and starve. The US and the UK were bombing Iraqi defense positions on a weekly basis and maintaining a large garrison in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Arab news networks, such as al-Jazeera, were broadcasting images of the bombings and the starvation of ordinary Iraqis, all the while inflaming anger against the West. There was no doubt that the sanctions regime had to end but what was to be the alternative? Conciliation? That looked like a bad idea at the time, and still looks like a bad idea today.
I think the most defensible position, in hindsight, is that Iraqi regime change was a worthwhile objective, disastrously executed. US diplomacy was appalling from the beginning, owing much to American arrogance. And post-war planning was inexcusably non-existent. Anyone who reads Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack comes away with a sense of awe at the planning for the actual war, and incredulity that so little attention was given to the more difficult task of reconstruction. This is inexcusable in terms of Coalition troops subsequently killed and injured, and in terms of Iraqi domestic security subsequently jeapordised. But I for one continue to believe that despite American incompetence, and despite the continuing instability in Iraq, the prospect of a semi-functional democracy in Iraq (and Afghanistan and Indonesia) represents the best hope to stem the terrorist death cult currently pervading much of the Islamic world.