Paul Keating’s intervention during the 1996 election campaign when he claimed that Asian leaders wouldn’t deal with John Howard is almost universally recognised as a big mistake. Of course, a lot of odd things are said on the hustings – well, that is to say, impromptu odd things as opposed to the repetition of odd mantras like “Ease the Squeeze” and “We will determine who comes into this country”. Even political commentators who regularly scored every day of the 2004 election campaign as a “win” for the Coalition admitted that John Howard’s attempted wedge of Latho by loudly claiming that Australia reserved its right to make a pre-emptive strike against Asian nations who might be harbouring terrorists was a big mistake. A mistake compounded by Alexander Downer, who – quite in contrast to the Fortress Australia line – tried to soften the blow by saying he was quite cool with Indonesia bombing us if we were harbouring terrorists. Shortly after the election, Howard was seen to have junked this odd position.
But, in the wake of his pow-wow in a poncho in Chile with Dubya, our fearless leader is now refusing to sign a non-aggression pact with ASEAN nations in the name of pre-emption. Given that Australia has had to fight long and hard to even get a seat at the ASEAN table, and that crucial free trade area negotiations are to take place at the upcoming ASEAN summit in Vientiane, is this wise? Did we really vote for a steady hand on the tiller in times of trouble?