Unless you are in the advertising business or in England, the A$180 million advertising campaign, “So Where the Bloody Hell Are You?” probably went unnoticed. It was a creative success and commercial failure, since tourism to Australia fell while the ads ran.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s latest stunt, criticizing Barack Obama for criticizing the Iraq war and say that his election would be a boon to Al Qaeda, was as cheeky as the failed ad campaign, but was targeted to a domestic market, with little consideration as to how it would play internationally.
To fill in non-Australian readers: Howard, despite his overwhelming mediocrity, is the longest-serving prime minister in Australia’s history. He is joined at the hip with George Bush (well, “hip” implies a degree of equality, perhaps “toe” would be a better choice) and took Australia into the Iraq war despite the opposition of 93% of the population.
Hence the bizarre spectacle of a head of state taking aim at a presidential candidate from the opposition party. Even with America’s superpower tendencies to stick its nose into other sovereign nations’ business, it’s hard to think of a case where a foreign power voiced an opinion on a bit of domestic election campaigning (although Howard’s belief is that it is his business, since Australia has troops in Iraq. Quite a stretch).
So what was this about? Clearly no one in the US cares about what Howard says, assuming they even know who he is. No, this is a nasty bit of racial politics. Howard has long been willing to stoop to shameless tactics, particularly when he is under pressure. The pressure comes in the form of an intelligent, telegenic Labor leader, Kevin Rudd, who, if elected, has said he would get Australia out of Iraq.
An incident that reveals how Howard appeals to his base’s prejudices was the “Babies Overboard” claim in the 2001 campaign. It played on Australian’s fears of immigrants and took Howard’s Liberal Party, then in a tight race with Labor, to a clear victory:
The children overboard affair refers to claims made two days into the 2001 Australian election campaign by the then Immigration Minister, Phillip Ruddock. Ruddock claimed that asylum seekers had thrown babies overboard from a fishing boat as a way of pressuring the Australian Navy to rescue them and take all the asylum seekers to Australia….
As ‘evidence’ the Australian government released photos of children in the water being rescued by Australian Navy personnel.
Howard’s Liberal Party had decried to making anti-refugee policy one of the cornerstones of its re-election bid in an effort to win support from the former supporters of Pauline Hanson’s populist One Nation Party, which first proposed using the Navy to repel asylum seekers arriving by boats.
However, in the last week of the election campaign doubts that the released photos were in fact of children ‘thrown’ into the water but of people being rescued when their boat sank on October 8.
The military tried to correct the record but the federal government refused to hear. The federal government continued to claim that children were thrown overboard and used the issue to help them win another term in the federal election.
On November 8, just two days before the election the then Defence Minister, Peter Reith, released a video claiming it was proof that children had been thrown overboard. However, the video only showed a man standing at the railing on the boat holding a child. “Well, it did happen. The fact is children were thrown into the water,” said the then Defence Minister, Peter Reith.
Howard’s Liberal Party ruthlessly exploited the anti-refugee sentiment they created. On election day they ran full-page newspaper advertisements repeating a key line in Howard’s election launch speech. “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come … a vote for your local Liberal team member protects our borders,” they stated.
There are still quite a few Australians who prefer an all white nation. That’s why Howard took aim at Obama, rather than, say, Hillary Clinton, or one of the vocal war critics, such as John Murtha.
The Guardian’s writer Antony Lowenstein argues that Howard isn’t helping himself in Washington:
Howard is virtually alone internationally in his pro-war rhetoric. For him, standing by the US president, George Bush, is a sign of strength and mateship, even if the war was lost at least two years ago. Howard’s main argument for arrogantly maintaining around 1,450 troops in Iraq (against the will of the Iraqi people) is that, “you either stay or you go, you either rat on the ally or you don’t”.
Howard’s recent foray into the American presidential campaign, by criticising Democratic hopeful Barack Obama and claiming al-Qaida is hoping for his victory, is both counterproductive and displays a level of unnecessary hubris that leaves Australia increasingly isolated in the American capital.
Although a growing number of Australians feel distinctly uncomfortable with its closeness to Washington, Howard’s gaffe is aimed squarely at a domestic audience. The new Labor opposition leader, Kevin Rudd, is riding high in the polls and is the first serious challenge to Howard’s 11-year leadership (an election is due by the end of the year.) Rudd, while unconvincingly not setting a timetable for Australian troops in Iraq to be withdrawn, clearly states the view of Australia’s majority when he says that the country’s deployment is Australia’s greatest foreign policy failure since the Vietnam war.
Even Murdoch’s Australian newspaper, a long-time supporter of the invasion and “liberation”, has questioned Howard’s Obama misstep….
Howard has forgotten that the Australia/US alliance is more than the Bush administration. His allegiance to the neoconservative, “regime change” agenda has shown Australia to be the most useless kind of ally: an obedient one.