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Published: Saturday, 10/16/2004

A lesson from Down Under

PRESIDENT Bush's "coalition of the willing " in Iraq is not as broad as advertised and, symbolically, it would have been bad news for the White House had one of America's staunchest allies, Australia, defected. But the center-right government of Prime Minister John Howard has been returned to power with an increased majority.

Australia has been singled out by al-Qaeda for special attention. Two years ago this month, a terrorist bombing on the Indonesian island of Bali killed 202 people, including many Australians. Just last month, the Australian embassy in Jakarta was bombed and nine Indonesians were killed.

On the face of it, Australian voters acted bravely in refusing to be terrorized, but that does not mean that the presence of a token force of Australian troops in Iraq, reduced from an original commitment of 2,000, is universally supported Down Under. From Vietnam to the present, how far Australia should go in supporting the United States has always been controversial.

What made this a poor referendum on Iraq is that Australian voters generally felt safe enough in their island continent to focus on other issues.

Chief among those was the booming economy. With unemployment and interest rates low, the opposition Labor Party was not sufficiently trusted to keep the business climate in good shape.

For Americans seeking a lesson from the Australian general election, it could well be in its efficiency. As an accepted requirement of citizenship, Australians are required by law to vote in elections, a radical if not obnoxious idea to the American mind, but one that has its advantages.

Elections are always held on Saturday on the sensible theory that most people are free from work commitments then. And all the time and energy put into getting out the vote in America can be redirected in Australia to paying more attention to the issues.

The whole campaign took about six weeks and ended with a clear result, even if it did not say much about Iraq.



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