subdues Costello, but battle with Beazley looms
Australian Prime Minister John Howard
So now it's settled. Prime Minister John Howard
will lead his ruling Liberal Party at the next federal election
in 2007 to seek an unprecedented fifth-term in office. At a joint-party
meeting of the Liberal-National coalition on Monday, Howard declared
that soundings he had taken from coalition MPs and voters had persuaded
him to stay on as leader.
His deputy, Peter Costello, who had made various
noises over the past few weeks about challenging Howard, has decided
to accept the inevitable and continue on in his role of Federal
Treasurer, saying he realizes he does not have the numbers to be
a serious contender, at least not right now.
Whether this retreat has damaged Costello's long-term
prospects of being Prime Minister remains to be seen. As his supporters
were quick to point out, Howard, in a statement circulated to Coalition
MPs, has not committed to a full-term of four years if he wins,
paving the way for Mr Costello to take over midway in the term.
But for now, there is no doubt that Howard's decision
has seen coalition MPs, many in marginal seats, drawing deep sighs
of relief. Costello may have steered the country's economy steadily
and capably over the past decade, with inflation kept low and a
steadily declining unemployment rate, but his popularity rating
as a future Prime Minister remains very low.
If anyone is capable of pulling off another victory
for the coalition, it will be Howard, according to his colleagues
and regular opinion polls that rank him far ahead of his opponent,
the far-from horizontally challenged, locquacious Kim Beazley.
"Bring him on" says Beazley, trying to
stay en message that a future Labor government led by him will be
less mean, more caring and sharing than the edifice that Howard
has built over the past decade, especially the last term when the
ruling coalition controlled both Houses and was able to deflect
or ignore many issues that would have embarassed the Government.
In an attempt to differentiate his party's policies
from that of the Liberals, a factor that disenchanted many die-hard
Labour voters in years past, Beazley has already promised to shoot
down one of Howard's long-held legislative dreams, the deregulation
of the labor market.
Aided by a resurgent union movement which has
launched an expensive and sophisticated advertising campaign over
the Government's workplace reforms, Beazley has already announced
that he will tear up the legislation if he is elected to power.
There is no doubt that horror stories, aired over
TV as part of the union campaign, of workers forced by rapacious
employers to sign individual agreements with fewer benefits, longer
working hours etc., is making a lot of voters and many ruling party
MPs extremely nervous.
Howard has long argued that such "flexible"
working arrangements are essential if Australian businesses, facing
increasing competition from comparatively low-wage Asian economic
tigers, are to survive. The Government proudly points out that Australia's
current unprecedented unemployment rate of around five per cent
can be improved only through such reforms.
Opponents, however, beg to differ. They argue that
the reforms are aimed at "Americanizing" the workforce,
an economy based on low-paid, casual work with minimum social security
benefits. And, they claim, new laws that came into effect from July
this year to tighten the country's social security system, with
the aim of getting more people into paid work, including those with
disabilities and parents with children over six years of age, while
needed, have been driven by ideology rather than proper thought
However, most analysts agree that Labour needs
to do a lot more bold and innovative policy-work for voters to consider
it a genuinely viable alternative to the current Government's amazing
run of luck through booming mineral prices and a steadily-growing
economy which has survived the dot com crash, Mad Cow disease, Asian
flu epidemics etc., with hardly a bump.
The decision by the Reserve Bank on Wednesday
to increase interest rates by .25% to check a rising inflation rate,
its effect on house mortgage rates on already stretched budgets
of the lower and middle-income earners, rising oil prices and the
'sleeper' issues of Howard's seemingly unconditional support for
US President Bush over Iraq and now for Israel over the crisis in
Lebanon, especially among Australia's large Muslim population, are
all issues that are waiting to be exploited by a savvy opposition.
Whether Beazley and his team has the 'ticker' to do so is the question.
One thing, however, is certain. he will be up
against the most seasoned political operator in Australia today.
Disparagingly dismissed once by a former Labour Prime Minister,
Paul Keating, as Lazarus with a triple by-pass, Howard has, during
his long political career, lost the leadership of the Liberal party,
seen off various successors to the position and then regained it
to become the second longest-serving Prime Minister of Australia
behind Robert Menzies.
Though aged 67, he has lost none of his focus nor
his steely determination to hold on to the reins of power as long
as he can (or as long as the Australian people wants him to, as
he puts it). No wonder his MPs welcomed his decision to stay on
Europe trying to atone for
its past sins
Cartoon courtesy The Guardian, UK
Last week's diluted statement by the European Union
foreign ministers on the Lebanese crisis was symptomatic of the
political divisions that exist on the continent.
The draft statement before the foreign ministers
called for an immediate ceasefire and labelled Israel's continuous
bombardment of Lebanon as "a severe breach of international
But it was shot down by the UK, whose leader Tony
Blair is not only seen by many as President Bush's pet poodle, but
also by Germany whose rightwing chancellor Angela Merkel is now
being viewed by Bush as another worthy for his White House kennel.
On the other side stood France which, as the current
president of the United Nations Security Council, had from the outset
demanded an immediate ceasefire before any meaningful action could
be taken as a long term solution.
Ultimately the EU statement ended up calling instead for "
an immediate cessation of hostilities to be followed by a sustainable
In the diplo-speak of the European Union "cessation"
is tantamount to a temporary pause in the fighting whereas a "ceasefire"
would mean a much longer end to hostilities until something more
durable is worked out by the international community.
This watered-down statement engineered by Britain,
which has faithfully followed Washington's lead from Day One despite
the growing criticism of Prime Minister Tony Blair in his own cabinet
and certainly within the Labour Party and the country, and by Germany
shows how the three most important members of the European Union
are entrenched on either side of the barricades.
Interestingly this EU statement takes almost the
same position taken by foreign ministers when they met in Brussels
over two weeks ago. The restatement by the foreign ministers shows
the deep divisions found in Europe on the latest round of blood
letting in the Middle East or West Asia, perhaps a more accurate
geographical description for the region.
If today Britain and Germany give Israel a licence
to continue its assault against the people of Lebanon and not just
the Hezbollah it is surely because Europe bears much of the blame
for what is happening in Lebanon and the Gaza.
It was European anti-semitism, especially in the
early 20th century that led to the burgeoning of the Zionist movement
and to the British-led Balfour Declaration of 1917 that promised
Palestine to the Zionist movement so as to preserve as long as possible
the British empire.
Much later Hitler's national socialism drove millions
of Jews out of Germany and Europe or into concentration camps and
gas chambers. Though today France has taken a more enlightened political
stance denouncing Israel's disproportionate response to the killing
of some Israeli soldiers and the kidnapping of two others, historically
it too is responsible for the mess that the region is in. The current
imbroglio has its embryo in the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement in which
Britain and France set down who would control which areas of the
Middle East after the end of the first world war.
If these historical machinations and imperatives
of empire were responsible for creating the conditions of the current
conflict, one cannot ignore some 2000 years of anti-semitism by
the Christian church.
The result of this feeling of collective guilt
has often led to Europe turning a Nelsonian eye to whatever Israel
did in its immediate neighbourhood. No impartial mind could deny
that since the state of Israel now exists it should be entitled
to its security and the right to defend itself.
But what is now driving majority international
opinion and opinion on European streets, is the highly disproportionate
response of Israel to the killing and kidnapping of its soldiers.
It is, Lebanon, an independent sovereign state
that is taking the brunt of the Israeli onslaught while it's the
majority of it’s the civilian population that has little or
nothing to do with the Hezbollah, that are the victims of Israeli's
If those like President Bush and Prime Minister
Tony Blair who is behaving like Washington's running dog, believe
that their unequivocal support for Israel is contributing to their
war on terror to eliminate Islamic radicalism they are even more
naïve than they appear to be.
As though the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq
were not sufficient for Blair to exercise some circumspection, he
once more took the lead from President Bush and dived headlong into
the Israel-Lebanon conflict.
His uncritical support for Washington has led
to dissenting voices in the cabinet, which No 10 has been quick
to deny despite widespread coverage of the differences in the British
These differences came out in the open for the
first time when Jack Straw, former foreign secretary demoted to
Leader of the Commons, issued a statement in which he clearly thought
that Israel was using "disproportionate action" in dealing
with the Hezbollah.
This was in marked contrast to Blair's own position,
which was to avoid any criticism of Israel in consonance with the
stance taken by President Bush and his secretary of state Condoleezza
Saying that he found it "difficult to understand
the kind of military tactics used by Israel," Jack Straw went
on to add: "One of many serious concerns I have is that the
continuation of such tactics by Israel could further destabilise
the already fragile Lebanese nation."
If Straw was the first cabinet minister to raise
the alarm over Blair's overt support for Bush, earlier Kim Howell,
a junior foreign office minister was the first to publicly depart
from the official line set by his prime minister. Howell called
on Israel to "go for Hezbollah…….don't go for the
whole Lebanese nation."
Fortunately for Blair the House of Commons is
in recess and most political bigwigs are on holiday. But the rumblings
in the Labour Party and among some of his cabinet colleagues will
not go away easily. He would still have to face the fire when the
Labour Party holds its annual conference in Manchester late in September.