A cowboy comes home

US President George Bush and Prime Minister of Australia John Howard like each other, and there are reasons for that which run deeper than their conservatism and their willingness to substitute power for thought in foreign relations.

Australia is the American West writ large. Both are hydraulic civilisations where aridity dominates the economy.

Indeed, had the United States been settled from west to east rather than the other way around, the big government agencies necessitated by scarce water would have preceded the freeman tradition that took root on the well-watered eastern slopes of the Appalachians in the eighteenth century, and a mild form of hydraulic civilization — highly centralized and authoritarian regimes, like those that built the great water and earth works in India, China, and Mexico — might have arisen here.

Australia is the driest continent on the planet, with an average rainfall of around 165mm (6.5 inches). In a certain sense we are that mild hydraulic civilisation Kaplan speaks about. Even now, all our railways and the majority of our telecommunications is governemnt-owned and operated. The ‘fair go’ has always been central in Australian politics and public enterprise has always been more central to our economy. The ecology ensures that.

The peculiarities of the ecology includes rivers that run intermittently, including the Darling, the second largest river in the country. Last year I found myself looking at a chunk of rusted iron near Menindee Lakes, in the far west of the State of New South Wales.

In 1871 the paddlesteamer Providence tied up at Menindee Town to take on a load of wool for shipment down the Darling, then the Murray to the Southern Ocean. The river went down and stranded the boat for a year. When they cast off, after a heavy night at the Menindee Arms, they fired up the furnace but forgot to put any water in the steam engine. The explosion, a few miles downriver, reduced the steamer to matchwood and threw the boiler tank around 100 metres up the bank. No-one survived.

Although Australians and Westerners share many common myths, the history they have forgotten is the big government agencies and big public investments in water projects without which the market economy simply would not work.

While Howard does not share Bush’s cowboy style that’s the image he carries in much of Asia. The weird thing about the Howard government is that Howard played much the same music as Bush long before Bush was elected president. The Howard doctrine is an example.

: “It’s always a treat for a national leader to have a great policy named after him. There’s the Monroe Doctrine (making the Western Hemisphere America’s backyard), the Truman Doctrine (branding communism Global Enemy No. 1, to be contained at all costs), and, last month, the Howard Doctrine. As in Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Yet barely a week after the country’s Bulletin newsmagazine gave his name to a policy of making Australia the regional peacekeeping deputy to ‘globo-cop’ United States, the PM was hastily denying parentage of the so-called Howard Doctrine. Evidently, the idea went up like a lead balloon in neighboring capitals, which are hardly leaping with glee over the prospect of battalions from Down Under deploying northward to spread peace and harmony. “

In the last week, there’s been a similar fuss when Bush promoted Howard (seriously or otherwise) from deputy sheriff to sheriff. Once again, the joke went over like a lead balloon in Asia. Howard has also endorsed pre-emptive antiterrorist strikes by the Australian Defence Force in Southeast Asia. His government has made a great song and dance about UN ‘interference’ in Australia. Howard’s mobilisation of 11 September and the whole area of security politics makes Bush’s use of the issue look half-hearted and amateurish.

The parliamentary library report on the Commonwealth Election 2001 reads:

There are strong grounds for supposing that the election was effectively decided at this point, some time prior to the beginning of the formal election campaign. Within a few days of the Tampa hitting the news for the first time on August 26-27, there seemed to be a marked reaction showing up in the opinion polls. In mid-August Newspoll had found an approval rating for the Government of barely 40 per cent (ALP 42 per cent) , but the figure had risen to 45 per cent in its August 31-September 2 soundings (ALP 39 per cent). This seemed inextricably linked with the Government’s determined response to the asylum seeker question, with the Prime Minister’s approval rating jumping 10 points to 50 per cent. The September 11 events seemed to build on this, and by late September the Government’s approval rating was at 50 per cent (ALP 35 per cent), and Howard’s approval rating had climbed further to 61 per cent, the highest level in five years.(20) In early October Professor Murray Goot claimed that overall the different polls were pointing to ‘considerable Coalition strength’ that was likely to last.(21) Essentially this relative position remained constant during the five week campaign, with the Government remaining comfortably ahead. Early in the campaign the pollster, Irving Saulwick, remarked on the electoral mood as being ‘one of conservatism and battening down the hatches’,(22) and this seemed not to alter.

Writing in April 2000, journalist Richard McGregor spoke of the Prime Minister and his party needing ‘to find positive reasons for people to stick with the Coalition’.(23) By mid-September 2001 the Government seemed to believe that it had found such reasons in the sudden and unexpected turmoil of the times. By early October, election analyst Antony Green’s reading of the dramatic events was that so ‘drastic and complete’ was the turn-around of the previous six weeks, that it was difficult to see how Labor could get itself back in the race, ‘let alone return to the lead it previously held’.(24) Labor needed to only win eight of its opponent’s marginals but as polling day loomed, it seemed that, apart from the difficulty of winning eight, Labor could not even count on holding all of its own marginals, such as Bass, Dickson, Canning or McMillan.

Howard is sophisticated when it comes to dog whistle politics. Just as Bush announced (in a famously wrong claim) that US foreign policy is not ‘subject to the decisions of others’, Howard told the electorate, at the height of the Tampa crisis:

we and we alone will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come. That is a fundamental and absolute right of any Government

That was not about immigration policy, it was about blowing a large dog whistle that immigration opponents could hear but the prime minister could deny.

The Bush visit was originally planned before Bush’s standing started falling. It was originally spoken of as a much more dramatic and public event, perhaps with Bush and Howard taking cheers together at the Rugby world cup. It’s been trimmed back dramatically and the Australian parliament, under US Secret Service pressure, has closed its doors to the Australian people for the first time in it’s centurylong existence.

Howard would almost certainly have committed troops to Iraq no matter what the circumstances. He believes in the US alliance that strongly. With hindsight, his insistence that most ADF troops be withdrawn as soon as the war ended looks like genius. His poll standings have not been battered by the constant drumbeat of casualties and his government is not seen by the electorate as responsible for the aftermath of the Iraq war. Howard’s economic management has been better as well, so there are no collapsing job figures to drive his standing down. The federal opposition is simply incoherent. Howard has more going for him than (as Bush famously said) his nonexistent charisma.

They will talk in Bangkok at the APEC summit and again in Canberra during the visit itself. They agree on most issues so I’m not really sure what they will discuss. Howard would like much more access to the US market for our agricultural exports, but otherwise they’re in total agreement. They don’t remember the real history of heavy public investment in their economies and they certainly do not doubt that force is the key to the War on Terror. Howard is infinitely more flexible than Bush and the imbalance of power between the two leaders is dramatic so Bush will almost certainly get whatever it is he wants. Except an ADF return to Iraq.

When Clinton arrived at Sydney in 1996 most channels carried Air force One’s landing to the tune of the Star Wars theme. This visit is a lot grimmer. I’m not sure they’ll repeat the joke.