Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Last True Thatcherite

The Australian-turned American Rupert Murdoch greeted Australian Prime Minister John Howard on his recent trip to America and Canada, with a cheery, “time for you to think about retiring, mate. Quit while you’re on top form.”

Howard was probably too gracious to reply, and, indeed, after ten years in office, he shows no inclination of wanting to step down. But it is hard to deny that he certainly seems to be at top of his form.

He is already the second-longest serving prime minister in Australia’s history, second only to Sir Robert Menzies, and he is arguably the most successful. He’s won three general elections for his Liberal-National coalition and survived three opposition leaders.

It is puzzling that Howard doesn’t have a higher global reputation. Perhaps it is because he looks like a branch bank manager from Waga Waga. Maybe because during his frequent trips to Washington he seems so deferential, almost as if he relishes Australia’s role as a junior partner to the U.S.

Howard came into office promising to be the most conservative prime minister in Australian history. He is probably the last true Thatcherite holding public office anywhere today. (President George W. Bush has been called many things, but never a Thatcherite).

He came into office espousing many of issues that the former British leader championed, including privatization of state-owned corporations, cuts in the income tax, confronting the unions and fiscal responsibility. He has managed to accomplish many of those.

As an American, I’m agnostic as to whether I would prefer to live in a country ruled by the Australian Labor Party or Howard’s Liberal (actually conservative)-National Coalition government. But from a distance it is hard not to admire sheer competence, especially as it seems sorely lacking at home.

Conservatives in the US are pretty dispirited these days. Their leader’s approval ratings are in the pits. The party’s split over immigration. Traditional conservative feel betrayed by Bush’s loose fiscal policies. They might get some encouragement from a conservative government that actually works – and maybe learn a few things from Down Under.

Fiscal Responsibility and economic growth. For eight of Howard’s ten years in office, the government has enjoyed budget surpluses. That has allowed the government to cut taxes for the past three years without creating budget deficits.

It is true that Australia’s personal income taxes are higher than in the U.S. The top rate is 47%, although it is due to come down to 45% in June. Few doubt that taxes will go lower without Australia mortgaging its future in exchange for tax breaks for the well-off.

The Australian economy is growing at roughly the same rate as the U.S., but it is creating new jobs two, three, four times faster than the U.S. For example, the Australian Treasurer reported that 39,000 new jobs were created in March. Corrected for differences in population (with nearly 300 million people, the US is 15 times larger than Australia, with 20 million) that’s the equivalent of the US creating 585,000 jobs.

Of course, the US comes nowhere near creating that many jobs. Supporters of President Bush think his path should be strewn with garlands if the economy manages to exceed 200,000 new jobs a month.

Immigration. As in the US today, immigration and the “border protection” were red hot in Australia a few years back. An avowedly nativist and racist national political movement called the One Nation Party was winning votes and even – as a spoiler – toppling state governments in Queensland and Western Australia.

The Howard government destroyed One Nation with a ruthlessness that even Karl Rove would probably shy away from (for all its excesses, the Bush administration has not put a prominent political opposition leader in prison, as happened to One Nation founder Paulene Hanson).

First it stole One Nation’s issues, then it set about to systematically hound the party’s leaders through the courts. One Nation’s sole senator was expelled from parliament because she had dual British-Australian citizenship (this in a country where people are supposedly “subjects” of the Queen)

Howard refused entry to a ship, the MV Tampa, carrying Afghan refugees. That action brought down international condemnation but cemented Howard’s image as being strong on border protection. “We need to decide who comes into the country and the circumstances in which they come.” Howard declared.

Foreign Policy. Nowhere was Howard more adroit than in the handling of Australia’s commitments in Iraq. Of course, the cornerstone of Australia’s foreign policy for the past 60 years has been to support the U.S. in its foreign policy in expectation that the U.S. will defend Australia if she is attacked.

Australia was one of only three countries that attacked Iraq in March 2003. Canberra dispatched about 3,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen, many of them from the vaunted Special Air Service. They are said to have done valuable though still secret commando work in the desert.

But Howard withdrew most of these troops (who had suffered no casualties) shortly after the fall of Baghdad and he immediately serviced notice to Washington not to expect much more help. In a speech to parliament in May, 2003, Howard, said “The government has made clear all along that Australia would not be in a position to provide peace-keeping forces in Iraq.”

But having been with the Americans at the very beginning, Australia effectively immunized itself from having to pony up additional troops to suppress the growing insurgency. Not for them the thankless task of garrisoning and patrolling the dusty, dangerous towns of south Iraq. These tasks are left to the Poles, Italians and British.

In fact, Australia did supply a post-invasion contingent of about 850 troops, recently augmented by another 450, though many are serving on naval vessels or with air force detachments on the periphery of Iraq. Australia is the only major coalition partner that has not yet suffered a single battlefield casualty (its first Iraq death was through an accidental self-inflicted wound.)

The Iraq War and Australia’s participation in it are unpopular in Australia. The leader of the Labor Party, Mark Lathan, promised in the 2004 campaign to bring the troops home by Christmas. But it is hard for the issue to gain much traction when the cost has been so low.

No battlefield casualties in Iraq, the equivalent of half a million new jobs a month, tax cuts with budget surpluses. Is Australia the Lucky Country, or is Howard just ten times smarter than George Bush?


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September 25, 2006 at 12:41 AM  

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