ACCORDING to the US, the 'Coalition of the Willing' in the war against Iraq had anything from 26 to 46 members - many of whom 'wish to remain anonymous'. One nation that has been anything but anonymous is Australia and its Prime Minister John Howard. One of only three nations prepared to commit troops to the war against Iraq - Australia committed 2,000 - Prime Minister Howard characterizes Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as a mass murderer, torturer and persecutor of his people who must be removed so that his people can be freed from tyranny. Yet when Iraqi people have sought to escape Saddam's Iraq by seeking refuge in Australia, the Howard Government has locked them up or turned back the leaking boats that brought them.
Although John Winston Howard heads the Liberal Party, he is far from liberal in his political outlook. Born in Sydney's suburbs in 1939, his parents ran a garage until the death of his father - from the effects of war injuries - in 1954. He grew up in a churchgoing, lower middle-class Anglican family, then studied Law (finding university a 'chore'). He lived with his widowed mother until he married - not uncommon during this period. Less common, however, was his mother's negotiation of his first salary with his employer: the sort of story that people have loved to use to portray him as a slightly ridiculous Mr Magoo figure. His hearing deficiency has added to this effect. As a consequence, Howard has been consistently underestimated as a threat by foes outside his party and rivals within.
Howard rose through the Liberal Party in the 1960s when it was committed to both the welfare state and a role for trade unions - values he never shared. He was one of the first Liberals to adopt monetarist economic doctrines and to develop a conservative position on feminism and the family.
In the 1990s he steered a cultural counter-revolution in Australian politics. Together with a number of reactionary intellectuals he began importing the jargon of the US 'culture wars' - most particularly the phrase 'political correctness', a term he used exhaustively during 1993-94.
It was a vote-winning move. The then Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating, who had previously focused on neoliberalizing Australia's economy, had turned his attention to a new flag, a republic, reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australia, and an engaged rapport with Asia. This alienated sections of the middle class. More importantly, it also alienated key sections of Labor's formerly solid working-class constituency. Their relatively benign attachment to an Anglo-Celtic Australian tradition has been transformed into a far more fearful and resentful hostility to foreigners by the devastating effect that neoliberal economic policies - downsizing, casualization and off-shoring - have had on the workforce.
Howard and a network of right-wing intellectuals, newspaper columnists, publishers and radio shock-jocks shamefully fanned the flames of this resentment. When former Liberal candidate Pauline Hanson won a seat in parliament by openly saying that she 'wouldn't represent aboriginals' in her electorate, Howard determined that there would be nothing to the Right of him. Without endorsing the content of Hanson's vile and paranoid maiden speech, he suggested that he was happy that 'people could talk more freely'.
This reactionary strategy had explosive results in 2000 and 2001, when the arrival of Middle Eastern refugees by boat on Australia's northern coast increased. The previous government had introduced a policy of mandatory detention of such arrivals in camps in desert areas such as Port Hedland and Woomera. By the late 1990s the plight of the detainees was creating a furore that divided the nation. When a Norwegian tanker - the Tampa - picked up 438 refugees from a sinking boat in August 2001 and attempted to bring them to port in Australia, the popularity of the Howard Government was low. The Government refused the Tampa entry. The 10-day standoff that followed resulted in the refugees being shipped to a tent city on the Pacific island of Nauru where many lived for months while their refugee status was assessed.
In October a grossly overloaded fishing boat heading for Australia with 397 asylum seekers sank in heavy seas: 353 (mainly Iraqi) refugees drowned. Doubt has been placed on Government claims that the boat sank in Indonesian waters, with some evidence now showing that the Australian Navy knew about the boat but did nothing to help save those who eventually drowned. Three weeks later the Liberals won the November 2001 election.
If Howard's policies and strategies are not racist then, at the very least, a form of white chauvinism is in play - a disdain towards non-white people. The results are clear. There is now more prejudice, hostility, reactionary ugliness and short-sightedness in Australian politics than at any time since the early 1950s. That, above all, will be John Howard's lasting achievement.