CANBERRA In the wake of last week’s suicide bombing at the gates of the Australian Embassy in Jakarta, Australian Prime Minister John Howard has deftly shifted debate in the federal election campaign for the Oct. 9 polls onto his publicly perceived strong points on anti-terrorism measures and national security.
Following a widely publicized weekend meeting of the cabinet’s national security committee, where they were briefed by the head of the Defense Forces General Peter Cosgrove and Australian Federal Police Commissioner Mick Keelty, Howard announced a package of $3.45 million to assist the Indonesian government investigate the Jakarta bombing.
While Howard may have benefited from renewed public debate on national security, he insists Australia’s role in providing troops to help invade Iraq has not increased the terrorism risk. "I make the point again that the day we allow terrorists to determine our decisions on issues of security and foreign affairs is the day we hand over control of our future," he said last week.
On Thursday, a powerful car bomb was detonated by a suicide bomber outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta killing at least nine people and injuring about 180 all of them Indonesians.
According to Indonesian and Australian police investigators, the blast is linked to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) a regional network that aims to create a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia and which several governments have classified as a terrorist organization.
On Friday an Arabic web site claiming that Jemaah Islamiyah was responsible for the bombing of the embassy described Australia as "one of the worst enemies of God" and said the bombing was a martyr’s operation carried out to settle accounts.
Australia has about 850 troops in and around Iraq and was the first country, apart from the United States and Britain, to contribute forces for the invasion of Baghdad last year.
However, a campaign dominated by a debate over terrorism may backfire on Howard.
Australia’s role in invading Iraq dominated a nationally televised debate on Sunday evening between Howard and the Opposition Labor Party leader, Mark Latham.
"We have become less safe in the war against terror because of the conflict in Iraq. Why? Because it diverted so many resources from the real task and for Australia the real task is in our part of the world in Asia," Latham said.
A paper on terrorism issued late last week by the government-funded Australian Security Policy Institute (ASPI) argues that if terrorist groups state that Australia is targeted because of actions in Iraq "there’s no reason not to believe them."
"A popular myth being propagated by governments worldwide and not least our own government is that terrorists target us because of our culture and what we represent, rather than for the conduct of our foreign and domestic policies. The truth is that it is actually because of both," wrote ASPI’s Program Director Aldo Borgu.
In an attempt to blunt potential government criticism that Labor is soft on terrorism, Latham announced that in government he would offer military forces to assist Southeast Asian governments curtail the extended network of Islamic militants operating in the region.
On Aug. 29 Howard, reeling from revelations by a former government adviser that ahead of the 2001 election the prime minister had misled the Australian public with false accusations against asylum seekers, announced an election for Oct. 9.
"This election, ladies and gentlemen, will be about trust," Howard told a press conference.
Howard’s preference is for the election campaign to be dominated by discussion of anti-terrorism measures and the management of the economy, rather than the opposition Labor Party’s strengths of health, education and welfare. "Who do you trust to lead the fight on Australia’s behalf against international terrorism?" Howard asked opening the election campaign.
To win government, the opposition Labor Party needs to gain 13 seats to have a majority in its own right, though there is a possibility that it could form a minority government if the three lower house independents and a Green are reelected.
While Howard prefers the campaign be dominated by a focus on national security, the Liberal Party is also been keen to dent the growing electoral support for the Australian Greens, who could poll as high as 10 percent of the primary votes.
Last week, Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson invoked the specter of communism to tarnish the Australian Greens. "This idea that they’re some warm, nice, midway house between the coalition and the Labor Party overlooks the fact that they’re a home for the people who in the 1950s would have joined the Communist Party," he said.
Howard is being challenged in his own Sydney seat by former Office of National Assessments intelligence analyst, Andrew Wilkie, who resigned early last year over the government’s policy on Iraq and is now a candidate for the Australian Greens.
Speaking at the Greens national policy launch in Melbourne on Sunday, Wilkie said, "John Howard’s government cannot escape the simple fact that Australia’s interests were targeted directly in Jakarta as a consequence of Australia’s government policy, both in the region and overseas in recent years."