Howard's khaki election: bashing Arabs and refugees



In 1970, thousands of young people joined Edwin Starr in asking "War — What is it good for?". In 2001, Prime Minister John Howard has come up with an answer — winning elections.

Before September 11, Howard was facing down one of the angriest electorates in Australian history. In state elections and by-elections since 1999, voters had deserted the two major parties in droves, sick of living with sub-standard public (and ex-public) services that only those working the (now common) 60-hour week can afford after 10 years of economic rationalism.

As voters identified the Liberal/National Coalition as being worse than the Labor Party, the ALP looked certain to beat the government on preferences.

The Coalition's prospects should have receded further as the Australian economy followed the inexorable worldwide slide into recession. The collapse of Ansett, followed by Pasminco's move into receivership, and the shedding of thousands of jobs from retailers Coles Myer and Daimaru jobs should have put the final nail in Howard's coffin.

It seemed all the Labor Party needed to do was sit tight, avoid mentioning its support for the same economic rationalist policies, and wait to be elected.

In jubilation, an ALP staffer told a briefing in August, "The only thing that can save Howard now is a war!".

The September 11 attacks, and the US government's "crusade" against those it selects as "terrorists", has provided Howard with a previously undreamed of opportunity to convince voters that the real divide is not between rich and poor, but between the "civilised" and the "uncivilised" — racist-speak for whites and Christians versus Arabs and Muslims.

War on refugees

This was a strategy that Howard was attempting to pursue anyway — his original "war" was against poor refugees who arrive in Australia by boat. Howard has tied up one-third of the Australian navy in "protecting" the country from Afghan and Iraqi refugees fleeing brutal regimes.

Describing such refugees as a "threat to national security" and saying that they were "undermining our national sovereignty", Howard organised a spectacularly expensive media stunt by refusing to allow a boatload of recently shipwrecked refugees to land on Australian soil.

The public campaign against refugees tries to convince working people that the Australian standard of living ("our way of life") is threatened by the encroachment of poor masses from the Third World, as if the refugees were arriving in the millions.

It is buttressed by the underlying prejudice that the Third World is poor because those who live there are inferior (not because of an unfair debt regime or unequal trade), and therefore deserve to be poor.

This racist campaign against some of the world's most destitute people was given a huge boost by the September 11 mass murder of workers at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

These were the most horrific attacks on a First World population since the bombing of Hiroshima. For many Australians, they seemed to confirm the message that Howard was peddling — that the workers of the First World were under attack from Arabs and Muslims in the Third World.

Howard has raised the Arab — whoops terrorist — baiting to a new extreme to justify the commitment of up to 1000 Australian troops to the war in Afghanistan.

On November 10, Howard is punting that Australians' fear of those worse off overseas will overcome compassion for them, and that support for the "war" effort will overshadow people's anger with economic rationalism. To some extent, he seems to be succeeding.

A desire to distract voters is, of course, not the only reason that Howard has thrown himself (metaphorically) and Australian troops (literally) into this conflict. The Coalition government has always lobbied for the position of Asia-Pacific deputy sheriff for US imperialism. The current conflict provides another opportunity to prove it deserves its badge.

Subh = ALP joins in

The ALP now has to come up with some policies. But does it have any? Certainly, Labor leader Kim Beazley is eager to support the world's dominant superpower in its crusade to make the world safe for US exploitation. He has attempted to present himself as the more capable deputy sheriff. After all, he was trained in the 1991 Gulf War.

Nor has the ALP any interest in changing the debate from us versus the Arabs and Muslims back to the growing rich/poor divide. This divide was massively made worse by the economic rationalist policies of the previous Labor government.

The ALP's election strategy appears to be a return to that of "old" Labor: trying to out-racist the conservative parties and pose as the defenders of jobs and the public sector.

In practice this means pretending that Ansett would never have collapsed under the ALP, promising not to sell any more of Telstra (although not promising to re-nationalise the privatised part), and promising to provide a more ruthless regime on asylum seekers and to set up a national coast guard.

Beazley, amply assisted by shadow minister for racism Con Sciacca, has enthusiastically joined the chorus of condemnation of "queue jumpers" and assisted the government to in pass legislation to make it harder for refugees to get asylum. Beazley has even suggested that young Arab-Australians help the war effort by spying on their communities.

It is not clear at this stage whether Howard's strategy is working. Certainly, no-one plays the politics of fear better than the conservatives.

However, the Newspoll results that are putting the Coalition far in front are not matched by the historically more accurate Morgan-Bulletin poll, which had the ALP still marginally in front on September 30.

All the polls are predicting a major swing to smaller parties, as many voters are yet to be convinced by the racist warmongering.

This battle to appear more patriotic has a devastating effect on the ground. Attacks in Australia on people of Arab and Muslim backgrounds people have dramatically increased since September 11. The major parties have not seriously attempted to stop such attacks.

Added to violence on the streets is state harassment. Many Tamils, Kurds and Palestinians will suffer under the increasingly brazen attempts by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to smear them as terrorists. ASIO has more than doubled its usual number of raids on private homes, and the only response from the parliamentary parties has been to support increased powers for the secret police.

Australians, like the rest of the world's workers, have not seen the "evidence" that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the September 11 attacks. Nor do we know what, or who, the world's united imperialist armies intend to attack. Howard and Beazley believe that the xenophobic fear generated by the attacks will enable them to carry out this war with little opposition at home.

So forget about an election campaign that focuses on the quality of schools, hospitals or nursing homes, or the growing division between the rich and the rest. The issues that will matter most to the main parties, the big business media and their capitalist friends is who can pursue this racist war with the most vehemence or who can be "toughest" of refugees.

Progressive parties cannot support this jingoistic campaign. Nor can we pretend that the war is not happening — and campaign just on "safe" issues such as global warming or opposing the changes to the border legislation.

The government's war on Afghanistan, and its associated attacks on civil liberties at home, is now the overriding issue confronting Australians. Now is the time to make this election campaign a rejection of the war, to make every polling booth on November 10 an anti-war picket — to stand up and tell the bipartisan racists that solidarity beats bombing any day.