A test for Australia’s role as big brother of the Pacific

AUSTRALIAN Prime Minister John Howard is in Washington this week to see his mate George W Bush, on a trip the Opposition calls a holiday. Howard is also going to Ottawa and Ireland, his first visit to the Emerald Isle in his 10 years as prime minister, even though many Australians have Irish ancestry.

By Ross Peake

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Published: Mon 15 May 2006, 9:59 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 5:44 PM

He has left behind a frustrated deputy and a regional crisis. He will be in touch with his office back home every day because East Timor, the fledging nation just to north of Australia, is in turmoil.

Four Australian Navy warships have been dispatched to northern ports, amid fears the poor country is again about to descend into anarchy and lawlessness. There are also fears Fiji could again erupt into violence after claims its national elections have been rigged. That island nation has had two military coups. The United States is worried about the delicate balance in East Timor. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has told Canberra that the Bush administration fully backs Australia in whatever action it chooses to do.

Here’s the conundrum: Australia played a key role in the birth of the neighbouring nation as it gained independence from Indonesia but now cannot go in to help now until asked. The Howard government is very worried about any of its small neighbours falling into anarchy and providing an avenue for infiltration by terrorist cells operating out of the Philippines. Therefore, the Howard government is not happy about having to ‘sit on its hands’ as chaos looms in East Timor. The East Timor government believes it can handle the riots. Clearly Canberra disagrees, and is on high alert.

The naval vessels sent north include troop carriers and a frigate. In a crisis, they would be used to evacuate Australian nationals from the hotspot. There is a small chance they could pick up troops in Townsville and steam towards East Timor. Even if foreign armed forces are invited in, the next question that arises is how stretched will the Australian Army be? Already there are more than 2000 Australian troops serving overseas, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Solomon Islands, with more leaving in the near future. What would happen if East Timor, Fiji and Papua New Guinea all reached flashpoint at the same time?

Australia would not be able to respond to all countries in its new self-appointed role as the Pacific’s ‘big brother’ despite the funding boost for defence in last week’s budget. The budget was the eleventh brought down by Peter Costello, who remains the ‘bridesmaid’ to Howard. The better Costello steers the economy, the more voters want Howard to remain leader as the safe and conservative choice for the future. The government’s coffers are full from a healthy stream of company taxation, which in turn is a result of a sound economy. The government was able to offer every Australian taxpayer a cut in personal income tax, due to its strong fiscal position. The government could have been more generous because the fine print in the budget papers show that even with the cuts, the revenue from personal income tax will rise A$10 billion in the next year.

That money will be held over for an even bigger hand-out to voters next year, when the federal election is due. Will Howard still be the leader then? Costello is hoping he will finally have his place in the top spot before the election. He must have been dismayed, therefore, when the hoped for triumph of his budget was overshadowed in the national media by the amazing rescue of two gold miners who had been trapped underground for 14 days.

The amazing story of their rescue held the nation transfixed for the two long weeks that it took to drill through solid rock to reach the pair. They emerged in the predawn darkness on the morning of Costello’s budget release. Their release from a dark prison one kilometre underground took out the first half dozen pages in the next morning’s editions of leading newspapers. Meanwhile, the output of the large number of journalists analysing Costello’s budget was related to later pages. The group of politicians supporting Costello’s leadership aspirations feel hard done by, because it was a good budget, with few downsides. It points towards an even more favourable budget next May, and a very generous package for the election campaign but Howard, as prime minister, will be able to take all the credit.

Ross Peake is a Canberra-based political analyst

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