Australia: The Beginning of Howard's End?

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The upcoming Australian federal election, which the government could call any time now, raises the possibility that Liberal (conservative) leader John Howard - one of George Bush's leading allies in the 'war on terror' - will be sent the way of Jose-Maria Aznar by an angry electorate.

A catalogue of events has mounted to the point where people feel that 'enough is enough'. I have only listed a few here - a spontaneous reaction to what I, like many Australian voters, have been exposed to under this government.

The war on Iraq
In defiance of huge public protests in this country, Howard toed the line with Bush and Blair in the invasion of Iraq. Despite the atrocities in occupied Iraq, Howard continues to align himself with Bush to the extent that he adopts the same tactics of provoking public fear to justify the implementation of right wing policies that have been in the wings for years.

Sorry seems to be the hardest word
John Howard refuses to apologise on behalf of the government for the past injustices - the dispossession, scapegoating, oppression and genocide - done to Aboriginal people. This is despite a major public outcry - most visibly the hundreds of thousands who marched over Sydney harbour bridge in 2000 calling for true reconciliation.

Immigration policy
The detention of children and their families has brought condemnation of the government from many, yet they continue to persist with a policy that locks refugees in detention centres and treats them as criminals. The horrific footage of children and families behind wire fences has been broadcast around Australia and the world.

The government has gone to previously unthinkable lengths on immigration. It has even changed the definition of borders to prevent people seeking refugee status and have transported refugees away from Australia to the pacific island of Nauru. It has also used the line that terrorists could be coming into the country disguised as refugees - another accusation aimed at creating fear and suspicion among the Australian public.

The most significant tale in this sorry story is surely the 'Tampa incident'. Shortly before the last election, the government repeated claims that refugees on the Norwegian freighter Tampa attempting to dock in Australia had thrown their children into the sea. We now know that senior defence department officials had told the government there was no proof that this had occurred. John Howard is facing a damaging Senate inquiry over the affair.

Free trade agreement
It now seems more real than hypothetical to consider how close Australia has come to being just an extra star on the US national flag.

The signing of the 'free' (more abuse of our language) trade agreement will ensure that 99 percent of manufactured goods coming from the US into Australia will be tariff free. In Canada similar provisions under the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs.

This agreement is an attack on Australian workers: from the impact on media ownership and control, to the pressures on jobs, to the potential for increased medical costs by opening up the Australian market to US pharmaceutical companies.

Education
This government has significantly increased the funding to private schools, with 70 percent of funding going to the 30 percent of students in private schools. Even in areas where private school enrolments are down, those schools have received funding increases of up to 40 percent since 2001.

Industrial relations
The most graphic example of this government's view on the rights of workers was its attack on the Maritime Workers Union. In 1998 it deployed security forces and police in support of the sacking of 2,000 dock workers. This 'interventionist approach' followed a government briefing prepared the previous year about how it might deunionise the docks.

Enough is enough
I think this government will be ousted because Australians do not want to be blindly aligned to the policies of the US, and they want to make a republic a real possibility. They want to be seen by the rest of the world to be honest and fair in the treatment of our indigenous people, refugees and citizens through social policies that put people before business.


Bill Richardson emigrated from Britain in 1980 and now works in Newcastle, New South Wales.