Headline-free contest

Despite the usual argy-bargy of Australia's elections, there's little real difference between the candidates -- except on Iraq.

Published October 6, 2004 2:01PM (EDT)

Generally speaking, only Australians are interested in Australian elections -- and not of all them, at that. More so when, as is the case now, the incumbent prime minister, John Howard, looks likely to edge a fourth consecutive term.

For the Northern Rivers Echo, a paper in Lismore, New South Wales, the big news this week was the location of a new sewage plant. This pungent controversy has left the efforts of the Labor leader, Mark Latham, to defeat the Liberal-National coalition government, led by Howard, in the shade.

Another top story concerned a forthcoming celebration of International Lesbian Day at the Italo Club. "Local identity Nora Vidler-Blanksby will MC," the Echo reported. "The night includes a smorgasbord meal and DJ."

The Alice Springs News was more exercised about the problem of petrol sniffing than who would be top dog in Canberra after Saturday's election. A Yuendumu community project at the Mount Theo outstation "has provided a healing environment for sniffers," a correspondent wrote.

This is not to say that election news is entirely absent from the local press. In an apparently blatant bid for votes, the government has reportedly promised Alice Springs its own international airport. And according to the Geelong Advertiser, Labor has pledged more funding for regional day-care centers. The Hobart Mercury was fixated meanwhile on Latham's vow to end logging in Tasmania's conservation forests, seen as a transparent pitch for the Green vote.

With Australia's economy booming and unemployment and interest rates low, the two main political parties are not that far apart on domestic issues -- although that has not prevented the customary argy-bargy.

The hard-hitting Howard's message is fairly basic: "Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and to protect family living standards?" His leadership alone would keep Australia secure, he says. Latham, who, at age 43, is 22 years younger than the prime minister, believes it is time for a change. His vow to "ease the squeeze on middle Australia" and promote social values has led Howard to dub him a "behavioral policeman."

It is on international issues that the voters' options become more clear-cut, but even then, there is considerable policy overlap. Tapping into the deep unpopularity of the Iraq war, Latham promised earlier this year to withdraw Australia's troops from the country by Christmas. But this Spanish-style pledge has now been watered down, with some forces likely to remain indefinitely.

Echoing the British debate, Latham accuses the prime minister, who in 1999 appointed himself America's regional "deputy sheriff," of being too eager to please U.S. President George Bush, of undermining national security and of misleading the country over Iraq.

In a winning performance in a televised debate with Howard, Latham alluded to the terrorism in Bali, Indonesia, in 2002, which ended with 88 Australians killed, and to last month's bombing of Australia's embassy in Jakarta. Howard's unquestioning support for the "war on terror" had rendered the country "less safe," he claimed.

Labor says it wants a more regional approach to foreign and anti-terrorism policies and more emphasis on the U.N. and upholding international law. Funding would be provided, for example, to train Indonesia's police in counterterrorism.

But for all that, Latham proposes no fundamental change in Australia's key U.S. alliance or the Anzus mutual defense pact. And it was Howard, after all, who long ago recognized the strategic and economic importance of building good relations with China, Asia's biggest player and biggest potential threat. Last year he gave the Chinese leader, Hu Jintao, the honor of addressing Parliament.

This lack of clear alternatives may help Howard keep his job. It also helps explain the local papers' preferred focus on stories like that of Brent Hall from Meerschaum Vale -- who invented a macadamia nut harvester. In all innocence, he calls it the "Bush Rat."

By Simon Tisdall

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