Melanie Phillips

The wizards of Oz have got it right

Australian ministers are clear-sighted about the war on terror

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Coming from Britain to Canberra to interview members of the Australian government is like leaving a fetid malarial swamp to be douched with fresh cold water from a mountain spring. These guys are so onside in the great fight for civilisation against barbarism that they make ‘Bush’s poodle’ Tony Blair sound like a Harold Pinter wannabe on a bad day in Basra.

As Britain impatiently awaits the disappearance of the Prime Minister it has impaled on the turnpike of Iraq, as it pulls troops out and as both Gordon Brown and David Cameron delicately signal that they will distance themselves from US foreign policy, John Howard’s government is increasing the number of Australian soldiers in Iraq and its ministers remain passionately committed to the battle for democracy in the Arab and Muslim world.

Their scorn for the current British mood of defeatism and appeasement is palpable. What, for example, does the foreign minister, Alexander Downer, think about those in Britain who claim that the Iraq war has made the world a more dangerous place?

‘Their proposition that we should let the extremists win in Iraq and that will reduce terrorism is like saying, let Hitler take France and that will secure things a bit more. Or that if only we hadn’t taken on Hitler he wouldn’t have bombed the East End. It’s a completely fatuous proposition. For the extremists, it’s fantastic that people are saying this — because the logical conclusion is to surrender.’

What does the attorney-general, Philip Ruddock, think of the British government’s long-standing opposition to what it sees as America’s indefinite detention of terror suspects without a proper trial in Guantánamo Bay?

‘This shows an ignorance of the rules of war, which recognise you are entitled to hold those who engage in hostilities against you until the end of that war. It’s not a question of holding people indefinitely, because generally you expect to see a war conclude.

‘This is not war as conventionally understood. It’s something worse. If people are waging war by using unconventional weapons in order to target civilian populations, you tie your hands behind your back by saying you must treat this as a normal breach of the law. We have an obligation to protect the safety and security of our populations. Law enforcement in its traditional sense does not protect our community.’

As for the treasurer, Peter Costello: on the subject of radical Muslims in Australia he’s hardly likely to win the Tories’ Patrick Mercer Memorial Cup for cultural sensitivity:

‘Basically, people who don’t want to be Australians, and they don’t want to live by Australian values and understand them, well, then they can basically clear off.’

The Australian government understands something that many in the beleaguered administrations of both Blair and Bush (not to mention the British Tories or US Democrats) just don’t get. The Aussies grasp that the free world is under sustained attack from the same enemy on a myriad global fronts; that taking the path of appeasement on any one of these fronts is to undermine that world’s whole defence; and that it is busy undermining itself at every opportunity.

In Britain, Blair is portrayed — unflatteringly — as Bush’s closest foreign confidant. In fact, the Australian Prime Minister John Howard is said to be more influential, stiffening the Bush spine against Blair’s obsessive fantasy that a solution to the Israel/Palestine impasse will somehow magically deflate the Islamist global balloon and reinforcing the Americans in the surge in Iraq.

His government is solid in the belief that the war in Iraq simply must be won. ‘If we were to withdraw from Iraq it would make Darfur look like a Sunday afternoon picnic’, says Alexander Downer. ‘There would be widespread massacres spreading through the country. Neighbouring countries wouldn’t just stand back; they would feel a kith and kin obligation to become engaged and once they were dragged into this cauldron the consequences would be horrific. It would be the greatest victory al-Qa’eda had ever had and would energise their forces around the world, including in Britain.’

To a Britain which parrots the Islamists’ line that the war in Iraq is, on the contrary, the principal recruiting sergeant for terror, Downer retorts that in Southeast Asia the war in Iraq has produced a decline in support for Islamist extremism and terrorism.

‘Partly this is because the Indonesian government has promoted the notion of moderate Islam. The world’s largest Islamic country and our next-door neighbour is a vigorous democracy, where people are able to dissent from government and form political movements. That’s why I believe that democracy is a very important means of defeating terrorism. The claim that brown guys don’t do democracy is just outrageous. So if you happen to be Asian or Arab you’re supposed to enjoy oppression? Just bring on the evidence!’ 

One can’t help wondering how this most neocon of foreign ministers would fare if transplanted by serendipity into those temples of overseas appeasement in London’s King Charles Street or Washington’s Foggy Bottom.

Of course, the Aussies’ moral and political clarity springs in large measure from the robustness of John Howard himself. Howard’s political genius — his Liberal party has won three general elections on the trot — derives from his extraordinary ability to articulate the values and aspirations of Middle Australia.

And those values are shaped most fundamentally of all by Australia’s place on the globe. Australia sees itself as profoundly vulnerable: an outpost of European civilisation surrounded by alien ideologies, which might at any time have designs upon a rich country with a huge land mass but too small a population to defend it. The outcome is that Australia is driven by the need to retain the protection of the US, and also to hose down any global disturbances which might conceivably affect it.

So apart from Iraq, its troops are currently engaged in more than a dozen other regional conflicts. But the big thing that Howard understands is that the war upon civilisation is being waged both from without and from within. He arrived at this view through two seminal events in 2001. The first was 9/11, which he witnessed at first hand since he happened to be in Washington on that day. The second was the hijacking of that year’s anniversary celebration of Australian federation by those perpetrating historical myths to portray Australia as fundamentally illegitimate.

As a result, his government is leading from the chin against both Islamist radicalism and the multicultural orthodoxy which paralyses the country’s ability to acknowledge the reality of such a threat. So not only has it taken tough measures against illegal immigration and is now tightening its citizenship requirements, but at a stroke it abolished multiculturalism by renaming its Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.

Of course, effective policy is about more than such grand gestures; but they certainly help shape public debate. It’s that elusive quality called leadership. Howard has got it. We haven’t. Oz rocks.

Melanie Phillips is a Daily Mail columnist.