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Ignore the White House, Australian eyes should be on the Senate

Pakistan has good reason to fear the re-election of Barack Obama. But Australians should be watching the Senate result — that’s where the results may really affect those Down Under.

US senate

One of the more fun parts of any US election is the transformation of Australians normally hostile to the cultural and political influence of that country, those normally found railing at our status as a vassal state firmly locked in a Washington-centric orbit, into people deeply engrossed in both the process and outcome of presidential elections. Invariably, they’re to be found supporting the Democrats.

And indeed much of the world is cheering on Barack Obama. In what will doubtless shift millions of US votes in the President’s favour, a BBC poll has shown overwhelming extra-US support for Obama, all except for one country. And that country is, outside Afghanistan and Iraq (neither of which featured), the country with the most direct experience of US foreign policy in action — Pakistan.

According to the poll, Pakistanis would actually prefer neither candidate, but mildly favour Romney over Obama. That’s understandable. Obama has been raining death on Pakistan via drone strikes for most of his first term. According to conservative reports, the death toll from drone strikes since 2004, the great majority of which have been ordered by Obama, is between 2500 and 3500. The Obama administration also has a deliberate policy of “double strikes“  — hitting a target again after an initial strike, with the intention of killing those rushing to the aid of those injured.

The drone strike policy isn’t limited to Pakistan, or even to “militants” — the administration’s term for anyone killed in a drone strike, regardless of who they actually are. It has attacked American citizens in Yemen, and killed a 16-year-old Denver boy there —  a death waved away by a senior Obama campaign figure.

No wonder those who have experienced the tender mercies of US foreign policy adopt an “anyone but Obama” view.

For Australia, safe and secure within the empire, little will change even if Mitt Romney pulls off an unlikely win, although Julia Gillard has, surprisingly, forged a strong relationship with Obama. Previous strong prime ministerial-presidential relationships — Keating and Clinton, Howard and Dubya — have made personal sense. The urbane, professorial Obama seems an unlikely pal for Gillard, but politics is an unusual and isolating profession that makes for interesting friendships.

Nor, it seems, would a Romney victory change another matter on which there is strong US-Australian agreement — the US pursuit of Julian Assange, which the Gillard government chooses to turn a blind eye to, although whether Obama’s war on whistleblowers would be maintained with quite the same obsession under the Republicans isn’t clear.

The real significance of today for Australia will be in the Senate, which unlike the House is up for grabs, and the implications for a congressional deal to avert the fiscal cliff impact likely to send a US economy that finally seems to be gathering some momentum back into reverse. That will have flow-on effects for Chinese growth (which also looks to be picking up speed) as well as global growth generally. Regardless of ideology, a clean GOP sweep of the Senate and the White House maximises the chances of a deal to avert the fiscal cliff. A more mixed result, especially with the Democrats retaining narrow Senate control, reduces the chances of a deal.

That, more than anything else today, will dictate the course of the Australian economy over the next 18 months and, possibly, whether Wayne Swan can produce that surplus.

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