The problems keep mounting up for the Howard Government in the wake of
last Friday’s bombings in Madrid – and the defeat of Spain’s pro-war
Popular Party in Sunday’s election.
Foreign Minister Alexander Down says that Jose Maria Aznar and the
Spanish conservatives lost power on Sunday because they didn’t tell the
truth. He says “”I think there was a sense … that the
Government had not come clean with the Spanish public”.

Say that again? “The Government did not come clean with the… public”?

What other government does that sound like?

Is this the ultimate Downer slip?

We’d better put the whole quote into context. The Foreign
Minister was talking to ABC Radio in Adelaide. Here’s the
question and answer:

HOST: Mr Downer, speaking of elections, do you understand why the
voters in Spain would turf out the conservative government which
appeared to support the war in Iraq?

ALEXANDER DOWNER: I don’t think it’s as simple as that. I spoke with
our Ambassador there last night just to get a sense of what had
happened. I think, you know, I as the Foreign Minister, tentatively
tread into the politics of other countries in my public comments as you
can understand. But I think what’s happened in Spain is that, when the
explosions tragically took place, the government with alacrity went out
and said this was the responsibility of ETA, and there was insufficient
evidence to support that proposition early on. And this caused a lot of
controversy in Spain. The Ambassador was telling me she had been at the
march, the peace march, I think on the Friday, and people in the crowd
were calling out, ‘Tell us why it really happened. Tell us who did it.’
So I think there was a sense that the government – I mean I’m not
saying that this sense is fair or unfair, I’m not offering a view on
that – but a sense that the government had not come clean with the
Spanish public about who was responsible for the terrorist attack. And
that caused a lot of anxiety. That seems to be the explanation but I’m
not of course 100 per cent sure.

Not 100 per cent sure. Just the way we haven’t been able to be
100 per cent sure over everything Downer and his Prime Minister and the
rest of the Government has told us about the war in Iraq – and kids
overboard and core and non-core promises and a whole range of other
matters.

That’s niggled Australian voters for some time.

In the wake of the carnage in Madrid last week, it now might do more.

The defeat of the Spain’s Conservative government on the weekend has
suddenly interrupted the Howard Government’s preparations for this
year’s election.

Just last week, Canberra gossip tipped a slightly early election
carefully timed to take advantage of tax cuts in the May Budget.

An election called in early August for September 4 or 18 suddenly
looked a possibility (September 11 might not be the best date for a
poll).

This theory seemed to be spooking some on the Labor side of
politics. A September election would see the campaign include the
two weeks of the Athens Olympics – surely prime time for a terrorist
attack. If one occurred around the Olympics in mid-campaign,
Labor could kiss another election good-bye

Now the events in Spain have got everyone thinking again.

The government’s justification for the war on Iraq was that Saddam
Hussein regime was a threat to us through its weapons of mass
destruction. No weapons have been found, but this has not lowered
our threat level.

Indeed, the question now is has being involved made us more of a target?

Most Western voters do not care whether dusky folk in obscure parts of
the world want to kill each other. We imagine they do this all
the time. If we are going to get involved in such far away
events, and put the lives of our young defence force personnel on the
line, we need a better reason than preventing Arabs doing nasty things
to each other.

That is why all the focus was on weapons of mass destruction.
That was the key point in convincing electors to care about the regime
in Iraq.

If it was only killing its own people, we were happy just to
tut-tut. But if they might kill us with their weapons of mass
destruction, then the deaths of a few of our boys and girls were
justified to prevent the worse slaughter that would be produced if
weapons of mass destruction were deployed.

In Britain and the United States – countries that have lost more than a
few of their boys and girls and keep on losing them – the failure to
find the weapons has caused considerable angst.

In Australia, the debate has been different. Firstly – and
thankfully – we had no casualties. Secondly, we were there partly
to keep the Americans on-side as a great and powerful friend in our
somewhat unstable region. Thirdly, with the first two criteria
met, we were happy to feel we played a part in getting rid of a
murderous tyrant. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction
then become mere debating points for the usual anti-American
left-whingers.

Now the events in Spain have planted a seed of doubt about the Iraq war.

For the moment that seed is a buried thought – but if the horror
scenario of a terrorist attack against Australians was to takes place,
and it is somehow tied to the Iraq involvement, the Government may
suddenly find that defence and security is not the trump card it
thought it was.

Any thought before the war that invading Iraq made us more of a target
seemed irrelevant. The weapons of mass destruction meant that we
could make ourselves safer by taking part in the invasion. We
were already a target for terrorism, so invading would not make the
situation worse.

But there do not appear to be any weapons, so therefore we are no safer
for having invaded Iraq. The justification has had no security
benefit to us, which returns us to the reverse question – has it made
us more of a target?

Well, all the operational police seem to think so.

The Spanish electorate seems to have decided it did.

The Howard government is denying it did.

Why?

Well, there are some important differences between senior police and senior politicians.

Police commissioners are focussed on protecting the public from the bad
guys. Politicians are focussed on staying in power.

On Monday a major terrorism conference began in Sydney. For the
first time, the Howard government seemed to be going out of its way in
such circumstances to be talking down threats.

“We have always been target and taking part in Iraq made us no bigger a target”, was the line.

The Howard Government is right to say that to try and crawl away and hide from the war on terrorism is impossible.

The terrorists and dictators who confront democracy have always done so
because they view democracies as weak and lacking resolve to oppose
aggression. So thought Hitler in the 1930s. So thought the
Argentinean junta when they invaded the Falklands. And so thought
Saddam Hussein when he invaded Kuwait in 1990 and when he continued to
refuse to reveal the full details of his weapons of mass destruction
programs.

But is the war on terrorism and the war in Iraq the same thing?
Has the war in Iraq merely diverted common national purpose on
terrorism off into a side venture to do with allowing democracy to
bloom in the Middle East?

The Spanish government appears to have completely botched its handling
of last weeks terrorist attacks – as Alexander Downer said. That
will surely have no parallel in Australian politics.

Yet the question of whether Spanish support for the war in Iraq made
Spain a greater target will surely be asked if Australia has the
misfortune to suffer its own attack.

On Monday night, all the commercial news bulletins led with the
terrorism conference and conflicting opinions between police and
political authorities on whether Australia had become a greater
target. Then they followed up with the story of the defeat of the
Spanish government.

The seed of doubt about Iraq has been planted.

God help us if an event occurred that would allow that seed to bloom.

Suddenly the Government is realising that security and defence may not necessarily work in its interest.

They may be losing allies.

Aznar’s government is gone. After Tony Blair, he was George W Bush’s leading European ally in the war on Iraq.

Blair himself looks wobbly. If he is forced to resign as well,
the pressure on the Howard Government will ratchet higher again.

The electorate does not doubt that the war on terrorism is in the
national interest. However, the question of whether the war in
Iraq was in the national interest is a debate everyone has put away and
decided to ignore.

Until now.

There is already concern about the weapons of mass destruction
excuse. It has niggled. Now it’s causing more thought and
concern.

If there is further bloodshed like the bloodshed seen in Spain last
week, let alone – heaven forbid – bloodshed here, Australians will be
forced to confront the Iraq debate.

And if the wisdom of Australia’s involvement is brought into question,
then to borrow that great military euphemism, the Howard government
will become ‘collateral damage’.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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