John Howard may not have got the splash he wanted from his op-ed in The Wall Street Journal urging the world to stand united against terrorism – not here, but in the US of A.

A quick play with Google News shows the same Agence France-Presse item turning up on news sites around the world.

The actual article is only available online to Wall Street Journal subscribers – and wasn’t up on the PM’s website when we dropped by on Sunday afternoon.

The first fact doesn’t surprise us – the WSJ is bastion of capitalism, after all (D’oh!). And neither does the second.

The PM wrote in his article how he regrets that in the wake of the March 11 Madrid train bombings that “global commentary seems as much focused on the political implications for Western governments as on the perpetrators”.

The line he’s been taking over the past fortnight comes out clear:

“It will be doubly tragic if mass murder is rewarded with even the perception that our resolve has weakened,” he says.

“At the very least the victims – those killed and injured – deserve an absolute assurance that this outrage will make all of us more determined to stand together against terror.

However, from what we’ve seen it doesn’t really look as if sweating Iron Bark and the ALP over troop withdrawals was a significant consideration.

Firstly, the piece would have been up on the PM’s site if it was – and he would have gone in harder than just saying it was “inexcusable” for “leaders of government or leaders of opinion” to send the wrong message over terrorism.

There would have been a better-coordinated effort to publicise the feature, too. It slowly seeped out through the electronic media on Saturday then got a cursory mention in the Sunday papers.

Indeed, despite Latham’s bungling and backtracking over the Australian troops in Iraq – detailed very nicely by Michelle Grattan in Sunday’s Age at http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2004/03/27/1080330985526.html – we suggest that the PM’s feature has another purpose.

He doesn’t need to beat up Iron Bark in the States.

That distinguished Republic Party donor – whoops – the United State Ambassador to Australia – Tom Schieffer did that very nicely last week via the right-wing Washington Times.

He was quoted as saying “There are over 40 nations in Iraq right now trying to stabilize the situation and rebuild the nation, and it is very important work. If people were to withdraw their support from that action, I think it could have very serious consequences” at http://washingtontimes.com/world/20040325-111617-5257r.htm.

No, we suspect Howard was pitching purely and simply at the United States.

The PM is expected to visit the States in May – and drop by Dubya to sign the free trade deal between Australia and the United States.

What’s the betting that the Wall Street Journal item was is aimed at Congress, to persuade them that Australia is a loyal ally – lead by a loyal Prime Minister who needs a major coup and needs to recover momentum quick smart if he isn’t going to go the way of Jose Maria Aznar – that needs rewarding with the FTA.

If this is the case, Howard must have hoped that his piece would be cited in other, more local media across the US to reinforce his message of Australia’s – let alone his own – reliability.

Well, if Tony O’Leary has been pouring over the Wichita Linesman or whatever small American papers there are this weekend on behalf of his boss, he’ll be sorely disappointed.

Our first Sunday arvo Google News search picked up just two John Howard mentions – one in North and the other in South Carolina – and they weren’t on anything he’d like. They talked about Uluru and how “Prime Minister John Howard has refused repeated requests that the government apologize for historic abuses of the Aboriginal people”.

A bit later we found mentions of the PM on CNN, on Bloomberg and in papers in Georgia, Massachusetts, California, Florida, Indiana, Alabama and Minnesota – all quoting his comments on Ian Thorpe!

That will do sod all to convince the folks back home to write to the Congressman saying a free trade agreement with Australia is a wonderful idea despite any local economic concerns they may have – and give the PM his FTA coup.

Tip O’Neill, the legendary Speaker of the US House of Representatives, is credited with coining the expression “All politics is local”.

John Howard knows that – but his Wall Street Journal article seems to have missed local audiences here and Stateside.

He has missed an opportunity to embarrass and rebuke Mark Latham – himself soon Washington-bound – for his major error of judgement over Iraq in an international forum that would have been major news here.

And at the same time, in the United States, Howard’s message has only reached the equivalent of the elites he so disdains here – not the ordinary voters who, in an election year, Congressmen and Senators will be listening too over the free trade agreement he needs so badly to regain momentum before he faces his own poll.

Hillary Bray can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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