Remember how the Howard government’s WorkChoices backflip worked earlier this year? First, a prominent newspaper story saying that a policy switch was being planned. Then a prompt government denial. Wait a couple of weeks, then the announcement of pretty much what the original story had alleged.

This week, speculation has been intense that a similar process was under way on Iraq. There were the stories of a government plan for troop withdrawal; first raised last week, then alleged more definitely in The Sunday Telegraph. Denials were prompt and unconvincing.

But today – assuming that this morning’s reports of his speech on defence policy are correct – the Prime Minister will depart from the script by nailing his colors more firmly to the Iraqi mast. As The Age puts it, he will explain that “Australia must remain committed in Iraq for years to come.”

It could of course be a magician’s trick – the more the policy is built up beforehand, the more dramatic the eventual reversal will appear, and therefore the more electoral impact it might have. But for a prime minister whose negatives centre on the idea that he is tricky and calculating, that would seem a reckless, even foolhardy move.

More likely, in my view, today’s announcement is genuine. Howard really does intend to “stay the course”, a policy that has been abandoned by informed opinion in almost every corner of the world. Only the inner core of the Bush administration remains committed to the policy of strategic suicide in Iraq, but Howard promises to be loyal to the bitter end.

Since none of the previous justifications for this policy make any sense, Howard is throwing a new ingredient into the debate – “the need to safeguard the world’s oil supplies.” But not only does this confirm some of the arguments of the anti-war camp, it fails to add anything to the arguments about stability and terrorism. If the occupation is making things worse rather than better, then that goes for oil as much as anything else.

To the limited extent the Australian public cares about foreign policy, today’s announcement is a windfall gain for the opposition. Kevin Rudd can hardly go wrong; even as he attacks the policy – this morning he said “This government simply makes it up as it goes along on Iraq” – he can keep suggesting that a “clever” PM may still be preparing a change of tack, and that therefore none of his multiple Iraq messages can be trusted.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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