The Australian soldier recently wounded in Iraq apparently belonged to the contingent that the ALP has promised to bring home.

In a sane universe, this would sharply demonstrate the difference between Labor and Liberal policy on Iraq, to the distinct advantage of the former. Under Howard, soldiers get shot; under Rudd, not so much.

Instead, in the bizarro world of Australian politics, it produces paragraphs like this:

[The shooting] also triggered questions to Labor leader Kevin Rudd about whether he had the steel to send soldiers into danger.

The Opposition Leader rejected the idea that voters would not trust him with national security, insisted Labor was “not a bunch of pacifists” and vowed that he had the resolve to send troops into battle when necessary.

In other words, because the soldier wouldn’t have been wounded under Labor, Labor must prove its willingness to wound soldiers. It’s almost as if getting someone shot counts as a Howard achievement that Rudd must now match! Even weirder, Rudd seems to think so too.

He could, after all, have responded with a full-throated critique of the Australian deployment, pointing out that continued involvement in the Iraq adventure inevitably meant more Australians would be wounded and, in all probability, killed.

Instead, he boasted about Labor’s own wars:

We, the Labor Party, led this country through most of World War I, through most of World War II, we led this country when we went into the first Iraq war. We have never been a bunch of pacifists, but we do choose carefully when we send our men and women in uniform to war.

What exactly is this supposed to mean? Oh, Howard might have blundered into Iraq but good old Andrew Fisher took us into World War One – and back then, we really knew how to send people to die ( “the last man and the last shilling”)!

It might seem a little more explicable were the Iraq war popular. Yet the most recent polls show that 64% of Australians oppose the war, with huge and consistent resentment against Bush and US policy generally.

So why doesn’t Labor tap into this sentiment?

The same question emerges about trade unionism. Those extraordinary government attack campaigns rest upon an assumption that ordinary Australians share the Liberal Party’s conviction that the unions are the handmaidens of Satan.

Of course, all the evidence suggests that they don’t.

The Australian Survey of Social Attitudes 2005 (AuSSA) asked a large random sample of Australians what they think about unions, and their responses suggest that unions are still a very relevant institution in Australia’s political and economic life. Nearly 60% of AuSSA respondents think that unions should have the same amount or more power than they currently do, and more than half disagree that unions should have less say in how wages and conditions are set.

More than half also agree that trade unions are very important for the job security of employees, while nearly two thirds agree that without trade unions the working conditions of employees would be much worse than they are. (Mark Bahnisch at LP has more here).

Given that the unpopularity of the government’s IR policies underpins Labor’s huge poll lead, you’d think that it would be Rudd rather than Howard talking up Labor’s union connections. Yes, he might say, we do have a lot of unionists in our party: that’s why you can rely on us to scrap the WorkChoices system you hate so much.

Instead, Rudd treats his connection with the union movement like a man trying to hide a nasty social disease. Why? It’s no mystery.

If you read the Murdoch pundits, you get a pretty good sense of the elite consensus in Australia today: American alliance, good; unions, ungood; WorkChoices, doubleplusgood.

So Labor talks up its willingness to fight wars rather than its plans to end one, and boasts of its connections with business rather than unionists. On both Iraq and IR, there’s the views of the people and then there’s the views of the people who matter.

It’s the second category to which both Labor and Liberal are listening.

Peter Fray

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