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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 September, 2004, 22:49 GMT 23:49 UK
Security tops Australia poll agenda

By Phil Mercer
BBC correspondent in Sydney

The Australian embassy bombing in Jakarta has cast a dark shadow over Australia's election campaign.

National security is fast becoming a key issue, a shift from the domestic concerns that had been dominating campaigning for the 9 October general election.

Scene of the Jakarta blast (picture by Sathish Krishnan)
The Jakarta blast is a fresh reminder of the terrorism threat
Australians - made nervous by the Bali bombings two years ago - may now feel increasingly under siege.

In such uncertain times, they could well turn again to the safe hands of Prime Minister John Howard, who has been in office since 1996.

The veteran leader's pitch to voters has zeroed in on smart economics coupled with a calm and decisive hand in matters of security.

"Everything about the future depends on us maintaining a strong stand against terrorism," Mr Howard said recently.

"Unless we have a strong economy and we're strong on national security, nothing else can be achieved."

Differences over Iraq

Security is an area where the Howard government would be expected to dominate the Labor opposition under its new leader Mark Latham.

After all, voters may ask themselves why should they take a gamble on a relatively inexperienced figure at such sensitive times.

On the other hand, those who believe that government policies have made their country more vulnerable could decide to punish the prime minister at the polls.

Mr Latham insists that Australia's involvement in Iraq has increased the dangers.

"So many experts have pointed out that it has made Australia a larger target," he said. "It's made us less safe in the war against terror."

The opposition plans to harness the widespread discontent over Iraq.

Mark Latham (l) and John Howard (r)
Latham and Howard are currently neck-and-neck in the polls
Mr Latham has insisted he would make Australia safer by withdrawing its forces from the Gulf by Christmas if he won the election.

Labor wants to shift Australia's frontline in the fight against terrorism from the Middle East to its own backyard in South East Asia.

"We don't believe our permanent interests lie on the other side of the world," Mr Latham said.

However John Howard believes it would be a disaster to "cut and run" from Iraq, and would show that a key member of the US-led alliance had "weakened and buckled."

Iraq was invaded with the help of 2,000 Australian troops, and more than 800 personnel remain in the region.

The government has insisted they will stay until their job is done.

Ministers have dismissed claims that the deployment has put Australia in the line of fire, although there are fears over further attacks on the nation's interests overseas in the run-up to the election.

Aldo Borgu, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, told ABC radio that the Madrid bombings in March proved extremists will try to influence the domestic politics of countries involved in Iraq.

"The fact is that groups like al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiah, are getting... more strategic in terms of what they are trying to achieve, and [are] certainly trying to get broader political objectives from these sort of attacks," he said.

Tight race

Labor and John Howard's right-wing coalition of Liberals and Nationals are neck-and-neck in the opinion polls.

Homespun issues - including tax cuts and funding for schools and hospitals - will play an important part in deciding who wins on 9 October.

But it is national security that is now dominating the debate, as the letters page of the Australian newspaper has shown.

"I have no doubt the Indonesian bombing is a direct link between Mark Latham and his statement to bring our troops home from Iraq by Christmas," said one angry writer.

"Latham's approach to terrorism is simple -run and hide."

Another reader vented her fury towards the prime minister.

"Terrorists target our embassy in Indonesia. Meanwhile, we fight terrorism in Iraq. Where are our priorities, Mr Howard?" she asked.

Jemaah Islamiah still a threat
13 Sep 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Australia under attack, says press
09 Sep 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Massive blast at Jakarta embassy
09 Sep 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Australian leaders spar over Iraq
12 Sep 04  |  Asia-Pacific
Australia opposition elects leader
02 Dec 03  |  Asia-Pacific

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