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Last Updated: Wednesday, 22 September, 2004, 12:37 GMT 13:37 UK
Letter: Australia's political laziness
The embassy bombing in Jakarta was seen as direct attack on Australia
As Australians prepare for an election, broadcaster Sarah McDonald argues recent terror attacks have caused a loss of optimism in the country.

Australians are the world's globetrotters.

When I embarked on the middle class rite of passage to see the world 15 years ago I found no matter how far off the beaten track I travelled I would always bump into another Aussie.

My compatriots were always easy to spot; not just by their solid stride, their sun battered skin and their open, informal manner but because a great many of them had sewn little Australian flags onto their backpacks.

The flag wasn't a statement of pride - we are a relatively unpatriotic race - it was a signal to other travellers and to locals that said "Be good to me! I'm an Aussie!"

And, as incredible as it sounds, it worked.

Nearly everywhere I went I found the fact that I was Australian opened doors and hearts. But that was then.

Switching nations

A couple of years ago when I was visiting Pakistan a man asked me "which country?"

Incredibly I found myself, gulping and replying "New Zealand" with only a hint of shame.

I'm sure many Australians tourists now make the same lie and more still have removed the flag from their backpacks.

For we Aussies are no longer regarded as friendly and harmless.

A couple of years ago the bombing of an Australian embassy would have shaken and shocked Aussies, but few were surprised by last week's horrible news.
Australia now lives with the knowledge that, after the US and the UK, our country is one of the most likely targets for Islamic extremists.

Just over a week ago a bomb exploded outside the Australian embassy in Jakarta, buckling the gates, mangling passing cars and blowing out windows in nearby office blocks.

Miraculously no Australians died but ten Indonesians were killed and one hundred and sixty were injured.

The bombing sent a chill down Australian spines.

Australians find the killing of hostages in Iraq sickening and while we are proud of our troops the majority of people would rather they never went to the war.

Shaken Australia

Since the Jakarta bombing there has been sadness for the Indonesians who died and a sense of guilt that many of them did so defending our people.

There are daily expressions of worry about Australian expatriates living in the Indonesian capital, many of whom are refusing to leave despite warnings that their homes are a terrorist target and another attack could be imminent.

But aside from these concerns the reaction to Indonesia has been rather muted.

Of course, in relation to Jakarta, the major reason is selfish - Australian lives were spared.

But there's also a lack of connection to our nearest neighbour and to Asia in general.

Australians are more likely to travel to Europe than Asia and while we are increasingly linked to our region by trade, business and immigration patterns we still see ourselves as closer in style and substance to Europe.

The last government tried to convince us we were part of Asia and that our future lay in future engagement in the region but recent events have only made us feel more like pretending we are in our own little section of the bottom of the world.

A couple of years ago the bombing of an Australian embassy would have shaken and shocked Aussies, but few were surprised by last week's horrible news.

Bali

Many of us believe it's only a matter of time before our country is attacked and while I don't like to sound melodramatic I admit I no longer enjoy driving over the Harbour Bridge or visiting the white domed Sydney opera house.

Australia was shocked from its comfortable complacency on October 12 2002.

It's our September 11th .

Bali bomb blast
The bomb on the tourist island of Bali killed 88 Australians
On that date suicide bombers blew up a nightclub in Bali, killing nearly 200 people, eighty eight of them Australians.

On that day we Aussies first learnt some people hated us.

I am reminded of the loss of Australia's popularity, confidence and innocence almost daily.

I live in a Sydney suburb by the sea.

It's a neighbourhood of surfies, footballers and home renovators who were once carefree and casual about life.

We people of Coogee liked to think we worked hard and played even harder; we liked a laugh, a drink and a tumble in the waves that washed up on our local beach.

We still do.

Immunity

We like most Australians once felt immune from the world's worst hardships and sheltered from its extreme violence.

We don't now.

If you walk along my local beach, weaving your way around the tanned legs of slimmed hedonists, the half-naked volleyball players, the glistening joggers, beer drinking British backpackers and squealing toddlers and climb its southern headland, you will find the spot that shows my suburb's sombre side.

I like to visit at sunset; that time of day where there's a touch of tenderness in the air.

On Coogee headland a large bronze sculpture links three figures in grief and nearby a wall carries the names of twenty locals who will never again feel their skin tighten in the salty air.

Wreckage from the Bali bombing
The nightclub bombings killed 202 people
There are the names of the manager of my local real estate agent; a mum who baked for cake drives at my local school, a teenager who once hung out at the local McDonalds.

Next to the names are photos of young men raising full beer glasses or schooners to the camera in the Australian salute.

Their skin is sun-kissed, their eyes creased with laughter, their smiles bent with confidence and contentment.

These are the faces of six footballers from the A-grade Amateur Coogee Dolphins team; jersey numbers six, ten, five, eight, three and four all were killed in the Bali bombing.

It was particularly poignant that so many young footballers were slain in the prime of their lives.

Elections

Sport is our national religion.

That's why our Prime Minister John Howard called an election hot on the heels of this year's Olympics in which we were bathed in gold medal glory.

He wanted the election campaign to take place amidst the finals of the football season believing the good cheer of the season would help his eight year old government win another term.

Australian flag floats in front of wrecked embassy in Jakarta
Some say Australia's support for the Iraq war may be behind the attack on its embassy in Indonesia
But the embassy bombing in Jakarta has blasted the election campaign off the front pages of our newspapers and only left room for one sports story.

Political analysts are predicting the bombing will assist the re-election of John Howard's conservative coalition.

They argue that in times of uncertainty and danger people will stick with what they know and not risk change.

Prime Minister John Winston Howard is named after Winston Churchill the British Leader during World War Two.

Our Prime Minister prefers a brisk morning walk to a cigar but he has until now successfully sold himself as a steadfast, strong leader for wartime.

Spotlight on security

While he vowed on the night of his first election victory in 1996 to make us 'relaxed and comfortable' he has argued a safe and comfortable future requires us to become a deputy sheriff to the United State's global cop.

So far it's worked for him.

But there are signs that many voters may be increasingly uncomfortable with our new role on the world stage.

Australia still has about 850 troops serving in Iraq
Australia still has troops serving in Iraq
In last weekend's televised election debate the Opposition Leader - Labor's - Mark Latham gained the approval of a studio panel of undecided voters when he suggested Australia should focus less on the war in Iraq and more on confronting terrorism in our own region.

The swinging voters also approved when he stated that the US/Australia alliance should allow room for differences of opinion.

He's toned down his language somewhat - before he became leader Mark Latham called George Bush "the most dangerous president in living memory" and he called our Prime Minister - and I'll tone down my language here - a harsh Australian term that translates loosely as "bottom kisser".

But this doesn't necessarily mean Australians will follow the Spanish people who voted their government out after being the victims of terrorism.

Differences over Iraq

There are several reasons for this.

One is that we are yet to suffer at attack on our home turf. God forbid.

Another is that the Labor Opposition hasn't been able to capitalise on the increased discomfort Australians feel.

A promise to bring our troops home by Christmas backfired when the majority of Australians bristled with the thought of being seen as quitters who would abandon the Iraqis at a time of need.

And a third reason is that Mark Latham doesn't have much room to move as most Aussies appear to support the alliance with the USA besides, when Indonesian lives have been lost and Australians in Iraq are at risk he dare not be seen as playing politics with death and disaster.

But perhaps the major reason why Australia most likely won't change governments is that it simply can't be bothered.

Australians have always been politically lazy but the level of interest and enthusiasm in this particularly boring election campaign is close to pathetic.

I recently had a conversation with a group of people that showed the level of disengagement.

Lazy voters

One woman couldn't recall the opposition leader's name, another complained she didn't know much about him and a well educated, third said in all seriousness "Oh I don't like Mark Latham, he has a square head".

In this cynical disenfranchised country people don't vote for a political party they vote against the one they hate the most.

There's a sense of helplessness as parents wrestle with words to explain the Beslan tragedy to their kids.
While stickers featuring our Prime Minister and the words NOT HAPPY JOHN are appearing on more and more cars, while people are cynical and frustrated with the government they probably won't have the passion to vote it out of office.

John Howard's wily and politically opportunistic.

Last election he scared us with a fear of refugees, this time he has a new secret weapon that targets an Australian obsession.

Not sport, not travel but home ownership.

The Prime Minister is loudly and frequently warning us that if the Labor party is elected interest rates will rise and cripple Australian families paying off their mortgage.

Economic analysts don't agree with him but the message is biting.

Of course things could change before the election in three weeks - health and education are huge issues here and Labor is favoured in these areas - and if there are more acts of terrorism in our region or against our people then Australians may become unpredictable voters.

Solemn mood

But regardless of what happens in the poll, the national mood will most likely remain slightly depressed.

Australians are feeling anxious and sad and there's been a rising sense of despair since the recent terrorist horror in Russia.

The capturing and killing of children has seen Australians admit bewilderment at humanity's capacity for horror.

And there's a sense of helplessness as parents wrestle with words to explain the Beslan tragedy to their kids.

And of course there's an unspoken fear that such an event could happen here.

Aussies are not emotional people, we are usually pretty stoic and practical but phone calls to one counselling line are up twenty percent.

Australia is heading into spring - a time of footy grand finals, of new growth and of a return to our place in the sun on the beaches we love.

Yet there's not a spring in our step.

Our imprints in the cool sand show heavy hearts.

There's an unspoken desire for simpler times when the world was our playground, when we were its favoured children and when we were proud to wear the Australian flag on our backs.

Sarah McDonald is a broadcaster and journalist who began her career in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Radio Newsroom.

Letter is a new BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters reflects on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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