At about the time John Howard was first taking his seat on the benches of Parliament in the early 1970s, Basil Fawlty was manically urging his staff - "Don’t mention the war". It appears it was a lesson well learnt for the nascent Prime Minister in waiting - Australia is in the middle of a wartime election, but you wouldn’t know it from this election campaign.
Despite this election’s outward appearance, Australia is a nation at war. Surely that demands serious answers and merits significant navel-gazing from both the electorate and the electoral aspirants. Iraq and Afghanistan have been conspicuously absent from the Prime Minister's rhetoric, however - not even rating a mention in his campaign launch - and it has been no more than a footnote for Kevin Rudd.
This may surprise some, as many will remember from the 2001 election at the start of this "War on Terror" that governments rarely change hands during wartime, and national security is a traditional strongpoint for the Howard Government; foreseeably one they would flaunt. But Iraq is a different kettle of fear altogether - Howard’s reasons for going to war proved false (which he’d rather not bring up), the Coalition of the Willing’s presence in Iraq is clearly not improving the situation and the polls show our presence in Iraq is not only on the nose for those pesky pinkos but also for Howard’s dearly-loved ‘battlers’.
It may also be a symptom of how remote these theatres of war are to most Australians. For two young Australian women, however, the "War on Terror" is much more immediate. That’s why they’ve inserted themselves into this election campaign to put peace back on the political agenda (a notion which should be more foregone than forgotten).
Samantha McMillan was married to an American soldier sent to Iraq (suffering untreated PTSD from Afghanistan) and killed in action there in late 2006. Louise Barry spent three months in traction and underwent six operations after being on a bus blown up in the 2005 London bombings. Louise made headlines questioning the PM from her hospital bed on whether what happened to her was due to our involvement in Iraq.
Both women know something about the human cost of the 'War on Terror', and are appealing to the leaders of all political parties to outline a clearly defined exit strategy. Too much to ask? Yes, it would appear for John Howard, who despite repeated written and verbal entreaties to his office will not to commit to giving a war widow and a victim of terrorism an audience to hear their concerns and receive the signatures of nearly 70,000 concerned Australians on a GetUp petition <http://www.getup.org.au/campaign/OurOwnPlanForIraq&id=20>. On Iraq, he remains missing in action.
Frustrated by our leaders' refusal to debate the Iraq issue during this campaign, Sam and Louise took their concerns, and the 70,000-strong petition, directly to the National Press Club's Foreign Affairs debate last week. Media interest was certainly stronger for them than for the Foreign Minster and his shadow. While Robert McLelland posed for a photo, Alexander Downer gruffly suggested a meeting 'apres l'election'.
Sooner or later our leaders must join the national conversation that is going on around them and without them. Sam and Louise join former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and former UN Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix in support of GetUp’s campaign for a new way forward in Iraq. Malcolm Fraser wrote to GetUp’s 200,000 members earlier this year calling for a timetabled withdrawal of Australian troops from Iraq and the pursuing of regional diplomatic solutions in their stead; Hans Blix, in Sydney to collect the Sydney Peace Prize recently, wrote to GetUp members to echo Malcolm Fraser’s call for a withdrawal. An Australian exit, he reflected, would have no major impact on the security situation in Iraq. The election, however, is filled not with the visionary wartime political rhetoric history is littered with, but with smear, spin, mud and fear.
The stakes should not be underestimated at this pivotal time in Australian political history - not only could this be the last opportunity to hold the Prime Minister accountable for taking us to war on false pretenses and without parliamentary or popular approval, it is also an opportunity to tell Kevin Rudd if elected that he has a mandate for peace. And yet the only voices we hear on the issue are the growing public clamour joining Sam and Louise in their quest to put peace back on the agenda.
We may well find ourselves wondering long after this wartime election is confined to the annals of war history, as the Germans in Fawlty Towers did upon seeing Basil, a moose and Manuel in a heap on the hotel floor, "however did they win?" These two young Australians are hoping their painful experiences will help ensure the answer won’t be by "not mentioning the war".
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