Has John Howard finally pinned Mark Latham to the wall over his pledge to pull Australian troops out of Iraq by Christmas? And will it make a difference to the election result?
Initial polls suggest that the fracas over the Christmas troop withdrawal pledge has created the first big dent in Mr Latham’s credibility, but Coalition backbenchers on knife-edged margins would be wise not to become too cock-a-hoop just yet.
While Mr Howard has not delivered any killer punch, the episode has certainly given Mr Latham, who already had a suspicion of greenness about him, a taste of the pressures of high office, where any loose or ill-considered statements can destroy you.
Mr Latham’s flaws – rashness and irresponsibility – are being exposed for the first time.
But mix this in with an apparent careless attitude to national security and defence – the most basic and important matters of state – and you have a ready-made opening to defeat Mr Latham in an election campaign.
Mr Latham’s comments on the troop withdrawal from Iraq were seized on by the Prime Minister, who has spent the best part of three months circling the Opposition Leader and sniffing for any sign of weakness.
Mr Latham finally gave him that during an interview with Sydney radio commentator, Mike Carlton. However, some of the exact words Mr Latham used in the interview are worth remembering:
Latham: We believe we have a responsibility to rebuild [Iraq] and as soon as that responsibility is discharged they should be back here. Hopefully, that will be before the end of the year.
Carlton: Theoretically, there is going to be a handover in June.
Latham: Yes, that is theoretically … things can go wrong and it might be delayed. I am hoping that by the end of the year the Australian troops will be back here for the defence of Australia.
Carlton: You are being a bit wishy-washy here, leaving a lot of room to move.
Latham: Things can go wrong, things can get pushed back a while, but our intention is to ensure that once the responsibility is discharged … then the Australian troops will come back under a Labor Government.
Carlton: And you would hope they would be home by Christmas?
Latham: Yes, if that timetable of mid-year is adhered to, then that would be the case.
This vague and heavily qualified exchange was enough to equate with Mr Latham agreeing to a deadline for retreat from Iraq, and to give Mr Howard the weapon he needed to drive home a message that Latham was happy to “cut and run” from Iraq, to cave in to Saddam loyalists, and to international terrorists.
Yet, instead of equivocating or even backing away on this vague Christmas pledge, Mr Latham decided to dig in hard. He claimed it had been a Labor Cabinet decision for 12 months, and that he had used “lengthy” Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) briefings to determine his decision to pull the 850-odd troops in and around Iraq back by Christmas.
And he said the reason he had done so was that the troops were needed to defend Australia.
On three out of three counts these claims were spurious. Mr Latham’s assertion that Shadow Cabinet had discussed the matter 12 months ago could not be supported, and Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, virtually contradicted him by saying he could not specifically remember such a discussion.
DFAT briefings – lengthy or short – turned out not to have occurred either. The briefings were given by a senior Defence bureaucrat in charge of the Defence Signals Directorate and the Director General of the Australian Security Intelligence Service, David Irvine.
According to Prime Minister John Howard, both men said the briefings to Mr Latham did not involve Iraq. Mr Latham insisted to the Parliament that the briefings did involve the subject. And as for the third – that the troops were needed back home – well that is transparently a nonsense.
Australia is not at war and not under any threat, and the troops that are in Iraq are being used in the main to rebuild the country and train-up its citizens.
The Australian voter has adopted a common sense approach to this issue. Even many of those opposed to the war in the first place believe Australia has an obligation to finish the task and help restore some normality to Iraq.
Mr Latham has adopted a Whitlamesque symbolic tactic of bringing the troops back by Christmas, just as his mentor did in December of 1972 with the troops in Vietnam.
Mr Latham’s decision was not only rash, it has backfired badly and has probably turned the political cycle back in the Government’s favour for the first time since Christmas.