Australia’s Antiwar Movement: Still Marching, but Where?

Australian students protest the war in Iraq
Australian high school students protest the war in Iraq, March 26, 2003 (Photo: Greg Wood/AFP).

Even though the combat phase of the war in Iraq is all but concluded, in Australia, the battle over that country’s military participation in the conflict continues, with the phrase “bring home the troops” still echoing in the streets at regular protest marches and on talk radio. While a growing majority of Australians support Prime Minister John Howard’s decision to sending 2,000 troops, including elite SAS special forces units, a vocal minority continues to demand that the troops be brought home. On April 13, several days after Baghdad fell, an estimated 10,000 demonstrators marched in downtown Sydney. The next day, the centrist Sydney Morning Herald, reporting on the protest, quoted demonstrators citing a variety of reasons for their participation, from fear of terrorist backlash to a general desire for peace.

“There will be a terrorist backlash, and we are now that bit closer to the so-called clash of civilizations,” one protester was quoted as saying. Another added, “Why kill so many to remove one man?”

But 10,000 protesters is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators who turned out in Australia’s largest cities in February and March to protest a war that had not yet started—while also endorsing a wide variety of other causes, from the Green Party’s environmental and development programs to a Palestinian state. Ironically, these protesters may have had a hand in undoing the Australian public’s opposition to the war and John Howard’s pro-American policies.

“In a way the protests demonstrated the emptiness of the antiwar side’s arguments, which was a real turning point in swinging public opinion the other way,” Tim Blair, a conservative columnist for the centrist weekly magazine Bulletin, suggested in an interview with World Press Review. Despite the noisiness of the demonstrations, Blair argued, “people had time to absorb the effect of the series of U.N. resolutions, and were allowed the time to consider the issue, and they saw the need for military action.”

Along with a backlash against the demonstrations—especially those run by the so-called “Books Not Bombs” coalition, which, according to Sydney’s conservative Australian, degenerated into small riots as teenagers cut school to protest in various cities’ central business districts, tossing café chairs, scuffling with police, and damaging property—the antiwar movement was hurt by the lack of a coherent political opposition. Despite the numbers protesting Australian involvement, and the opposition Australian Labor Party (ALP)’s 45-percent showing in the last general election, Labor never managed to capitalize on opposition to the war. Instead, the ALP leader, Simon Crean, issued a confusing series of position statements on the war that, unlike those of John Howard, could never be nailed down into a one-sentence statement of policy. As a result, current tracking polls suggest that if John Howard were to call an election today, his Liberal coalition would win handily. (Labor voters, too, are unhappy with Crean’s handling of the war issue; a poll conducted by the Rupert Murdoch-owned Australian last week suggested that four in five party supporters want Crean’s rival, Kim Beazley, to take over leadership). In short, those opposed to John Howard, and the war on Iraq in general, are not happy.

One of the best places to monitor Australian antiwar and anti-Howard feelings is in the opinion and letters pages of various Fairfax Media newspaper holdings, most notably The Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne’s Age. In the April 13 edition of The Sydney Morning Herald, for example, while other papers were re-capping a week in which Iraqis jubilantly pulled down statues of Saddam Hussein, columnist Hugh Mackay wrote, “No amount of spin-doctoring can conceal the fact that thousands of lives have been lost, countless seeds of lifelong tragedy sown, and the geopolitics of the region and the world brutally altered.”

His colleague, Alan Ramsay, went further, comparing John Howard to Saddam Hussein, writing that “Howard, in his own way, is every bit the despot Saddam [Hussein] was, the real difference being Australians elected him—and three times, to prove it.” Ramsay went on to accuse Howard of using “weapon[s] of mass distraction” for focusing on scenes of liberation in Iraq while failing to address the fact that stores of weapons of mass destruction had not yet been found in Iraq. Ramsay added, “You might feel proud, Prime Minister, but I do not, and I venture to suggest very many of our fellow Australians feel exactly the same as me. And I don’t give a toss what the opinion polls say.”

Clearly, many Australians who opposed this war are now left frustrated and angry. Where this anger will take them is less certain. Although opinion polls show their numbers diminished, many from the antiwar movement remain extremely distrustful of the United States, of George Bush, and of the idea that Australia might follow America’s lead in taking on fresh targets, such as Syria. As the lead letter writer in the April 16, 2003, edition of the Herald put it, “Would some journalist please ask John Howard for his views regarding Syria and its supposed chemical weapons and what we should do about it—before he has the chance to ask George?”

“I don’t trust Howard or Bush one bit: they’re thick as thieves,” said Darren Beare, a 32-year-old contractor in a recent interview with World Press Review. Beare marched in the large peace rally on Feb. 15, and went so far as to call Bush a “war criminal” for launching attacks on Iraq, though he did allow that “it’s a great thing” that Saddam Hussein was deposed. “I want to get the troops home, that’s the first thing,” Beare said when asked what his movement will do next. “And change things come election time to keep Australia from following Bush around blindly. There’ll be a lot to answer for.”

Faced with the fury of this committed minority, many on the right, such as Blair, suggest that columnists like Mackay and Ramsay, and indeed much of the antiwar movement, have failed to learn the lessons of Afghanistan. “It’s the quagmire, the same criticisms all over again. People saw it wasn’t carpet bombing, but journalists didn’t.”