Australian Gov't Support for Bush Hardly Surprising, FM Says

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:15 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Australia's foreign minister has defended Prime Minister John Howard's open backing for President Bush in Tuesday's election, dismissing complaints that the endorsement has damaged Canberra's relationship with the United States.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said the two governments had been "very closely entwined" over the past four years, and it was inevitable that the center-right ruling coalition in Australia would support the center-right Republican Party.

"I think everybody knows that John Howard and George W. Bush have a very close relationship," Downer said.

The two governments had "done the hard yards together," he added, using a rugby expression that refers to play characterized by grueling, persistent teamwork.

Australia, an ally whose troops have fought alongside Americans in every major conflict since World War I, has been a firm supporter of the war on terrorism, and provided troops and assets for the war against Saddam Hussein.

Howard's recently re-elected government has also backed Bush diplomatically, in regional and international forums including the U.N.

The prime minister said last week he hoped Bush won the election because he had been a strong leader in the war against terror.

The remarks were criticized by Kurt Campbell, a Clinton administration defense official and advisor to Sen. John Kerry, who told the Sydney Morning Herald "such comments about our politics are a little inappropriate."

Campbell recalled that Australians had grumbled last June when Bush had criticized Australian Labor Party leader Mark Latham, who had promised to withdraw troops from the coalition in Iraq by Christmas if elected prime minister.

Opponents of Howard saw the comments as interference in the Australian campaign.

Howard supporters, on the other hand, were furious when Diana Kerry, the candidate's sister and head of Americans Abroad for Kerry, told an Australian newspaper in September that the 2002 Bali bombing and a recent attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta clearly showed the terrorist threat to Australia had increased.

In comments interpreted as voicing support for both Kerry and Latham, she said the U.S. was "endangering the Australians now by this wanton disregard for international law and multilateral channels" -- the war in Iraq.

The Labor Party, which was roundly defeated in last month's general election, also criticized Howard for supporting Bush.

Speaking in Sydney Monday, Latham, who before he became party leader called Bush "the most dangerous and incompetent president in living memory," said Australian politicians should stay out of U.S. politics and vice versa.

"I said consistently in our election campaign that I'd stay out of the American democracy and their campaign," he said. "I would have thought that's a pretty good guideline for Mr. Howard to follow as well, so it's a shame that he hasn't."

Latham's foreign affairs spokesman, Kevin Rudd, said commenting publicly on the U.S. election was not in Australia's interests and "reflects high levels of arrogance" on Howard's part.

"The key thing for any prime minister or foreign minister of Australia is basically to shut up when it comes to providing public commentary on who they think should win foreign elections," Rudd said.

He suggested that Howard had angered Kerry by endorsing Bush, but Downer disagreed that relations would be awkward in the event of a Democratic presidency.

"We had a good relationship with the Clinton administration, we have a good relationship with the [center-left Labor] Blair and Clark governments in Britain and New Zealand," the foreign minister said.

"If the administration changes in the United States, we will work very well with the Kerry administration."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow