Date created: 3/5/07
Last modified:3/5/07
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John Quiggin

Protecting our interests

John Quiggin Australian Financial Review

9 November 2006

After six years of continuous disappointment, the Democratic Party finally has something to cheer about. After narrow losses in 2000, 2002 and 2004, many Democrats despaired of ever defeating the powerful Republican electoral machine, and its famous mastermind, Karl Rove.

The mid-term Congressional election saw all the stops pulled out, particularly by the Republicans with negative advertising, hot-button ballot initiatives and automated midnight calls pretending to be from the other side. But it was not enough to sway the majority of American voters, who have given up on the Bush Administration and particularly on the war in Iraq.

The Democrats have picked up enough Republican seats to give them control of the House of Representatives, thereby allowing them to appoint the Speaker and the chairs of the committees that control the legislative process. This will entail some big changes in the way the Congress works.

For most of the 20th century, the US political system was one of the least partisan in the world. Although the Democrats held a majority in the House of Representatives through the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was able to govern effectively with the support of conservative ‘blue dog’ Democrats, mostly from the South.

Nothing of the kind can be expected in the remaining two years of the Bush Administration. The ruthless exercise of majority power by the Republicans since they gained control of the House in 1994 has destroyed any support for bipartisanship on the Democratic side. Even relatively conservative Democrats will have no truck with Bush on the major issues of Iraq, Social Security and tax policy.

With no possibility of running for re-election and no chance of pushing any substantial legislative program through Congress, Bush is now, in American parlance, a lame-duck President. Of course, he still holds the immense executive power of the Presidency, but he can expect to find Congress much less compliant if he attempts to extend that authority.

More importantly, the extent of the losses in the mid-term elections makes it much less likely that the Republican establishment centred around the Bush Administration will be able to nominate and elect a presidential candidate chosen from its own ranks in 2008. The most plausible Republican candidate is the outsider, John McCain and even with a McCain candidacy, the odds on a Democratic victory are shortening.

The approaching end of the Bush era has important implications for Australia. Although the American alliance has been a constant in Australian politics, its warmth, and the degree to which Australian governments see our interests as being directly in line with the US has varied over time. Not since the days of ‘all the way with LBJ’ has the Australian government been so willing to follow the United States wherever it leads, and at no time, perhaps, has the personal relationship been as close as that of John Howard and George W. Bush.

With Bush’s star in decline, and Howard apparently set to remain in office for some time to come, an adjustment will be necessary. The first problems are likely to arise with Iraq. As the US looks for a way out, the pressure on Australia to take on more dangerous burdens will only increase. We must act to protect our own interests and our own view of what is the best strategy in Iraq, rather than allowing our position to be dictated by loyalty to an Administration that is on the way out.

Even more significant are the implications for the government’s position on climate change and the Kyoto protocol. Having negotiated an exceptionally favourable deal at the Kyoto talks, and supported the protocol until 2000, the government reversed its position when the Bush Administration came out against Kyoto. Apart from a few microstates, Australia and the US are the only countries not to sign.

This is very likely to change after 2008. The Democrats support Kyoto, and the most likely Republican winner, John McCain was an author of the narrowly-defeated Lieberman-McCain Climate Stewardship Act which would have capped carbon dioxide emissions from industries and create an emissions-trading system.

Even if it proves impossible to secure the 66 Senate votes needed to ratify Kyoto, the US position after 2008 will be very different from that of either Bush or Howard. If we do not move first, Australia could easily be the last country in to a post-Kyoto agreement. In such a case, we are unlikely to get the sweet deal we extracted with hard bargaining in 1997.

John Quiggin is an Australian Research Council Federation Fellow in Economics and Political Science at the University of Queensland.

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