November 21, 2003


Lord knows I’ve written enough failed columns to recognise a doomed intro when I see one. Here’s Ross Fitzgerald in The Australian:

When the US President needs a distraction from a domestic scandal in the comedy movie Wag the Dog, he declares war on Albania. But not a real war. A fake television war, created by a hired gun using Hollywood techniques and reported by gullible media.

"The President will be a hero. He brought peace," says the Hollywood producer hired to create the diversion.

"But there never was a war," complains the naive staffer.

"All the greater accomplishment," replies the producer.

The similarities with real life, here and in the US, are chilling.

Er, yeah? Now watch as Fitzgerald labours to fit real life into his Wag the Dog scenario:

On the eve of the election, along came the Tampa refugee crisis and the September 11 attacks. With the threat of international terror, voters focused on Howard's fighting words that "we decide who comes to our country and the circumstances in which they come".

Howard had his war on Albania. Only he didn't have to stage-manage it. It landed in his lap.

Tampa and September 11 were real events, as I recall. Fitzgerald’s next line, referring to Howard’s re-election in the wake of these non-fake occurences, is appalling:

Can he be so lucky the next time?

Leave aside Fitzgerald’s hideous notion of September 11 being “lucky” for Howard and return again to his introduction. Wag the Dog is manufactured; the fictional President devised a war. No luck -- however you look at it -- was involved. This column makes no sense. Besides which, how can anybody write a Wag-based column in 2003 without referring once to Clinton’s impeachment-era bombing raids?

Posted by Tim Blair at November 21, 2003 10:30 AM

And deported French terrorist suspect Willie Brigitte is just a John Howard re-election stooge.

Fitzgerald (writing a very bad sentence): '(Attorney-General) Ruddock has used the capture and deportation of al-Qa'ida-linked Brigitte to France, to face questioning over alleged terrorist activities, to argue for a significant upgrading of ASIO's powers.'


Fitzgerald: 'It matters not that the recent enhancements to ASIO's powers have never been needed.'

And will be never be needed in future?

Fitzgerald: 'What matters most to Howard is that a debate about ASIO's powers to capture, detain and question anyone suspected of terrorist links sure beats a debate about the availability of bulk-billing, or the fairness of $100,000 university fees.'

Thanks terrorist suspect Willie Brigitte. You're welcome to come again and help re-elect John Howard any time.

Posted by: ilibcc at November 21, 2003 at 10:53 AM

I am sick to death of people claiming that the last Federal election hinged on the Tampa issue - I was here, it was simply not an election issue.

That said, Tampa happened in late August and the WTC happened in early September - it is impossible to judge the effect of the Tampa issue in isolation.

When I voted in November 2001, a mere two months after the attack on the WTC, the Tampa wasn't the issue that was occupying my mind.

Posted by: Pig Head Sucker at November 21, 2003 at 11:53 AM

Exactly right Pig. Saying that these random and 'lucky' events win elections for the Liberals (regarded as stronger on national security) is like describing an ageing population as a 'lucky' event for Labor (consistently ahead in the polls on health and welfare).

It's their history of responses to such phenomena that determine how votes will go. You can't control random events, but you can control your policy. No, wait ...

Posted by: ilibcc at November 21, 2003 at 12:03 PM

Ross Fitzgerald is claiming that shock external events were sufficient to virtually eliminate scrutiny of the incumbent's internal problems.

In "Wag The Dog", these events (the war in Albania) were manufactured to minimize coverage of a sex-scandal.

In 2001, these events (Tampa, Sept 11) occurred in real life, and helped to minimize criticism of the Government's (supposedly) troubling domestic performance.

I don't consider it a very difficult analogy to grasp, so the Tim's repeated protestations that "Wag The Dog" is, you know, fictional kinda seem a bit like he's missing the point.

That said, I'm not really convinced that the analogy is that accurate. The Govt was polling pretty well due to pork-barrelling before Tampa, if I recall.

However, once Tampa/Sep 11 had occurred, the election campaing seemed geared around security issues, which is generally regarded as best-handled by the conservatives.

Fitzgerald suggests that such events, shocking as they are, conferred an advantage on Howard that he otherwise had no right to expect.

So in that sense, Fitzgerald believes, Howard was "lucky" that the dominant theme of the election was fought over an issue (security) where the conservatives enjoy an advantage, rather than an election that looked like it would be fought over troubling domestic performance.

And the security issue was manifested by shock external events (Tampa, Sep 11) that "fell into his lap".

[As an aside, I recall watching the Sep 11 coverage, and the person beside me remarked that "this has just won Howard the next election".]

Anyway, recent polling suggests that the Coalition and Labour are neck-and-neck, and that if the next election is fought over issues where Labour seems to have an advantage (health and education), then the Government may be in danger. Witness the current attempts by the Government to neutralize these issues before the next election.

Fitzgerald then goes on to ask if other "shock events" could happen before the next election. One possibility, which presumably seems plausible, is a terrorist attack on Australia. If such a shock event occurs, then you can forget about domestic issues such as health and education -- it's all about security, and the incumbent has a great advantage over the opposition in this regard.

Posted by: Geoff at November 21, 2003 at 01:26 PM

I love the ALP. First they support the action taken against the Tampa, because they knew that to oppose it was electoral suicide. Then they lose the election so they blame Kimbo and dump him. Then they have their Wran-Hawke inquiry that supports the Tampa-September 11 "We wuz robbed" by events beyond our control line of analysis. The question that remains unanswered is - If the ALP wuz robbed, WTF are you doing dumping Kimbo for Simon? Hasn't that been a success! And now they've elected Carmen the Forgetful. I love 'em. All they gotta do now is keep arguing over tax policy - "Tax the rich!". "No, don't tax the rich." Yes - No - Yes - No -....noting that the average plumber or brickie these days is paying at least 42% if not 47% PAYG taxation and it is not like they are rich, just hard working. Idiots. Bring on the election.

Posted by: Razor at November 21, 2003 at 02:09 PM

"Tampa and September 11 were real events, as I recall."


They are little bothersome events which deserved to be totally ignored in order to think like a proper leftist.

The left persistently complain that the Australian government has overreacted to real life events. What they fail to see is that the leaders are democratically elected and have a responsibility to provide security for the nation.

This reinforces my belief that given the events of the past 3 years, namely the upsurge in terrorism, that any sane president/PM of USA, Australia, Britain or Israel, would behave exactly the same way that Bush, Blair, Howard and Ariel Sharon have.

The sworn enemies of the left are all sane leaders - that is their crime.

Posted by: Jono at November 21, 2003 at 02:36 PM

Geoff (Honnor I presume)

If somebody had said "this had just won Howard the next election" to me in the hours following the WTC attack I would have spat in their face. I expect that Howard would have done the same.

Posted by: Pig Head Sucker at November 21, 2003 at 03:07 PM

PigHead, the person who made the remark was a bloke who I worked with, a very right-wing, no-bullshitting, God-fearing American.

His statement was a simple realistic assessment of how the electorate would react when security becomes an electoral issue.

And if you tried to "spit in his face", he would (in all likelihood) shoot you with one of his impressive collection of rifles :-)

(And no, I'm not Geoff Honnor. Time to change my nom-de-lurk, I suppose)

Posted by: Geoff at November 21, 2003 at 03:29 PM

The ALP is nearly finished Federally. At the moment they represent a narrow band of "working class areas in the cities".

Geoff's talk of the polls is very superficial. What he would notice is that Labor's primary vote has collapsed into the low 30s and that the Greens have taken a lot of the loony lefty voters away from the ALP. This may help the ALP in two party preferred terms, but there will always be leakages of preferences (for US readers we have preferential voting in Oz). Another important factor is that the Green vote is high in ALP electorates, but not particularly important in marginals.
The most important fact however is that the Liberals have made the outer Metropolitan seats in NSW and Queensland their own, with good candidates and good policies. It is these seats that detyermine who sits on the Government benches.
The last point is that polls always seem to give Labor more support than it actaully has, because there is still some hang-over in the community of the idea that a person who declares that he votes for the coalition is somehow "uncaring".

Posted by: toryhere at November 21, 2003 at 03:44 PM

In the movie the "war" was devised by the President and his advisors. The Tampa and the WTC sttack would be analogous only if Bush and Howard devised them. Nobody with two neurons to fire at the same time, and only the moonbat conspiracy theorists otherwise, believes that. Analogy fails.

Posted by: Michael Lonie at November 21, 2003 at 06:15 PM

No Michael. Everybody knows that Bush really did mastermind the attack. Just ask Cynthia McKinney.

After all, Bush is a Stupid Evil Genius.

Posted by: Ken Summers at November 22, 2003 at 12:26 AM

Besides which, how can anybody write a Wag-based column in 2003 without referring once to Clinton’s impeachment-era bombing raids?

It's easy if you're completely unprincipled. Keep tossing 'em and I'll keep hitting them out of the park.

Posted by: Tongue Boy at November 22, 2003 at 12:35 AM

I always prefered wag the dick.

Way more entertaining.

Plus you get to say things at work like "blow job" that other wise would be censored as unPC. Seems political speech is still OK. More wag the dick, please.

Posted by: M. Simon at November 22, 2003 at 03:04 AM