Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Australian hostages in Iraq: an anti-Tampa for the election?

The still unconfirmed possibility that Australians may be being held as hostages is all over the news and Australian blogdom (john Q, tim D, tim B)

Prior to this, there has been occaisional speculation that there might be an ‘October surprise’ (and it’s still only September!) that would benefit the cause of the Government’s relection a la the MV Tampa at the last election. It’s always assumed that any significant national security happening benefits an incumbent Government (especially a Conservative one) because people don’t want to change horses in the middle of the lava stream.

But a hostage situation in Iraq is one of the few such situations which might harm the Government (putting aside for one moment the ick factor of discussing the electoral effect of hostages while actual hostages are still out there with actual guns held to their actual foreheads by actual scumbags).

The Government has made it clear that it will not negotiate with terrorists (and it certainly painted itself into a corner on this by criticising the Filipinos and the Spanish for ‘cutting (a deal) and running’ – although I agree with the Australian perspective myself. However satisfying it might be to secure the release of hostages at any cost, it only means other such groups will immediately be casting about for potential victims and you can kiss goodbye to having a foreign policy of your own).

Latham has backed the Government on this, which is sensible, but this won’t necessarily take all the sting out of it. It’s perfectly possible for the Opposition to say ‘we also don’t negotiate with terrorists but we sincerely regret that Australia is in this position today….’

If Australia heads into the final days of the election with two of our countrymen pleading for their lives in Iraq… If the Government stands firm: ‘we’re doing all we can to help but we can’t agree to their demands…’ If the hostages are murdered as their families beg unsuccesfully for a deal with the terrorists, an absolute no-win situation for any Government if ever there was one, it may cost Howard the election.

But we can only hope it never comes to that and the hostages, if there really are any, are released… (obligatory final line to try to reduce my personal discomfort level for engaging in such ugly speculation when lives are at stake).

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