PM counts his blessings as the pulpit sends a saintly message Election 2001

KAREN KISSANE   St Augustine, said the preacher, had watched barbarians destroy the Roman Empire and wrestled with the question: Can it ever be right to wage war? John Howard, sitting in the front row of the Duntroon chapel for a service for Australian troops being sent overseas, turned swiftly towards the pulpit, suddenly on alert.

He had no need to worry. It turned out that St Augustine, and the military chaplain delivering yesterday’s sermon, had come to the same conclusion as the PM: there are greater evils than war.

Monsignor Bill Fuller, principal chaplain at Duntroon military college, went on to tell a church full of Australian Defence Force personnel that young Australians were being asked to fight for freedom and justice and the dignity of every human being.
He said they needed the support of all Australians and should be spared attitudes or statements “that could even be seen as abetting the enemy”.

The Prime Minister would have been able to say thank you for a wonderful service with utter sincerity.

Things military remained the theme for the rest of Howard’s day. At lunchtime about 60 anti-war protesters gathered outside Canberra’s National Press Club with a more raucous style of rhetoric: “Another Yankee war, another Yankee whore”, “How do you spell Afghanistan? V-I-E-T-N-A-M” and “Howard: stop killing Afghans”.

But the roars of “Howard out, refugees in” did not faze the Prime Minister and Mrs Howard, who smiled brightly as they left their car. Inside, Howard gave a speech about leadership, national security and sound economic management. During question time, he seemed to enjoy tussling with journalists but did not hesitate to use his authority to quell the overly persistent.

A reporter who insisted on asking him about his personal view on the sale of Telstra was told tartly, “I’m stating government policy and my preference is exactly the same as government policy – what a surprise!”

A journalist who questioned the effect on national unity of the debate about “the desirability of people from other countries” received a stern lecture. “Just what are you inferring by that? … I think that is a false representation of our position … We have not sought to exclude people on the basis of their race or country of origin. It’s got everything to do with the circumstances in which they have sought to come here.”

At one point the Prime Minister offered a laurel to his opponent. Asked what positive things he had to say about Kim Beazley, he conceded the strength of the Labor leader’s credentials on defence: “I disagree with him on a lot of policy issues … but if there were a war cabinet I’d put him in it. But I’d be the prime minister!”

Later, he visited a defence technology business where he was shown computer simulations of laser targeting equipment, complete with the rat-tat-tat of machinegun fire, before dropping in to the nearby office of Gary Nairn, the Liberal MP for the bellwether electorate of Eden-Monaro.

Don’t feel pressured, he told the local party faithful, but political omens suggested that if they manage to get Nairn over the line, they would also return the Coalition to government.

Howard got down on his haunches to greet two-year-old Attila Ovari, who toddled over to the PM and planted a kiss on his cheek. “What’s this?” asked a delighted Howard of the little red car clutched in the boy’s hand. “My Beemer,” said Attila. Nothing like catching them young.

First published in The Age.