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Australia Diary: The Inescapable Presidential Race

Despite seeming a world away, Australians are fascinated by the U.S. presidential race. (Getty Images)

By Joel Achenbach
CAPE LEEUWEN, Western Australia -- The lighthouse is on a finger of granite and limestone poking out to sea. To the right is the Indian Ocean. To the left is what they call the Southern Ocean. Out there somewhere across the blue water is Antarctica. This is the southwestern corner of Australia -- and just about as far from Washington as a person can possibly go without actually leaving the planet Earth entirely.

The fellow in the gift shop at the lighthouse, Bob Cooper, likes Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).

"I think he's just straight honest," Cooper says. "I think it'll be a good change for America."

Everywhere in Australia, from the eucalyptus forests of the coast to the dry red center of the continent, people want to know about the American presidential contest. You can't escape it. On Monday morning, the Northern Territory News, a tabloid on sale at the airport in Alice Springs, smack in the heart of the Outback, had a two-deck, six-column headline spanning an inside page:

Obama camp has sights
On nomination victory

Richard Glover, a prominent radio host in Sydney, says his program often deals with the American presidential race.

"The identity of the American president has a big impact here -- remember we're the only country that has been with America in every war you've fought, including Vietnam," he says by e-mail. "Apart from the significance of the election, there's also something about the Clinton-Obama battle that anyone can understand -- race vs. gender, experience vs. a fresh approach."

Australians are following their own politics as well. People are still buzzing about the new prime minister, Kevin Rudd, whose first public speech was an apology to Aborigines for historic mistreatment by the Australian government -- a gesture that the previous prime minister, John Howard, had resisted. And the recent unveiling of the Labour Party's new budget received breathless coverage. TV stations covered Budget Day with live feeds as the treasurer announced his plans. The Australian, the national newspaper, came out the next morning with a 14-page liftout section covering Budget '08 from every conceivable angle.

Meanwhile, there are less decorous matters in the news, particularly in Western Australia, where a prominent politician has been forced to admit to boorish behavior. As reported on the front page of the West Australian, member of parliament Troy Buswell confessed "that he sniffed the chair of a female Liberal staff member." Another official stands accused of having "lifted the top" of a female MP. There were also reports of drunken crotch-grabbing and bra-snapping. The situation seemed to be spiraling out of control as party elders feared that they were becoming the laughing stock of the entire planet. At one point the admitted chair-sniffer was forced to address an Internet rumor -- a hoax, it turned out --- that he had, during a visit to Rottnest Island, "mistreated a quokka." This apparently refers to some kind of small marsupial.

So American politics is part of a lively matrix of news. Sen. John McCain doesn't seem to be getting much attention here so far -- the Democrats dominate the coverage and the chatter.

"I think the Democrats are doing a wonderful job of beating themselves up," says Gavin Prideaux, a paleontologist at Flinders University in Adelaide.

Charlie Dortch, an archaeologist born in Georgia, but a resident of Western Australia for the past four decades, thinks it would be a mistake for Obama to pick Clinton as his running mate. He'd rather see the vice presidency become a more ceremonial job. "I think the vice president should be the chap who's cutting ribbons at new hospital openings," he says.

The campaign was Topic A on Glover's radio show after the Indiana and North Carolina primaries.

"I just don't get Obama," declared Gary Linnell, editor at large of the Daily Telegraph and a guest on the radio show.

Australians, explained Glover, are plain-spoken and aren't comfortable with lofty rhetoric.

"Our politicians tend to be more prosaic, more practical, less soaring," Glover said.

A number of politicians have come on his show and declared their support for one of the American candidates ("I'm sure their verdicts were breathlessly reported over there!" Glover said).

Obama's signature line, "Yes we can!", has become an audio prop for Glover. He has it on tape, ready to roll with the push of a button.

"Can we check the Sydney traffic?" someone might ask.

"Yes we can!" Obama will answer.

By Web Politics Editor  |  May 19, 2008; 12:23 PM ET
Categories:  Barack Obama , Hillary Rodham Clinton , Joel's Two Cents  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: The Limits and Promise of Interactive Politics Online
Next: McCain Blasts Obama Over Iran Talks


Prior to 1901, Australia was British. So of course it wasn't going to fight in non-British wars, because Australian existence depended upon the British navy, not the Monroe-doctrined US. In the middle of WWII, though, the Brits said "sorry Australia, we're not going to be your military protectors anymore. America will be nice and take your security off our hands, won't she?" And America saw Australia as a great place to fight Japanese from, so we grudgingly acquiesced. Since then, Australia, New Zealand and the US have had a military treaty (ANZUS) that means that unless Australia supports us in our wars, we are perfectly entitled to leave Australia high and dry if Singapore invades. And Australians are always a little worried about an Asian invasion. They don't have the population to rival the countries in their area, so it is a reasonable fear. However, Australia doesn't ever lend very much support post-WWII, because while they have to be helpful to preserve ANZUS, Australians really hate that they need to preserve the alliance at all.

Posted by: Deborah | June 7, 2008 12:57 PM | Report abuse

australia is such a nice country & australion peoples are very friendly altough i am an indian i want to become a part of this country 'caus i love astralia

Posted by: swati | May 21, 2008 4:06 AM | Report abuse

As an Aussie, I am amused at some of the author's perceptions of Australians following politics in Aus and the US, like it is some sort of strange phenomenon. It is possibly only strange from an American view point. Australians find it equally perplexing that Americans seem to know very little about politics either in the US or abroad.

You probably shouldn't confuse our interest with the US elections as being enlightened. I believe our interest is more related to schadenfreude than anything else. Every country gets the government they deserve in the end.

Posted by: shaygb | May 20, 2008 3:31 AM | Report abuse

On the bright side, John McCain's middle name is SIDNEY ...

Posted by: JakeD | May 19, 2008 2:47 PM | Report abuse

Oh, SINCE 1901, Australia has fought in every war with the Americans. How about the U.S.-Philippine War? Or, the U.S. Intervention in Panama's Revolution (1903)? The Banana Wars in Central America (1909-1933)? The U.S. Occupation of Vera Cruz (1914) or Pershing's Raid into Mexico (1916-1917)? If you want to just say: "Australia has fought in every war with the Americans since WWI" just say that instead.

P.S. to Betcha -- if I decline to vote for Obama because he is pro-choice, that makes me a "racist" or "ignorant, prejudiced or willing to buy into the politics of fear"? What if I am deeply concerned about the disproportionate number of abortion among African-Americans? That "genocide" is O.K. with you?

Posted by: JakeD | May 19, 2008 2:34 PM | Report abuse

Australia wasn't a country until 1901, and since 1901, Australia has fought in every war with the Americans.

Posted by: Anonymous | May 19, 2008 2:24 PM | Report abuse

Barack Hussein Obama will be President!

Americans as a whole are not as ignorant, prejudiced or willing to buy into the politics of fear as JakeD obviously is.

Posted by: Betcha | May 19, 2008 2:00 PM | Report abuse

Actually, I'm registered Independent, and I am not a sock puppet either. Next canard?

Posted by: JakeD | May 19, 2008 1:43 PM | Report abuse

JakeD: Resident Republican sockpuppet at your service.

Posted by: TheGribbler | May 19, 2008 1:38 PM | Report abuse

It's Labor Party, not Labour Party.

Posted by: DHN | May 19, 2008 1:01 PM | Report abuse

P.S. to Glover:

Did Australia really send troops (Aborigines and/or convicts) to help Washington cross the Delaware? Oh, that's right, the British Crown Colony of New South Wales didn't even start until January 26, 1788. Did Austrailia send troops to help in the War of 1812? Our Civil War?

Posted by: JakeD | May 19, 2008 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Well, Cathy, one of us is wrong, that's for sure. God willing, I will see you back here on January 20th ; )

Posted by: JakeD | May 19, 2008 12:36 PM | Report abuse

Barack Obama WILL be sworn in as President on Janaury 20, 2009. What a day that will be!

Posted by: Cathy | May 19, 2008 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Although I wouldn't mind giving that Glover chap U.S. citizenship ; )

Posted by: JakeD | May 19, 2008 12:30 PM | Report abuse

Luckily, only U.S. citizens can vote -- mark my words though - Barack HUSSEIN Obama will not be sworn in as President on January 20, 2009.

Posted by: JakeD | May 19, 2008 12:27 PM | Report abuse

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