Sat, Jul 10, 2004 - Page 1 News List

`US interference' in Australian politics called unforgivable


Ex-prime ministers from both sides of Australian politics have slammed a senior US official for wading into Australia's partisan debate over withdrawing troops from Iraq -- calling the move counterproductive, unforgivable and "dumb."

US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told Australian reporters in Washington earlier this week that opposition leader Mark Latham had split his party with his controversial pledge to pull Australian troops out of Iraq if he wins an election due later this year.

The comments were the Bush administration's latest criticism of Labor's stance on the issue. Analysts and lawmakers have branded them interference in Australian domestic politics ahead of the federal election.

Acerbic former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating called Armitage's comment, "yet another unwarranted and untimely partisan intervention in the Australian political debate."

"Beating up on friendly foreign political parties is not only unsightly, it is also dumb and counterproductive in the longer term," Keating said in a statement to the national news agency Australian Associated Press.

Malcolm Fraser, a former prime minister from the ranks of the ruling Liberal Party, said the current Liberal-National Party coalition government should tell the US that Armitage's statements are unwelcome.

"The intervention not only of Richard Armitage but of his bosses in our political scene I think is quite unforgivable," Fraser told Australian Broadcasting Corp television late Thursday.

Latham warned yesterday that the US administration risked weakening Australian public support for the 53-year-old defense alliance between the two countries.

"We're better off sticking to our own election campaigns, our own democracies and not to cross the border or seek to make any interference," Latham told reporters. "My major concern with this really is that we don't want any weakening of public opinion for the American alliance."

But Prime Minister John Howard said yesterday that Latham could not complain since he had attacked US President George W. Bush in the past.

Howard, a strong supporter of the coalition efforts in Iraq, sent 2,000 troops to fight in the invasion last year and still has 850 military personnel in and around the country.

"Mark Latham himself, with his attack on Bush, when he said he was the most dangerous and incompetent American president in living memory, was hardly being diplomatic and gentle," Howard told the Southern Cross radio network yesterday.

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