JIM LEHRER: The U.S.-Australia friendship, President Bush wound up his week long trip to Asia by visiting Australia. Spencer Michels begins our coverage.
SPENCER MICHELS: President Bush came to the Australian parliament in Canberra to thank the government and Prime Minister John Howard for support of the war in Iraq, and in the global war on terrorism. Thousands of anti-Bush demonstrators were kept at a distance. Public opinion in Australia has been sharply divided on the Iraq war, where Australians were part of the coalition forces. President Bush commended Australia for its support in fighting terrorism. Nearly 100 Australians died in a deadly terrorist bomb attack in Bali last year.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No country can live peacefully in a world that the terrorists would make for us. And no people are immune from the sudden violence that can come to an office building, or an airplane, or a night club, or a city bus. Your nation and mine have known the shock and felt the sorrow, and laid the dead to rest. And we refuse to live our lives at the mercy of murderers. (Calls of "hear, hear")
SPENCER MICHELS: Australia, a nation of 19 million, is increasingly tied to the economies of its Asian and Muslim neighbors with whom it is sometimes at odds about the terror war and other diplomatic issues. The Australian government sent about 1,500 soldiers and Special Forces to fight in Afghanistan and 2,000 troops for the war in Iraq. Most have returned home. When the president began speaking about the liberation of Iraq, he encountered the rough and tumble style of Australian politics, displayed by an Australian senator who was a member of the Green Party.
SPOKESMAN: Senator Brown will excuse himself from the House. The sergeant will remove Senator Brown from the House.
SPENCER MICHELS: Later, the president responded to another heckler.
SPOKESMAN: The Sergeant will remove --
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I love free speech. (Applause)
SPENCER MICHELS: Talking with reporters, President Bush and Prime Minister Howard were asked about quotes that suggested the U.S. regarded Australia as its Asian sheriff.
REPORTER: Mr. President, you called Australia a sheriff. Does that mean Australia should flex its military might more in Asia? And, Mr. Howard, how do you see the job of a sheriff?
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Could I put it in context? I was asked the question, is Australia America's deputy sheriff, that was the question. It was a very careful, clever question. And my answer was, no, we're equal. We're equal partners on the war on terror. We're equal partners working for a world that's more free.
JOHN HOWARD: Our role in the region is -- I categorize that as help of a friend, to the benefit of Americans. That is pigeon English used by the Pacific Islanders. It means helping a friend. And I say Australia's role in the region is helping friends, and that's what we're doing in the Solomons, it's what we did in East Timor, it's what we may have to do again in other parts of that region. But when necessity arises, we help people.
SPENCER MICHELS: As the president departed for Hawaii, he left one more political gift: The announcement that the two governments would try to seal a trade agreement by the end of the year, a deal eagerly sought by Prime Minister Howard's government.
JIM LEHRER: More now from John Higley, director of the Center for Australian and New Zealand Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and Tony Walker, former political editor and Canberra bureau chief of the Australian Financial Review, Australia's largest daily newspaper. He just arrived in the U.S. to cover the election here.
Tony Walker, is the relationship between President Bush and Prime Minister Howard as warm and friendly as it appears to be on the surface?
TONY WALKER: I can't remember a closer relationship between two leaders of Australia and the United States in my experience, which goes back more than 30 years. I think the chemistry between the two men is pretty good. They're similar types in some ways. The relationship is the best that I can recall.
JIM LEHRER: John Higley, do you agree? This is a real relationship between these two leaders?
JOHN HIGLEY: It's very close, Jim. You have to recall that Prime Minister Howard was here at the time of the 9/11 attacks on Washington and New York, and that I think started a very firm basis for this relationship. I think this is the sixth time that the two men have met in the past two years.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Tony Walker, what has the Iraq War done to not just the relationship between President Bush and Prime Minister Howard, but between the two countries? What do the Australian people think about it?
TONY WALKER: I think between the two men, the -- I think the Iraq war was a shared and difficult experience for them both so it helped to consolidate their relationship because obviously they were very much in a minority internationally in the action that was taken. But I guess from the American point of view, if they perceive or think about Australia very much, that small country at the bottom of the world, it was a moment when Australia supported the United States when of course Europe and other parts of the world did not show that sort of ... that support.
JIM LEHRER: But was John Howard and his government, in making the decision to support the United States, did he have the support of his own people?
TONY WALKER: I think he assumed that he would have support of perhaps a significant proportion, the majority of the people, and he was prepared to take the political risk and gamble that, if he pushed ahead with this, there wouldn't be political consequences for him.
JIM LEHRER: John Higley, how do you read the general feeling in Australia about the Iraq War?
JOHN HIGLEY: Well, it's very divided, Jim. A considerable part of the population, especially the political class and the opposition in the labor party are pretty suspicious of the Bush administration's motivations, and there's been something like the reaction against Tony Blair in the U.K., namely the charge that Mr. Howard misled the people over weapons of mass destruction and other aspects of the Saddam Hussein threat. So has stirred up a bit of a dog fight in Australia. But you have to bear in mind that the government is in a strong position. It has the votes that it needs in parliament. Mr. Howard has a very favorable rating as a prime minister compared with the opposition alternative, Mr. Crean. And so for the moment, along with a very strongly functioning economy, the government is really in pretty good shape, despite the hostilities that have arisen over this.
JIM LEHRER: And Tony Walker, there are no longer any Australian troops in Iraq, are there?
TONY WALKER: No. I was going to make the point, following on from what Don said, Howard has been quite fortunate, and I think quite smart because as soon as the war was over, he removed the Australian presence from Iraq. So we haven't suffered any casualties, any fatalities. And so he's not facing the difficulties that Blair is in the United Kingdom and of course Bush is here because of the casualties that the U.K. and America have suffered.
JIM LEHRER: So as a political issue, how important is it in Australian politics?
TONY WALKER: I think it's a somewhat marginal issue at this stage. Of course, if the election race, and there's an election due in the next 12 months in Australia, about the same time actually as the election is due here, it might make some difference, might have some impact on the election. But it's not an issue that is, I don't believe, a particular problem for Howard politically at this stage.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Mr. Higley, the trade agreement is a big deal, is it not, to John Howard? Explain how? Why is that so important to Australia?
JOHN HIGLEY: Well, Australia has shifted a bit under the Howard government away from the earlier emphasis on East Asia, especially after the Asian financial crisis in the late '90s. And Howard has stood for a much closer relationship with the U.S. to include considerable economic integration with the U.S. And so he's put a lot of investment in this free trade agreement, and it's of course being negotiated and nearly finished with the negotiations now.
JIM LEHRER: What would be the practical effect of this trade agreement for Australia and its economy?
JOHN HIGLEY: Well, it will give Australia access particularly to American agricultural markets. Now, that's a big dispute over how much access, and that has yet to be ironed out. But providing...
JIM LEHRER: You mean in other words, Australia could sell agricultural products in the United States that they cannot do now, is that right?
JOHN HIGLEY: That's correct.
JIM LEHRER: Without paying a tariff?
JOHN HIGLEY: That's correct, because the United States maintains all sorts of quotas and other non-tariff barriers on agricultural imports. And some of these would be lowered or erased over a period of time. And this would be of considerable benefit to the Australian agricultural producers.
JIM LEHRER: What kind of things... what kind of products is it that the Australian farmers want to sell in this country that they can't sell now?
JOHN HIGLEY: Well, one of the most controversial general product areas is dairy products. And it's going to be a bit of a tussle to see how much access will be given to Australian dairy exports to the United States. But there are other areas, wheat meat, lamb, you name it. There are quite a few agricultural exports -- sugar in particular.
JIM LEHRER: Tony Walker, what are the politics of this trade agreement for John Howard?
TONY WALKER: Well, I was going to say this is a much more important agreement from Australia's point of view than it is from America's. Australians have done calculations which suggest that if there is free trade agreement and there is reasonable level of improved market access for Australia, that it would improve our GDP by 2006 by about a third of a percentage point. It would have a significant effect. Politically it would be an important feather in Howard's cap to be able to say, "I negotiated a free trade agreement with the United States." It shows that we are compatible -- move close together from an economic standpoint and there will be real benefits for Australians. Of course there is opposition in Australia to a free trade agreement, but by and large, I think Howard would be able to present it as quite a breakthrough.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think that -- I know you've just arrived in the United States so it's hard to put the two together. But do you see any major obstacles to getting this implemented both here and Australia?
TONY WALKER: Well, Don mentioned sugar. I think a major obstacle from the Australian perspective is the strength of the U.S. farm lobby and if we just focus on sugar, for example, Australia exports about 3.5 million tons of sugar a year, just 87,000 tons into the United States, because there's a very effective sugar lobby in the states which of course imposes a penal quota on imports of Australian sugar. I think that's where the tension is of course between Australia and the U.S. is in terms of improved access for Australian exports. And it's what's politically possible, I guess, for Bush in an election year.
JIM LEHRER: Finally, before we go, back to Iraq for a moment. Beginning with you, Mr. Higley, based on what the president said today, it doesn't seem, at least on the surface, that he's asking Australia to do anything else. In other words, Australia was there at the beginning, a very important time, sent some troops, left, but he's not asking them to send peacekeeping troops now, not asking for any particular aid for the rebuilding. Am I reading that correctly?
JOHN HIGLEY: I think you are, Jim. I don't know of any specific request that the Americans are making to Canberra at this point about Iraq.
JIM LEHRER: How do you explain that? Why do you think that is?
JOHN HIGLEY: Well, I think that they acquitted themselves very well, and of course Australia lies a long distance from Iraq. They have many problems in their area of the Southwest Pacific to deal with. There are Australian police forces now in the Solomons, there are a few of them in the Papua New Guinea, and so Australia has its hands full in its own region. And having done what it did in Iraq, I think the Americans feel we're not going to go back to them again.
JIM LEHRER: Tony Walker, anything should be made about this toing and froing about this sheriff or the deputy sheriff stuff? Does that mean anything?
TONY WALKER: Australians are -- and Don would understand this -- extremely sensitive about being perceived as somehow second-class citizens, you know, somehow less important in their part of the world. There's a part of our culture, I guess you would say is we are very much against being too deferential to each other, certainly to an outsider. It's a bit embarrassing for Howard, I think, Bush's observation that Howard was a sheriff of the Southwest Pacific wasn't politically helpful. But I think once the context was explained, it was something that Howard was able to deflect.
JIM LEHRER: The context as Mr. Higley explained, Australia's doing an awful lot in its own area. That's what the president was apparently referring to.
TONY WALKER: Yes.
JIM LEHRER: Well, gentlemen, thank you both very much.