| Green Party senator Bob Brown (left) interrupts a speech by US President George W. Bush to the Australian parliament in Canberra while Ahmed Habib, son of Mamdouh Habib who is being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, waits in the visitors’ gallery for the speech to begin. (Reuters, AFP)
Canberra, Oct. 23 (Reuters): Heckled inside the Australian parliament and jeered by protesters outside, President George W. Bush today defended the Iraq invasion and war on terror, saying Australia and the US had to lead by example.
Bush, wrapping up a six-nation Asian tour, told a joint session of parliament that Australia and the US had a “special responsibility throughout the Pacific” to help keep peace.
The American President is on a whirlwind visit to Australia to thank conservative Prime Minister John Howard for helping in the US-led war on terror and in Iraq. His 20-hour visit has triggered a massive security operation in the usually sleepy capital with armed air force jets escorting him into Canberra last night with orders to shoot any unauthorised aircraft and patrolling over the city today.
Authorities took the unprecedented step of barring the public from the national parliament where Bush spoke today, backing a special security role for Australia in the Asia-Pacific region that has raised concerns among Asian neighbours.
“Security in the Asia-Pacific region will always depend on the willingness of nations to take responsibility for their neighbourhood, as Australia is doing,” Bush told parliament.
But his tagging of Australia as a regional “sheriff” and staunch defence of the Iraq war angered Left-leaning Green politicians whose yells twice stopped the President’s speech.
“We are not a sheriff,” shouted Greens leader Bob Brown who ignored an order to leave the house. The heckling did not rattle Bush who is on his first trip to Australia. “I love free speech,” he quipped, to cheers from the House.
But following Bush’s speech, the parliament voted to suspend Brown and his Greens colleague Kerry Nettle from parliament for 24 hours, which will bar them tomorrow when Chinese President Hu Jintao is due to address the parliament during a three-day trip.
Security guards removed one person from the chamber packed with well-known Australians, including TV-celebrity Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin in his trademark khaki shorts and tennis star Lleyton Hewitt. The 18-year-old son of Mamdouh Habib, one of two Australians held at a US military prison in Cuba for two years without charge after the Afghan invasion, was dragged out, arms pinned behind his back, after yelling: “Hey Bush, what about my Dad'”
While tempers flared inside the hill-top parliament, a crowd of up to 2,000 protesters outside chanted anti-US slogans and waved banners reading: “Yankee Go Home” and “US Sucks”.
Through the crowd weaved an Osama bin Laden lookalike, carrying a placard reading “Come and Get Me” and two activists dressed as Saddam Hussein and Bush holding hands.
“It’s clear out here who represents the Australian people much more than Bush, Howard and their mates inside,” said protester Will Saunders, who travelled from Sydney overnight for the rally. But the crowd failed to reach the expected 5,000 and was a far cry from the 200,000 that turned up for an anti-war protest in Australia’s most populous city of Sydney in February.
Australia was one of the first nations to commit troops to Iraq, sending 2,000 military personnel to the Gulf, and has been an active partner in the US-led war on terror, sending troops to Afghanistan after the US’ September 11, 2001, attacks.
It has cranked up security nationwide since last October’s Bali bombings that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians.
About 1,000 police and security specialists were deployed in Canberra today to guard against any incident while Bush and his 650-person entourage were in town. It’s the first US presidential visit to Australia since Bill Clinton came in 1996.
Howard’s drive to tighten ties with the US during his seven years in power has sparked some criticism within Asia.
But Howard, who visited Bush at his Texas ranch in May, said the relationship would only become tighter, with the two nations hoping to complete a free trade agreement by the end of the year.
“The significance of America to Australia will grow as the years go by, it will not diminish,” he told the parliament.
Bush lauded Howard as“a leader of exceptional courage”.
”We value, more than ever, the unbroken friendship between the Australian and American peoples,” Bush said. (Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols)