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John Howard joins the legacy battle

George W. Bush’s Aussie ally throws the book at war critics. A shoe-tossing protester takes a stand. A convicted terrorist has his say. A rocketing currency rattles exporters. And the nation mourns a music icon.

John Howard

­Top news: It’s Australia’s contribution to the end-of-decade Legacy Wars: a Western leader who took his nation to battle in Afghanistan and Iraq now using his memoirs to defy the critics and explain why he has no regrets.

Tony Blair did it in Britain with his controversial September release “A Journey,” and George W. Bush will argue his case in “Decision Points,” due out Nov. 9. Between them, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard will release “Lazarus Rising,” a tome that has been the talk of the nation for weeks, even though it doesn’t hit the shelves until Nov. 1.

Howard — voted out of office in a landslide defeat in 2007 — doesn’t pull any punches, particularly on the correctness of his decision to position Australia as the most enthusiastic backer of Bush and Blair’s Iraq adventure in 2003. Like them, he admits to no second thoughts, then or now. “I found it inconceivable that we would not stand beside the Americans,” he writes, according to excerpts released in an advance publicity blitz. And of his political opponents, he is scathing: “I had contempt for [their] position.”

No one is surprised at Howard’s lack of contrition: In a long political career he was never one for being wishy-washy. Bush once called him a ”man of steel.”

The two men inspire similar extremes of love and loathing in their respective countries, and history can now record a fresh footnote that links them. On Oct. 25, as Howard promoted his book in a live television interview, an anti-war protester in the audience threw his shoes at the former PM. The missiles missed their target — but no one missed the echo of the footwear-throwing incident endured by Bush in Iraq in 2008.

That TV appearance was dangerous all round: Howard also was confronted by a video-taped question from former Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks, an Australian terror suspect who has just released his own book on his experiences. "Do you believe I was treated humanely?” the accused Taliban sympathizer asked Howard, referring to the six years he spent imprisoned after his 2001 capture in Afghanistan. (The U.S. sent Hicks home in 2007.) Hicks says he was tortured; Howard betrayed no sympathy.

Australians, meanwhile, were goggle-eyed at this unexpected (and entirely  coincidental) battle-of-the-books between Hicks and the ex-PM. Suddenly, it seemed, the rights and wrongs of the recent past were ripe for relitigating — a process that had gathered momentum earlier in October with a parliamentary debate on the nation’s continued military involvement in Afghanistan.

This was a three-day airing of issues many believe was long overdue. The progressive Greens party forced the debate, flexing its muscles as a decisive vote in the hung parliament that emerged from August national elections. There was no change in policy as a result — the troops are staying, possibly for another 10 years according to Prime Minister Julia Gillard — but there was broad agreement it was healthy to revisit an issue strangely absent from public discussion for some years.

Perhaps the end of 2010 is destined to be a time when Australians confront this and other unfinished business from the decade just ending. In recent weeks other national traumas have also come up for reassessment and, hopefully, resolution — most notably, two notorious cases involving young Australians convicted on drug smuggling charges in neighboring Indonesia.

Five years ago, the plight of convicted marijuana smuggler Schapelle Corby was a national obsession, with most Australians convinced an innocent young woman had been railroaded by the Indonesian justice system. Belief in her innocence has since faded, but there is no doubt most people would like to see Corby at least allowed to serve the remainder of her 20-year sentence at home. In recent weeks, there have been signs of hope as Jakarta says it is considering her application for clemency.

Meanwhile, three men sentenced to death in Bali for heroin smuggling have been fighting their final court battle to be spared execution. They were among a group dubbed the Bali Nine when they were arrested in 2005. Caught red-handed, their fate attracted little public sympathy — but the tide has shifted. A recent poll suggests a healthy majority of Australians want their lives spared, a dramatic shift in opinion.

Money: Australians never thought they’d see the day again — indeed, many weren’t even born the last time it happened. But on Oct. 15, the once-humble Aussie dollar fought its way to parity with the once-mighty greenback for the first time since the currency was floated way back in 1983. Many were chuffed, particularly considering that not too many years ago the U.S. dollar was worth more than double the value of a buck from Down Under. Analysts said the barnstorming dollar reflected the strength of the local economy and the relative weakness of its developed-world competitors. But it’s not all good news: exporters are hurting because their wares are now so much more expensive abroad, and the tourism industry is also taking a hit. But they’d better adjust, because the dollar is predicted to remain at super-strength for some years.

Elsewhere: When Oprah Winfrey tapes a special at the Sydney Opera House in December, she will be treading on hallowed ground: the spiritual home of a singing legend whose memorial service will grace the iconic building just weeks before. On Oct. 12, Australians woke to the news that they had lost a national treasure: Dame Joan Sutherland, regarded as one of the greatest sopranos. Pavarotti once called her “the voice of the century.” Aussies loved her for that, and also for her lifelong determination to be a diva who stayed down-to-earth. It was her “quintessential Australian values”that helped endear her to her compatriots, said Prime Minister Gillard. The woman known as La Stupenda died at age 83 after a long illness. A state memorial service will be held at the Opera House on Nov. 9 — an event carrying echoes of the 1931 state funeral for another local gift to the opera world, Dame Nellie Melba. The nation stopped to mourn Melba, too. How did rugged, dusty, distant Australia produce two of history’s greatest sopranos? No one knows, but it’s a legacy embraced with pride.