John Howard’s legitimacy problems are larger than the question of whether he played a race card with the Afghan asylum seekers – they go to the root of the way he framed the entire election contest.
Howard has proved himself to be very clever at fighting battles on side issues, and winning them. In the republic referendum campaign he split the republican vote by framing the question as a choice between types of republic rather than between republic and monarchy. Having split the republicans into two major camps he (or lieutenants like Tony Abbott) found a theme – distrust of politicians – which welded half the split together with the monarchists and delivered Howard victory.
By the end of the campaign it was clear that the majority of Australians are republicans yet Australia was to remain a monarchy.
While this might be clever politics it is ultimately a self-defeating strategy. It delivers the result he wants only by avoiding the key issues and fighting on entirely tangential grounds. If you don’t fight for a constitutional monarchy and instead align yourself with public mistrust of politicians, then support for a monarchy will shrink, and distrust of politicians will grow. The reverse of what a monarchist politician should want. But if the key issues were addressed, the strategy would come undone because the coalition would not hold together. So the battle for power is won, but the war for hearts and minds is lost.
The federal election was a more sophisticated example of this technique. In this case the coalition was put together from a number of niches. The most significant one was the 8.43 per cent of the nation that voted for One Nation in 1998. It also included working-class voters in areas like western Sydney and south-east Queensland – a group that Howard has called his "battlers". But it also included the majority of the Liberal Party’s traditional heartland in the affluent metropolitan areas. All of these groups have very different agendas. In this case the one issue that intersected with all groups was the refugee issue.
When we interviewed One Nation voters online there was universal glee. Howard was doing Pauline Hanson’s bidding on refugees and they were giving him their enthusiastic second preference as a result. When probed about the rest of Howard’s agenda they were much less enthusiastic. Was Australia "heading in the right direction"? No, it hadn’t been for more than 25 years, but Labor would probably be worse. A number of them had a highly strategic aversion therapy attitude to politics. They said they had voted against the Liberal party in state elections to punish them and to encourage them to adopt One Nation policies. The message was clear. We are voting for Howard, but only so long as he does what we want. For these people refugees and big "L" leadership were the major issues that mattered. While we specifically spoke to One Nation supporters, their attitudes ought to be read as being more widely representative. Many traditional Labor working-class voters would hold similar views.
Not so for centre voters. Refugees was an issue, but more likely to be a negative issue for both Howard and the Opposition than a positive one. To a certain extent it was a distraction. They actually wanted to hear about domestic issues, but most of these weren’t making it through the clutter. They didn’t buy the style of leadership on offer from either Howard or Beazley, looking for something more lower case, inclusive and post-modern. No-one was offering it. In our last focus group discussions with them, the message from the Government had cut through, but that from the Opposition was blunt. They saw Beazley addressing the issues that interested them and looking to the future, and they saw Howard caught in the past and offering nothing new, but they thought Howard could deliver, and they were doubtful of Beazley’s capacity.
Voters on the traditional left were enraged at the Government but they were disillusioned with the opposition. These people are some of Labor’s strongest "talkers", but this election they were keeping mum and toying with voting Green or Democrat.
So, while only one group was voting directly for the government on the refugee issue, it was affecting most voters in some way. Blue collar conservatives loved it. For centre voters it was providing dirty air that prevented the opposition from getting its message through. Left-wing voters were being driving away from both Government and Opposition.
The Government has argued since the election that they didn’t win on the refugee issue, and if they did that this doesn't amount to playing the race card. If they mean that most people who voted for them are not racists and were not motivated solely or predominantly by the issue then they are right. But if they mean that they would have won the election without it, they are wrong. This is the legitimacy issue that the press, the elites and their political opponents have pointed to.
Their majority looks like being 0.98 per cent, so their win can be wholly explained by the transference of votes from One Nation to the Government. (One Nation lost 4.09 per cent of its vote this election). We know that a large proportion of this vote is xenophobic, and that there was a big jump in the Government’s vote immediately after the Tampa incident. This indicates a decisive shift in some demographic group, almost assuredly blue collar conservatives. Circumstantially (which is as good as one can do in this type of analysis) race, or at best xenophobia, would appear to be the deciding factor.
However, on the basis of the thoughts of traditional centre and left voters the government might argue that it was the opposition’s handling of the issue that delivered it government, not the fact that it jumped on the boat people. There is some truth in this. The left came back to the Labor Party via preferences, but it wasn't doing its usual job of talking up the issues and bagging the Liberal Party. Centre voters were more likely to be struck by the "me-tooism" of the Labor approach. As our qualitative poll of persuadable voters showed, their largest single hesitations in voting Labor (accounting for 50 per cent of the sample), were that they were unhappy with the way that it had dealt with the refugee issue, and thought it was too close to the Government.