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Beazley puts himself behind on the refugee issue

By Graham Young - posted Sunday, 9 September 2001


Economists call them "exogenous events". It’s a cold calculating term for those unpredictable occurrences that throw a system into disarray. To call last week’s terrorist attack in the USA an "exogenous event" is a totally inadequate response. But as the events recede in memory that is more and more how the political and economic establishments will come to see them. With the US stockmarkets opening this evening, cold calculations will be starting to dominate.

That is natural. Not only is it necessary to move on, but it is impossible and debilitating to remain in a state of heightened sensitivity to grief, loss and catastrophe. It is physically and emotionally destructive, as well as being destructive of the opportunity to reshape the future. This article is written in the knowledge that, with an election probably around two months away, Australia’s federal politicians are also making their own cold calculations in the interests of their individual need for political survival. So while it seems indecently early to start analysing the effects of last week’s events, next week will be far too late.

At the beginning of this year it seemed that only a miracle could save John Howard’s government. It was stumbling in the polls with the lowest first preference vote in the Liberal Party’s history and racing towards policy reversals on GST, fuel and beer, and a loss in the Ryan by-election. Now, on the basis of the latest Morgan poll it is well clear of the ALP on first preferences – 44% to 39%. Obviously the refugee crisis and the WTC attrocity are at the root. The question is, will the advantage be sustained until election day, and how will the government and opposition deal with it?

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Because of the volatility and timing of the swing the polls suggest that there will be a natural tendency to a swing back from the government. The Morgan figures, unlike rival Newspoll, have been fairly sedate in their fluctuations. Only one month ago they had the Coalition at 43% two-party preferred versus the ALP on 57%. The same poll has a table of two-party preferred votes back to the last Federal Election. The size of the two-party preferred vote for each party has stayed remarkably consistent throughout. And even while Newspoll’s figures have been more volatile, they too suggest that the swing to the government has been late and violent.

This suggests an emotional response to a controversial and current issue which has overwhelmed an underlying aching disillusionment with the government. In two months or so when we go to the polls voters will probably be focussing on other issues. On these issues the Newspoll figures reinforce the trend rather than the latest results. Of the six issues rated most important to voters – education; health and medicare; unemployment; the environment; welfare and social issues and; family issues – the ALP was ahead as late as the 7th September, 2001. The government has a significant lead in defence and immigration but they rank only 8th and 9th being rated as very important by fifty and forty-four percent of voters respectively. In contrast family issues (number six) come in at 61 percent and education (number one) is rated as most important by 79%.

The Morgan figures also contain another interesting detail. As the government vote has increased, the One Nation vote has decreased by an almost equal amount, and the tendency of the remaining One Nation voters to allocate preferences to the Coalition has also increased. This suggests that. the ALP’s base has remained stable, but One Nation voters have moved to Howard.

Recent history also suggests that the war effect at least will not be long wearing. The East Timor crisis appeared to give John Howard a boost in the polls, but according to Morgan, never enough to put Liberal in front of Labor. In the US, President George Bush lost to Bill Clinton in the aftermath of Operation Desert Storm.

It could be argued that this time will be different and that Harold Holt enjoyed huge popularity as a result of going "All the way with LBJ". However, "To the Brink with Bush" is unlikely to draw the same support. The aftermath of the Vietnam war still colours the debate. Electors are dubious of the possibility of military success and fearful of fatalities.

If there is a sustainable side of Howard’s bounce in the polls it appears to me to be likely to have been generated by the refugee issue. Afterall, this country was founded on the White Australia policy, and its early trade, industry and labour policies were all designed to make Australia safe for the white man. This is a strong historical thread linking both Labor and Conservative voters. As embodied in the domino theory White Australia even featured in many of Menzies’s campaigns.

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What the World Trade Centre atrocity has done is to actually accentuate the intensity of the refugee issue. Most of the refugees claim to come from Afghanistan. With the problem provisionally being sourced to Osmara bin Laden and the Taliban regime, people who a week ago according to talk-back radio were merely "queue jumpers" have suddenly changed in status to "terrorists". Never mind that all the evidence suggests that terrorists don’t jump onto half sunken scows in a desperate attempt to get to their targets; but purchase airline tickets and fly there to live model middle class lives with their wife and kids whilst training on flight simulators for their ultimate appointment with God.

The Howard campaign understands the power of the refugee issue. One of Howard’s lieutenants, Senator Nick Minchin, said some time ago that this next election was about where the One Nation vote went. As the poll results suggest, while the issue appears to be middle ranking with mainstream voters, they seem to be moving across to the Coalition.

The Liberal Campaign was in a quandary at its Federal Convention last year. Should it sell Howard as kind and caring, or tough and resolute – "Doing the things that need to be done". The arrival of the Tampa with its load of refugees appears to have swung the balance towards leadership.

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About the Author

Graham Young is chief editor and the publisher of On Line Opinion. He is executive director of the Australian Institute for Progress, an Australian think tank based in Brisbane, and the publisher of On Line Opinion.

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