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Australians' anti-American sentiment runs deeper than it looks to Canberra

By Graham Young - posted Monday, 4 August 2003


Most analysts seem to accept that John Howard's close association with George Bush and Australia's involvement in the "Coalition of the Willing", are political advantages for Howard. But is that really the case, or does the Australia-US relationship offer Labor as many advantages as it does the Liberals and Nationals?

Until our first On Line Opinion Havachat I would have been in broad agreement with most analysts, but the qualitative polling that we did as part of the online discussion on the proposed US Free Trade Agreement caused me to rethink my position.

Since the Federal election in 2001 our polling has been showing that the War on Terror and the refugee issue have been significant negatives for the ALP, but not quite in the way that everyone thinks.

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Only a very small group of voters, probably between 10 and 15 per cent, see these overseas issues as important in themselves. This group tend to be "blue-collar conservatives" and a fair proportion of them voted for One Nation in the 1999 election. The other 85 to 90 per cent decide their vote on the basis of domestic issues, and a crucial factor in this is making a judgement not just as to which policies are most attractive but whether the party making the promise can be trusted to deliver.

Labor has three distinct problems, each of which affects a specific group, and all of which spring from a common perception. That perception is that while the Labor Party position is similar to the government's on refugees it is more accommodating of refugee rights activists' views, and it is also more malleable than the government's. As a result, the blue-collar conservatives are not going to vote Labor on the basis of the policy - they like the government's position and they trust them to maintain it.

The other group can be split into left and right. Both of these sub-groups prefer the Labor positions on social and economic issues, however neither sub-group really feels that they can trust Labor to deliver because they see it being weak on a point of principle. The right-wing voters therefore end up voting for Howard, while the left wing voters go to the Greens. Given preferential voting the left-wingers come back, but they are unenthusiastic, or even antagonistic to Labor. As many of these people have previously been enthusiastic supporters, their disenchantment significantly weakens Labor's support base. In rare instances, such as the Cunningham by-election, these left-wing swingers can also deliver an electorate to the Greens.

Given this public mood, Labor's best bet for taking votes from the government is to get back onto the domestic agenda, and when it does, as it did in the speech in reply on the budget, its vote picks up. But here Labor can't help itself. Politics is as much about personalities as it is about policies, and Labor is personal with John Howard on refugees and the Iraq war. The Prime Minister relies on poor intelligence information to allege to parliament that Iraq tried to buy uranium in Niger. Polls show that the public believe they were misled. Labor sees an opportunity to make a hit and decides to go after the PM. Yet John Howard's ratings hold up, as does the government's vote. Labor can't understand why.

Well, here is an hypothesis. There is no mileage for any politician in proving that another has lied except in very exceptional circumstances. The public believe that all politicians lie, so when confronted with proof of one politician's dishonesty offered by another politician they generally respond "Well, you lie when it suits you too, so what?" In a world where everyone is guilty of a lack of ethics, to show that one of your fellows is unethical is to show that they are average, not worse than average.

The public also has a robust view about the relationship between means and ends. Despite the negative material that regularly comes out of the press about Iraq, I think most Australians regard Saddam Hussein as an evil man and they think the world and his own country are better off without him. This was done without the loss of single Australian life, and they regard this as a good outcome.

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So, Labor cannot win on the issue. However, from a tactical point of view they do something much worse to themselves by harping on it. They remind electors of their belief that the ALP is tricky and untrustworthy and can't be trusted to deliver on domestic issues. By playing the war game, Labor play to Howard's strength at the same time as they undermine their own strength.

I have always understood the blue-collar support for the government on asylum seekers, and now on the war in Iraq, as being significantly driven by xenophobia. What our qualitative polling shows is that there is a countervailing xenophobia stalking Australia - anti-Americanism. The US- FTA poll had a significant bias towards Greens voters (many of whom on our sample are disenchanted Labor voters). This doesn't invalidate it, it just means that you need to be careful in interpreting results.

And taking this bias into account, the single strongest result to come out of the poll was that by far the most popular reason for opposing the Free Trade Agreement was fear of the US. Respondents were asked an open question "…can you tell us in one phrase or sentence why you hold that view [support or opposition to FTA]?" There was no list of alternatives, and they were unable to talk to each other. Of those opposed to the FTA, over 50 per cent cited US-related reasons for being opposed. For those who were neutral or uncommitted, it was approximately 24 per cent. Those who supported the FTA didn't mention the US at this stage. However, the clincher was that when asked what was the strongest argument against the FTA, two-thirds of supporters gave reasons related to fear of the US.

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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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