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.
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
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.
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
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.