Sunday election musings

My initial thought this morning was that there was no point in writing a federal election post in advance of tonight’s Great Debate. But pondering a little further, I wonder whether the debate is likely to have a great effect anyway. In light of the Jakarta bombing, I suspect Latham would have to win the debate very decisively to turn the election campaign in his favour, and even then it might not be enough.

I expect Latham to be just as tough-sounding as Howard on national security tonight. But it’s still Howard’s issue. Why would any swinging voter change their vote (especially when the economy is strong) just because an unknown quantity Opposition Leader sounds like he might possibly be just as strong on the critical issue of national security as the Leader we’ve got now?

I’m not suggesting that I expect to see a huge change in the opinion polls in Howard’s favour over the next couple of days. What I mean is that, once Jakarta put national security back in centre stage, the election odds tipped (probably) decisively in Howard’s favour. With national security likely to continue crowding out other issues from the public consciousness for the next week or so, then a couple of weeks where most people are focused on footie finals not politics, that’s pretty much the end of the election campaign. That was in large part what I meant by my remark a couple of days ago that got the righties so apoplectic.

How should Latham react?

I’m not sure he can do much more than he is now: making constructive policy noises about national security and trying as best he can to get his health, education and other messages heard above the national security static. Does this sound disturbingly familiar? It should. It’s precisely the same dilemma Kim Beazley found himself in back in 2001, when Tampa and then September 11 drowned out everything else. And just like Beazley in 2001, Latham has left himself exposed to having his strategy completely derailed by an unexpected catastrophic event, by leaving his detailed policy releases far too late. I’ve been saying that all along, and it’s looking more and more as if I’ll be proved right (he says immodestly but sadly).

Fortunately, Latham has previously shown himself to be a great lateral thinker, with an ability to articulate an unexpected but effective “cut through” message from left field that reshapes the immediate agenda in his favour. He’s going to need that skill in spades to get his message heard in the current atmosphere.

One thing I reckon Latham most certainly shouldn’t be pursuing is the option both Tim Dunlop and Christopher Sheil are touting: announcing an immediate full troop withdrawal from Iraq. That would be disastrous in both electoral and policy terms.

I should qualify that I’m mostly gauging the likely electoral consequences by my own reaction. If Latham were to make such an announcement, I would (albeit very reluctantly) switch my vote back to the Coalition. That was what I’d initially decided to do when Latham first announced his troop withdrawal plan, but that position was subsequently modified so that it’s now more a force adjustment/repositioning than a wihdrawal (and will hopefully be portrayed as such internationally should Labor win).

Reverting to a full troop withdrawal stance would be both pointless and disastrous in policy terms. It would be pointless because, contrary to what both Tim and Chris assert, there’s no strategic need to pull troops back from Iraq to defend the homeland or redeploy them to South-East Asia. There are very few troops in Iraq anyway. Their presence is mostly symbolic (but no less important for that), and places little strain on Australia’s military capacity to deploy troops elsewhere if needed. And it’s unlikely to be needed anyway. The War Against Terror is an intelligence and police war, not a military one. Even if Indonesia or the Philippines launched military attacks on terrorist training bases within their borders, they’re highly unlikely to want overt Australian military assistance in doing so. That would be domestically divisive in both countries.

For those reasons, announcing an immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq would be a cynical and meaningless political stunt on Latham’s part. As far as I’m concerned it would confirm conclusively that Latham was unfit to govern, notwithstanding Howard’s manifest deficiencies.

It would also be disastrous internationally, in the message that it would send to terrorists. Along with Spain’s similar actions not so long ago, it would be telling the terrorists that Western nations are susceptible to having their foreign policies manipulated and dictated by terrorist threats and actions. That message would inevitably lead to still further terrorist atrocities designed to frighten even more countries into bending to the terrorists’ agenda. In a very real sense Latham would have the blood of future terrorist atrocities on his hands. That’s why he shouldn’t do it, and that’s why I think wiser heads like Beazley and Rudd will persuade him not to follow the advice of anyone in his inner circle who thinks like Tim and Chris.

While I’m on an Iraq diatribe (having not blogged about it for some time), I should draw attention to an excellent post by Macgregor Duncan on Imagining Australia. His opinions pretty much reflect my own, but he explains it all much better than I could. Here’s an extended extract:

It is conventional wisdom on the left that Australia’s involvement in Iraq and our membership of the Coalition of the Willing has made us targets of Islamic fundamentalists in our region. But this argument, while obviously true to some degree, ignores the fact that the antipathy of JI owes much more to Australian involvement in East Timor than any misadventure in Iraq. The Bali bombings, for example, which occurred well before Australia committed troops to Iraq, were said to be in retribution for Australia’s efforts to secure East Timorese independence, disrupting the dream of an Islamic Caliphate. In this instance, Australia, albeit tardily, was prepared to risk the ire of terrorists to do the right thing. What then about Iraq? Was Australian participation in Iraq the right thing to do, even if it did increase our susceptibility to future terrorist attacks?

I think it is quite clear that neither Howard nor any other supporter of the war (including myself) would have entertained that option had we known then what we know now, namely that Iraq had no WMD. But we quickly forget that, at the time, there was widespread consensus that Saddam had WMD. …

Further, all other options open to the international community were bad. The sanctions regime had become indefensible, with Saddam profiting billions by siphoning from the Oil for Food program, while ordinary Iraqis were left to suffer and starve. The US and the UK were bombing Iraqi defense positions on a weekly basis and maintaining a large garrison in Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Arab news networks, such as al-Jazeera, were broadcasting images of the bombings and the starvation of ordinary Iraqis, all the while inflaming anger against the West. There was no doubt that the sanctions regime had to end but what was to be the alternative? Conciliation? That looked like a bad idea at the time, and still looks like a bad idea today.

I think the most defensible position, in hindsight, is that Iraqi regime change was a worthwhile objective, disastrously executed. US diplomacy was appalling from the beginning, owing much to American arrogance. And post-war planning was inexcusably non-existent. Anyone who reads Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack comes away with a sense of awe at the planning for the actual war, and incredulity that so little attention was given to the more difficult task of reconstruction. This is inexcusable in terms of Coalition troops subsequently killed and injured, and in terms of Iraqi domestic security subsequently jeapordised. But I for one continue to believe that despite American incompetence, and despite the continuing instability in Iraq, the prospect of a semi-functional democracy in Iraq (and Afghanistan and Indonesia) represents the best hope to stem the terrorist death cult currently pervading much of the Islamic world.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
This entry was posted in Politics - national. Bookmark the permalink.
18 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
cs
cs
2022 years ago

that position was subsequently modified so that it’s now more a force adjustment/repositioning than a wihdrawal [sic]

To be fair, it’s driving this existing policy home that I’ve suggested, not a reversion to a blanket withdrawal. My colleague suggested calling for it to happen immediately, but this is what would happen in effect if Latham was elected – so I’m suggesting no change to existing ALP policy – only driving it right home, off the front foot. Following Howard will surely be political death.

Tim
Tim
2022 years ago

Actually, I wasn’t suggesting he make a big deal of withdrawing troops, and I have a lot of sympathy for your arguments here (in political terms). But I agree with Chris that it does underline the essential uselessness of having troops in Iraq and does highlight the fact that our concerns should be more to do with our region.

The further point that I made is that, having exploited the ‘home by christmas’ line, the Jakarata bombing now places the government in a position where any argument that bringing troops home is anti-American or an indication of softness on terror just doesn’t sound so convincing.

In other words, Latham doesn’t have to make a fuss about bringing troops home – the logic of situation simply helps his case and undermines the govt’s scare tactics.

Like you say, it mighn’t be wise for him to renew his call, but similarly, it probably isn’t wise for Howard to pursue the usual scare tactic.

That’s all.

Alan
Alan
2022 years ago

I know the conventional wisdom is that we have few troops in Iraq but that is simply not the case. The ADF has a total personnel strength of around 53 000. 2000 are already deployed overseas. The 920 deployed to Iraq are a significant proportion of that.

The ADF is involved in 10 overseas operations already. Where are the tropps going to come from if we become more active in anti-JI operations in South East Asia?

Stan
Stan
2022 years ago

Ken, I’m very supportive of your thoughts on withdrawing from Iraq, but please, can we avert the desire to rewrite history as I believe you are beginning to do in your first part of the post. Latham was travelling pretty poorly before this latest tragedy in Jakarta.

Two minutes worth of scrolling down recall some of your former sentiments:
“Will it be enough to get Latham’s campaign back on track?”

TrueRWDB
TrueRWDB
2022 years ago

It seems latham “killed” Howard in the debate, at least according to the studio audience of ‘uncommitted voters’. I think the uncommitted were rather more committed than they were letting on, but there’s no way of knowing either way.

What struck me as strange, however, was that whatever Howard said, he was deemed not to have made a commitment to see out the three years if elected. He said he had no intention of retiring while he had the support of the Australian people (as evidenced by winning the election) and while he had the support of his colleagues (surely a necessary condition for any PM). Can somebody tell me why this answer was not deemed sufficient by the panel, by Latham, or by the audience (as per the worm)? Or is my understanding of plain English so deficient that I detected a definitive answer where there wasn’t one.

Mark U
Mark U
2022 years ago

Ken,

You seem to be running an argument that an incumbent government (or is it the terrorists?)can lock any future alternative government into a policy that the (future) government does not (and never did) agree with. How is that democratic?

I don’t think we should be getting troops out of Iraq because it has made us more of a terrorist target (debatable anyway) but because the whole adventure was misconceived. The only good to come of it was getting rid of Saddam, but finding an acceptable alternative will, I fear, prove too much for the Coalition of the Willing. The US could well have troops committed there for the next ten years unless they decide to “cut and run” before then.

Finally, I am not so sure that the national security issue will play the same way as in 2001. The cocktail of September 11, Tampa and children overboard was extremely potent and prevented Labor making inroads on domestic issues such as health and eductaion.

Mark U
Mark U
2022 years ago

And if you are to believe the worm, Iraq will not necessarily play against Labor. Many voters perceive that while Saddam has gone the aftermath is a big mess that the Coalition of the Willing is not capable of fixing.

Shaun
Shaun
2022 years ago

Truewd40

Howard could have answered yes or no. But he didn’t he came up with a weasel word convoluted statement that was and more importantly sounded like an answer he could wriggle out of later.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

To be fair, it’s driving this existing policy home that I’ve suggested, not a reversion to a blanket withdrawal. My colleague suggested calling for it to happen immediately, but this is what would happen in effect if Latham was elected – so I’m suggesting no change to existing ALP policy – only driving it right home, off the front foot. Following Howard will surely be political death.

Rude to quote yourself I know, but this is exactly what our boy did tonight as soon as he got to the crease, creaming over the old bastard along the way! Go Mark!

cs
cs
2022 years ago

err … I thought I had deleted the word ‘over’.

David Tiley
2022 years ago

You’ve spent time with politicians Chris, you know what really drives them..

I think more in terms of piss, but your version is stronger in an era of internet porn.

Cameron Riley
2022 years ago

I dont understand why Liberal foreign policy of “great and powerful friends” should be trusted in national security over Labors “Asian Engagement”. Terrorism for Australia is a regional issue, Labors policy would be better there. From what Labor has on their website, they include a section on “Cooperation with Indonesia”. While Lathams stand on it doesnt appear to be as strong as Keating’s or Evans’. It is more regional than Howards.

By comparison the Liberals have stuck to the anglosphere and the “great and powerful friends” doctrine where Australian security and defence policy is subjugated to the current anglo-superpower. Iraq came from that doctrine, and was a mistake. It put Australia in a position where it could not achieve the outcome of the second gulf war; creating a secure and stable Iraq.

We have not committed enough troops, or invested enough money to have any effect on that outcome. We are reliant on American success for Australian success. Which leaves us bobbing like a cork in the ocean. Not helping matters is the the Bush Administration dithers in incompetence. Australian success is dependant upon competent policies from the White House. This has not been happening in the last three years.

The Bali and Jakarta bombings by policy stances, and foreign policy world-view, should help Labor, not the Liberals. There is a hood-winking going on somewhere there.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Cameron

I’m not attempting to argue that Labor’s national security policies overall (leavins aside troop withdrawal from Iraq) are anything but sound. I agree that they’re even better than the Coalition on things like regional engagement, and the Dept of Homeland Security and Coastguard stuff are also quite good ideas. And I even agree that Howard has gotten us too uncritically close to the US.

My point, as I explained in the post, is simply that the very fact of the campaign focus being so strongly on national security, and likely to stay that way for the next week or so, may well decisively turn the election in Howard’s favour. However sound Labor’s security and defence policies are on their merits, and even given that he won tonight’s debate, defence and national security remain Coalition issues, and the longer the focus remains on them the more ikely Howard is to win.

You only have to remember the last week of the 2001 campaign, when “children overboard” was revived to front and centre in a context that many believed would be a negative for Howard i.e. the whole story starting to unravel (that being the context for the Scrafton/Howard phone calls). Despite that, it turned out not to be a negative for Howard, however, because the very fact of the issue being in focus was in itself a plus for the government. I suspect that the same may turn out to be the case here, especially given that public focus on election issues will more and more be distracted by footie for the next 3 weeks or so.

That having been said, it was certainly a smart (if fairly obvious) gambit for Latham to attempt to turn the focus back on whether and when Howard is going to retire. However, I doubt that the audience reaction to Howard’s dodgy answer is likely to translate of itself into votes. The trick will be for Latham to try to get Costello more in the public eye, so he can highlight the lurking presence of the heir apparent. In that regard, it was interesting how low key Costello was last week in responding to Latham’s tax and family policy. It’s beginning to look like the Coalition strategists are keeping Costello out of the public gaze just as much as their Labor counterparts are hiding Simon Crean.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

Personally I think Ken has hit the nail on the head with the security issue for swinging voters here. Both Beslan and the Djakarta bombings have accentuated Latham’s problem, that a strong troops home by Xmas stance, would be seen as a cave in to terrorism. Failing that he is stuck with an emasculated and compromised current stance. That stance might not be the ultimate decider for many swingers, if other factors outweighed it, but I can’t see that they do.

The govt is currently strong on economic management, so there is not much traction there, although with a strong economy and healthy surplus, Labor could have been attractive on the basis of its perceived strengths on domestic issues like health and education. Voters might take the view that with healthy surpluses, the time was ripe to cash in their economic dividend with Labor. However I feel Ltahm has missed the boat on that. Not more than a couple of months ago, his party rolled over with the govt on increasing the PBS copayment, presumably with revenue considerations in mind. That was probably a noble backdown on reality over principle, providing it would offer much alternative reform/spending in the health area. However it has not done so. It has engaged in a somewhat farcical spending spree with the govt, albeit much of its emphasis on tax cuts rather than prioritising health spending. A fist full of dollars rather than fixing up hospital waiting lists and the like. Furthermore there doesn’t appear to be much for its pet area of education, rather than warm fuzzy reading to kids. Big on style but little of substance. In the light of sacrificing its pet project areas to the fist full of dollars, it has lost much credibility as being different from the govt devil we know.

The problem for the swinging voter now, is that in the absence of serious domestic differentiation between the majors, it may very well come back to the security issue. The fundies very obligingly for the govt, keep us focussed there. Really, to remove this impacting on the election, the swinging voter would no doubt prefer to be making his choice in 12 months time. In that time he would have a better idea about how an inexperienced backbencher like Latham, really can handle his role and as well he would be better able to judge the success or otherwise of a democratic Iraq. At the moment he is being told by the fundies to get out of Iraq and Latham appears to go along with them, albeit for supposedly different reasons. Tough choice in the absence of some really groundbreaking stuff on health or education and the like. Promises of tax cuts? Hmmmm, they’ve heard all that before.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

As for tax cuts, the swingers are going to get their $600 cheques soon(the ones Latham will take away from you folks), or at the very least a letter saying their debt to the govt has been reduced by this amount. That’s got to be a load off anyone’s red ink credit card lifestyle.

A nice fat bird in the hand is probably much better than a pollie’s promise of some feathers over time.

Stephen Hill
Stephen Hill
2022 years ago

I just noticed from an AAP feed that Latham has cheekily challenged to debate two PMs (Howard and Costello) to a concurrent debate at one of his community town-hall functions. Obviously, eager to keep the Costello succession narrative alive.

Yet to hear anything about Telstra, surely that will enter the national debate in the last weeks of the election. I thought Labor would be running a scare campaign that the Coalition are projected to win at least half the senate, which will allow the Telstra legislation to pass. I remember at least one Coalition member in a marginal seat on the final days of the last election promising to vote against the legislation. When he got back in by a few hundred votes he then proceeded to vote with the Government. Could Telstra be the Nats-terminator that the Coalition have always feared – Richmond, Page, Hinkler have all looked shaky from time to time.

Maybe Latham could emulate Keating, a ruthless prick with the GST when he said he would allow it to pass the senate if Hewson was elected, giving him the “unlosable election”. I do think this stunt could backfire, but if he prefaced it with “our policy reversal will not matter anyway as the Coalition will have the numbers in the senate making our vote irrelevant” it might be a wildcard to pick up the “Nervous Nelly” vote. Gee, I’m starting to sound like Richo

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

In a shameless attempt to derail my own comment box, I ask this question. What are we doing talking about bloody politics at all, after a weekend when Geelong beat Essendon in the AFL, and North Queensland of all teams beat the Bulldogs in the ARL? There’s a fix in somewhere, I reckon. Someone should call in the stewards and take a swab. I wonder if the Bulldogs had a few bob on with Centrebet. Dunno about the Bombers though, because I didn’t see the game. What happened? Maybe Son of God got some speed from his old man.

PeterF
PeterF
2022 years ago

Ken,
Essendon were a very ordinary side this year. My recollection is that they only defeated two teams above them on the ladder all season – Port Adelaide late in the regular season, and Melbourne (rather luckily) in the Elimination Final. By contrast Geelong have been very consistent until the flogging by Port the previous week.
Gary jnr. is quick and quick thinking, but a very different type. His old man wasn’t notably quick, but very strong, and of course gifted in the air. The Cats’ strength is a generally even contribution from their numerous “no names”.
Geelong controlled the game completely and the final score flattered Essendon. Granted Essendon suffered serious injuries to three players (two of them key players) early in the game. However, the writing was on the wall by quarter time.
I doubt that either Victorian side has more than the faintest chance this week-end.
I know very little about the mobile wrestling, and since I like Newcastle my normal very limited interest is further reduced for this year’s final series. I am surprised that the NRL continues to use the McIntyre finals’ system that was scrapped by the AFL in 2000.