This changes everything, from the world stage to polling booths far from the fatal steppes

by | Feb 25, 2022 | Government

As the world watches in horror the Russian assault on Ukraine, it seems crass to discuss what it means for a little election in faraway Australia. But local political operators in the big parties and the small will be doing nothing else this weekend, writes Mark Sawyer.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a disaster for more than 40 million people, a threat to Europe, a challenge to the US and a catastrophe for the world.

It’s hard to imagine that Vladimir Putin’s war, while just about as far away from Australia as any world event could be, would have no bearing on the thoughts of voters in the expected May election. And it’s clear we were already gearing for a security election. The Coalition has installed one of its head-kickers, Peter Dutton, in the Defence post and his warnings are as much about the dangers of a Labor government as any foreign foe.

The government has stooped to describing Labor leader Anthony Albanese as China’s preferred Australian leader and deputy Labor leader Richard Marles as the Manchurian candidate. (A term now synonymous with being a traitor in the service of China, but its provenance is from a book and film about US soldiers brainwashed during the Korean War to become assassins back home). Memories of former senator Sam Dastyari’s dalliance with Chinese interests remain fresh enough for the government to exploit.

Opponents of the Morrison government will be wondering whether the Coalition will be saved by a military crisis. Labor fears being robbed of victory. Both sides will be thinking of the same election: 2001.

Khaki elections, Australian style: est 1914

In fact khaki elections have not always been bad for Labor. In 1914 Andrew Fisher won the federal election held just a month after the outbreak of the Great War. He pledged Australia would ”stand beside the mother country [Britain] to help and defend her to the last man and the last shilling”. A year later, an exhausted Fisher handed over to Billy Hughes, who tried to introduce conscription.

1917 and 1919: The ALP has endured three splits. The first occurred when Hughes sought to introduce compulsory military service, or conscription. Expelled from Labor, Hughes formed a new government consisting of the conservative opposition and renegade Labor MPs. But the nation was not divided about the rightness of the war.

Hughes, styled as ”the Little Digger”, became the personification of the Australian war effort. In 1917 he won a decisive victory, and another one in 1919, fresh on the back of his participation in the postwar treaty negotiations.

In 1943 Labor under John Curtin won a thumping vote of confidence for its handling of the most serious threat to the nation in white history. (The negative role of militant unions on the home front is a less storied aspect of Labor history.)

In 1951 and 1954 elections were held during and after the Korean War, which involved Australian forces. But the most divisive issue in 1951 was the attempt by the Menzies government to outlaw the Communist Party, which eventually failed at a referendum. In 1954, the Menzies government came close to defeat in part because of the economic after-effects of the Korean War wool boom, which caused damaging inflation.

In 1966 Labor was badly defeated. Vietnam was still a ”good war” for the wider public (a protest movement had begun, but it was too small to be significant), part of the wider Cold War against communist expansionism. The Soviet Union – the great state that Vladimir Putin valorises today – and ”Red China” threatened the security and freedom of the West.

Vietnam was a civil war that the US (and Australia) painted as part of the communist advance. When the Menzies Coalition government committed Australian troops to the war, Labor opposed Australian involvement. In a speech now considered one of the greatest made by an Australian politician, leader Arthur Calwell  said:

When the drums beat and the trumpets sound, the voice of reason and right can be heard in the land only with difficulty. But if we are to have the courage of our convictions, then we must do our best to make that voice heard. I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, that your motives will be misrepresented, that your patriotism will be impugned, that your courage will be called into question. But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated; that generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless government wilfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labor Party was heard, strong and clear, on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity, and in the interests of Australia’s security.

2001: a khaki odyssey

As for 2001, well the picture is complicated.

At the beginning of that year the Liberal-National Party coalition government marked its fifth anniversary and looked like fraying. A leaked memo from the party president to Prime Minister John Howard described the government as ”mean, tricky and dysfunctional and out to get its own supporters”.

The party lost its first by-election in five years of rule when Labor won the seat of Ryan, in Brisbane’s western suburbs. Next door to Ryan is Oxley, where Pauline Hanson launched a career that endures today. Not only was the Howard government facing a confident Labor Party, it had a restive right flank to deal with: people unhappy with any moves to improve the status of Indigenous people and migrants, gun control and excessive taxes on pleasures such as tobacco and motoring.

And Labor, having won Ryan, was brimming with confidence and the realisation that only seven more seats were needed to take government.

In the following months, as the 2001 election drew near, Howard showed as much political skill as he had ever done in his long career. Scraping off the barnacles, he called it. He froze the fuel excise, a move that lowered the tax on petrol. It was a vote-winner, if bad for the planet. And he embarked on a round of media appearances designed to soften his harsh image. 

The first hint his strategy was working came with the Aston byelection in Melbourne. Expectations were high for Labor, but its candidate fell short. The previous time a Labor opposition had failed in an expected byelection win, in 1982, the party began to contemplate a new leader in the form of the charismatic Bob Hawke. But 2001 Labor had nobody of that stature (and still doesn’t). Then came the Tampa affair.

A Norwegian freighter, MV Tampa, picked up 438 mainly Afghan Hazara asylum seekers in a distressed vessel on the Indian Ocean. Howard refused to admit them. In a series of lightning fast deals, the government arranged for the asylum seekers to be detained on Nauru or sent to New Zealand, while proposing legislation to tighten the borders against ”unauthorised arrivals”. 

Refugee advocates warned that Australia’s humanitarian reputation had been tarnished, but the action was popular among the public, which had little sympathy for ”queue jumpers”. Howard made his famous pronouncement: ”We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Labor opposed some and supported some legislative measures taken by the Howard government to ensure the asylum seekers would not reach Australian territory. This position pleased nobody entirely, and led to a bleeding of support to the vocally pro-refugee Greens. 

It was at the 2001 election that a portion of Labor’s support base, already suspicious of the economic rationalism pursued by the party in the 1980s and 1990s, broke away permanently, although in most cases their preference votes support Labor.

2022: The Russians are coming (again)

By the time Australians voted in the 2001 election, New York’s Twin Towers lay in ruins, felled by fanatical hijackers acting in the name of Islam. Terrorism moved out of the Third World to hit the West. Howard was in the US and stood side by side with President George Bush as he swore vengeance. The US and Australia prosecuted ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As they battled militant Islam, China rose and rose. The US is no longer all-powerful. And now war has returned to Europe.

In 2022, ALP’s problem is still the bleeding of votes to the Greens, who oppose any hint of Australian involvement in foreign wars. Standing shoulder to shoulder with the government on Ukraine, as Labor is doing, is a principled decision for the party but one that appalls that pacifist base.

2001 was Howard’s ”dark victory”, in terms of the book on the Tampa affair by journalists David Marr and Marian Wilkinson. More likely, it was victory for a canny opportunist who knew how to jump from one lillypad to the next. It’s clear that in 2022, Labor will have to be equally agile. 

The last word should go to Calwell again. Remember, this speech was made in 1965:

The government justifies its action on the ground of Chinese expansionist aggression. And yet this same government is willing to continue and expand trade in strategic materials with China. We are selling wheat, wool and steel to China. The wheat is used to feed the armies of China. The wool is used to clothe the armies of China. The steel is used to equip the armies of China. Yet the government which is willing to encourage this trade is the same government which now sends Australian troops, in the words of the Prime Minister, to prevent ” the downward thrust of China “. The government may be able to square its conscience on this matter, but this is logically and morally impossible.

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Mark Sawyer is a journalist with Michael West Media. He has extensive experience in print and digital media in Sydney, Melbourne and rural Australia.

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