If Scott Morrison is framing the election around fear, national security may not be the slam dunk he's banking on | Peter Lewis

For conservative governments on the skids, defence is usually the best form of attack. But Australians are hardly gunning for a showdown with China

“That fella down under” has been making a name for himself on the world stage with a shiny “forever” partnership, a snazzy new regional posse and a deal on the never-never to build a nuclear-powered submarine fleet.

But there is even more going on beneath the surface; behind this performative diplomacy the PM is laying out an alternate path to re-election based on the eternal truth that for conservative governments on the skids, defence is the best form of attack.

With the chances of an autumn 2022 election centred around post-pandemic “hope” taking water, Morrison is now preparing his plan B, tapping the Coalition’s longstanding brand advantage on national security for a fear campaign about China’s rising influence.

Granted, there has been some missteps. The breakup by text with the French, consternation from Indonesia and Malaysia, outright condemnation from China. There was also the awkward meeting with US president Joe Biden, who will not forget our leader’s name again after he was forced to clean up Morrison’s French mess; before getting trolled by Nancy Pelosi on climate change.

But even at his clumsiest, the PM knows that ripping up defence contracts and fomenting concern about the power of China has shifted the dynamics of the local political debate from the ongoing fights with state premiers and failures on vaccines and quarantine.

Morrison is nothing if not iterative, bringing the marketer’s discipline of trial and error to his political messaging. The personal attacks on Bill Shorten were subject to a real-time focus group testings over many months; from the tortured “unafford-a-Bill” to “the Bill you can’t afford”, he personalised a hollow, relentless, but ultimately effective message that Labor would tax Australia to death.

But the model for Morrison’s latest gambit goes back further to 2001 and the Howard government’s success in drawing Labor into a national security election they were never going to win. Behind in the polls, the Howard government transformed people seeking asylum by boat into an existential national threat, creating its own iconic centrepiece with the refusal to render assistance to the Tampa, a Norwegian freighter merely complying with the laws of the sea.

In a bid to neutralise the issue, Labor tore itself in two offering bipartisan support as the government upped the rhetoric with a swathe of increasingly outrageous laws to override our international responsibilities, culminating in the excision of Christmas Island from Australian territory. The black swan event of 9/11 juiced by the government’s dark (photo) opps with the “children overboard” production meant that by the time the ballots opened the Coalition owned national security while a divided ALP was all at sea.

Can the Coalition pull a similar trick this time by tapping into and heightening anti-China sentiment? There’s definitely a lot for the PM to work with: we know from our benchmark polling that the public mood with China has deteriorated in recent years, with pandemic recriminations, trade boycotts, expansionary rhetoric and human rights abuses.

But findings in this week’s Essential Report suggest the vast majority of Australians still see China as a complex relationship to be managed, rather than a threat to be confronted head on.

Overall, which is closest to your view about Australia's relationship with China?

This suggests that despite recent sabre-rattling by defence minister Peter Dutton and his home affairs secretary Michael Pezzullo, Australians are not gunning for a showdown with the Middle Kingdom but want more nuanced policy to deal with the complexities of a rising global power.

Another place the PM could try to split Labor is on the nuclear element of the deal.

Australians have consistently voted against the development of a local nuclear industry, and while the subs technology is self-contained, any sense that this is the thin edge of a yellowcake wedge will reheat old ideological battles.

Our findings show opposition to nuclear energy is softening, with half of respondents open to developing a local industry. But more pointedly, the majority of respondents are adamant the focus on Australia’s energy infrastructure should be renewable.

As you may be aware, many of Australia’s coal-fired power stations are reaching the end of their operational lives and will soon need to be replaced. Which of the following would you prefer that the government supported?

To date, Labor has managed to avoid being pulled into the China wedge, recognising that unlike the Tampa, the Morrison national security plan remains undefined and working to a timeline way beyond the horizon.

Rather than being boxed in, Labor is asking the sort of questions demanded by a major geopolitical strategic shift by press release. What is the cost? How will it work? What about local jobs? This is where Morrison is most vulnerable: rather than being drawn into the inevitable wedges, he is being forced to take responsibility for what is a massive call.

The secret of Howard’s success at the turn of the century was that border protection spoke to something more profound. A raft of global free trade agreements was causing real pain that we were picking up in our own research at the time for Doug Cameron’s Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union. Cameron took these insights and campaigned for “fair trade, not free trade”, taking the ball up to Labor and Liberal alike. Howard saw something different, a symbol that spoke to something darker and ultimately more potent: a fear of the other.

As we enter the uncertainty of the post-pandemic world of course there will be concern and insecurity about how the next pages of history are written. But the final table I will share suggests that the government will need something more than a long-term defence deal to scare these horses.

Thinking about the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarine partnership, which is closer to your view?

The majority reject the notion that the new Aukus alliance will make Australia more secure, with 55% saying it will either not make a difference or render us a greater target. Indeed, it is really only existing Coalition voters who are feeling safer as consequence.

Is there enough here to frame an election around “fear”? As the pandemic moves into its next phase with restrictions lifted and hospitals likely to be overrun, it’s hard to see the long-term movements in geopolitics drowning out the lived experience of illness and death and the need for economic reconstruction.

It’s early days, but the national security pivot may not be the slam dunk that fella down under is banking on.

• Peter Lewis will be discussing the results of this week’s results with Guardian Australia political editor Katharine Murphy at 1pm on Tuesday 28 September. Free registration here


Peter Lewis

The GuardianTramp

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