The election Howard would have lost


Pauline Hanson told a rally on the Sunshine Coast in February how One Nation would deal with asylum seekers coming to Australia by boat: "You go out and meet them, fill them with food and water and medical supplies and say 'Go that way'."

In an attempt to shore up support amongst his right-wing voter base, Prime Minister John Howard has embraced Hanson's advice.

With the help of three Hercules aircraft, 120 military troops (including 35 fully armed Special Air Service troopers) and a navy frigate, the Australian government treated an approaching boatload of 438 mainly Afghani asylum seekers as an act of war.

Immediately before the Tampa incident, Howard's popularity was flagging. A Bulletin Morgan poll which surveyed voter intentions at the end of August found that 54.5% thought the Labor Party would win the next election, while 32.5% felt the Coalition would win another term. The two-party preferred vote for the Coalition stood at a low 43% (57% for the Labor Party).

The federal election, due by the end of this year, was destined to be a very difficult one for the Coalition to win. Yet a Sydney Morning Herald-ACNielsen poll conducted in the first week of September found that the Coalition's two-party preferred vote jumped by five points to 48% in the space of two weeks, with Howard's rating as preferred Prime Minister rising five points to 49% and Beazley's falling three points to 39%.

The Tampa crisis was lucky timing for the Coalition. In the week before a sinking Indonesian fishing boat was sighted off Christmas Island on August 26, the alleged involvement of small business minister Ian McFarlane and treasurer Peter Costello in a GST avoidance scam in the Queensland branch of the Liberal Party threatened to severely damage the Coalition's credibility, perhaps even guarantee its loss at the polls.

Among Howard's traditional voter base there is brewing discontent with the GST, something he is well aware of.

When in trouble, what's one of the most effective things you can do? Find an "external" issue that you can use to rouse people's nationalist sentiments and to deflect attention from domestic policies which are hurting them.

A fear of invasion from the north by non-white, non-Christian hordes has been carefully cultivated since the beginning of white colonialism in Australia.

That's what Howard banked on when he decided he would not let the Tampa unload the 438 Afghani asylum seekers on Christmas Island.

Opposition leader Kim Beazley, three days into the stand-off, said, "In these circumstances, this country and this parliament do not need a carping opposition. What they actually need is an opposition that understands the difficult circumstances in which the government finds itself. And, to the very best of my ability, I will ensure that situation prevails."

Labor has given the Coalition a dream run by backing it on every significant policy proposal. Even as Beazley rejected an attempt to rush through the Border Protection Bill 2001 on August 29, which would have substantially increased the powers of the government to turn back asylum seekers arriving by sea, he qualified this by explaining that the opposition would support a bill which was related only to the Tampa.

There is no policy difference between Labor and the Coalition on the issue of refugees. To have this undeniably exposed and confirmed in the past two weeks must leave Labor squirming. How can Labor win votes on this issue? Not by shadowing the Coalition for the right-wing ground.

Labor's dilemma is that it is determined to demonstrate to Australia's ruling elite that it is prepared to govern responsibly and in the "national interest".

In the short term, Howard has had a victory with the Tampa case. However, while the immediate crisis may have been resolved, the broader question of asylum seekers remains unaddressed.

As the global crisis deepens, there is less scope for fuzzy, vague "middle-ground" solutions — the Labor Party's preferred ground. The Labor Party is unwilling to challenge Howard's right-wing solutions, and may lose what was otherwise an unloseable election as a result.

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