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Elections are rarely decided by security and defence issues, but China could make 2022 different

As the major parties shift into election mode, the Morrison government is clearly placing defence and security issues at the centre of its campaign.

By depicting Labor as “weak” on China, Defence Minister Peter Dutton is hoping fears of China’s global ambitions will provide an electoral advantage to the Coalition.

What does history tell us about the role of defence and security issues in federal elections? And if these areas do become a major election issue, who benefits?

Australia’s security in past elections

National security has, of course, been a prominent feature of recent elections – think Tony Abbott’s “Stop the Boats” election slogan in 2013, or the “children overboard” affair under then-Prime Minister John Howard in 2001.

However, in both these cases, the issues were related to homeland security and asylum seekers, rather than Australia’s defence or foreign policies.

Abbott posing with patrol boat crew.
Then-opposition leader Tony Abbott posing with a patrol boat crew in Darwin before the 2013 election. Alan Porritt/AAP

We have to go back to the elections in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War was a divisive issue, to find an example of defence figuring prominently in an election.

In 1966, at the height of public support for the Vietnam War, Harold Holt won a decisive victory for the incumbent Liberal/Country coalition, arguing Labor’s position on withdrawing troops from Vietnam would put the country’s security at risk.

Since then, debate around Australia’s defence and foreign affairs policies has been relatively muted. Australia’s withdrawal from Vietnam in 1972 marked the beginning of a long period of bipartisanship on security, with both parties viewing the US as the linchpin for Australian defence and foreign policy.

There’s also been little disagreement on the importance of the US to Australia in public opinion, as we explain in our new book looking at these trends from 1945 to the present day.

Both the Australian Election Study (AES) surveys and polls by the Lowy Institute have rarely recorded fewer than eight out of 10 voters believing the alliance with the US was either “very” or “fairly” important for Australia’s security. And the differences between supporters of the two major parties are negligible.

This could be explained by the fact that since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, the public has seen relatively few external threats to Australia’s security.

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq took place far away and were not regarded as a direct threat. To the extent the public has seen a threat, it has been through terrorism, with the 2002 Bali bombings being the most recent example.

Talisman Sabre military exercises between Australia and the US.
The Talisman Sabre military exercise is the largest bilateral training activity between Australia and the United States. Department of Defence/PR Handout Image

Changing perceptions of China as a threat

The economic and military rise of China in recent years has changed the public’s threat calculation. This is at least partly due to a greater awareness of China’s belligerence towards Taiwan, its claims over the South China Sea and its embargoes on Australian goods, all of which have raised concerns about China’s potential to threaten Australian security.

Other factors, such as the tone of media coverage on China, may have also contributed to this changed threat perception.

Read more: Australia would be wise not to pound 'war drums' over Taiwan with so much at stake

As a result, we have seen a measurable shift in the public debate about Chinese influence in Australia. Since 2015, this perceived threat has moved from being a relatively niche issue in the mainstream media, to a major one.

Usually, any changes in the public’s views towards other countries tend to take place over many years. However, when it comes to China, the shift has been dramatic.

The AES surveys show that in 1987, just before the Tiananmen Square massacre, only 3% of the public regarded China as “very likely” to pose a security threat to Australia. In 2019, this was 31%. We expect it to be even higher in this year’s AES survey.

Author provided

Lowy’s polls also show the same rise in public concern about China. In the 2006 poll, 40% of Australians had “little trust” in China; in 2021, that figure more than doubled.

The 2021 Lowy poll also found that, for the first time, more people saw China as a security threat than an economic partner.

In the relatively stable world of public opinion towards security and foreign affairs, these are major changes with important political implications, not least for the upcoming federal election.

More Australians now view China more as a threat than a partner. Andy Wong/AP

Which party stands to benefit?

The two major parties are generally regarded by the public as better able to handle some issues than others. According to our research, the Coalition is regarded as better on economic management, taxation and immigration; Labor is preferred on health, education and climate change.

The Coalition also had an advantage over Labor on national security the last time the AES asked about this issue in 2007. Voters preferred the Coalition’s defence and security policies over Labor’s by eight percentage points.

This advantage is likely to be much greater in 2022 compared to 2007. In times of threat, the public tends to view the government in power as more trustworthy on defence and security issues — the “rally around the flag” effect.

The Coalition government benefited from this at the beginning of the pandemic when it was seen as effectively handling a once-in-a-century health emergency. However, the slow vaccine roll-out and other problems have since eroded this advantage.

Read more: As the Coalition plays up China fears ahead of an election, how might Albanese position himself?

Faced with defence and security as an election issue, Labor’s only option is to emphasise bipartisanship.

As such, Labor has made relatively few statements about the new AUKUS security pact with the US and UK, other than to register its in-principle support. Nor has Labor disagreed in any fundamental way with the government’s policy response to China’s trade embargoes against Australia.

While the Coalition leans into its perceived advantage on security issues, Labor’s best strategy is to try to shift the policy debate towards the issues on which it has a long-term advantage among voters, such as health, education and the environment. But its success in doing that may well depend on global events beyond the control of either of the major parties.

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