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The Morrison government wants a ‘khaki’ election. How do the two major parties stack up on national security?

Unless you have been under a political rock for the past few weeks, you could not have missed the emergence of a “khaki election”.

Obviously thinking it is a vote-winner and a Coalition strength, the Morrison government is hell-bent on putting national security and defence front and centre in the lead-up to the May election.

It becomes glaringly obvious if you look at Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s schedule in March. From a major foreign policy speech to the Lowy Institute on March 7 through to his visit to Perth on March 16-17, Morrison has announced seven major initiatives on national security and defence in a ten-day period. In this time, he took every opportunity to talk about his credentials on defence and attack the opposition’s record on defence spending.

This is occurring with the government well behind in the polls and the PM struggling with his popularity. But the Coalition clearly sees national security as safe political ground and a weak spot for Labor. As journalist Philip Coorey noted:

As the election nears, the Coalition is tidying up its pitch, tying together economics and national security, to a population ready to point the finger over the massive east coast floods and cost of living.

Is the electorate buying?

The early signs for the government’s strategy are not promising. National security does not seem to have the same cut through that it has had in previous elections. Polling suggests voters trust Labor more than the Coalition to manage the relationship with China, while they are neck and neck as the preferred political party to handle the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Read more: 'National security' once meant more than just conjuring up threats beyond our borders

The prime minister’s attack on Labor also risks collateral damage by dividing the community and some voters (especially those of Chinese heritage), while laying open the government’s patchy record on defence issues to scrutiny.

Over the past nine years of government, the Coalition has thrown record spending at defence. But this spending has not necessarily translated into actual capability for the ADF. This is especially important as the government ended, in 2020, defence’s long-standing ten-year warning time for major conflict in our region.

But the PM is known for taking political risks. He seems to be banking on a national security election strategy on the basis that while it will not necessarily help Labor to win the election, it may well cost them enough votes to lose one.

Both major parties make missteps

Morrison’s first major tactical approach was to accelerate attacks on the Labor opposition over China. In the last sitting week of parliament, Morrison accused Deputy Labor Leader Richard Marles of being a “Manchurian candidate” for the Chinese Communist Party.

It was a week of relentless attacks, but Labor easily batted these away, using support from former ASIO head Dennis Richardson and current ASIO head Mike Burgess, who warned such divisions could undermine national unity and security.

Read more: Grattan on Friday: Morrison has sown the seeds for a scare campaign, and Albanese doesn’t know whether they'll grow

Labor then weakened its position somewhat when Anthony Albanese also used parliament to accuse the prime minister of being the real “Manchurian candidate”. It was an unedifying week in national politics from the Government – but, most significantly, it did not seem to move the opinion polls at all.

In the second week of March, both leaders made their way to the Lowy Institute for major foreign policy speeches. Here we were able to assess the different world views and different policy approaches to national security of both sides.

So, how do they compare on national security?

While many of the themes and pledges were similar, especially on defence spending and China, the focus of the two leaders diverged on key issues. While Morrison focused on an “arc of autocracy” – drawing immediate comparisons to George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” – and a commitment to a new submarine base for the east coast, the Labor leader emphasised climate change, sovereign supply chains, national resilience and unity, as well as the need to accelerate the Australian Defence Force’s (ADF) strike capabilities.

Albanese knows national security is not perceived as safe political ground for Labor, so his main strategy is to try to neutralise Morrison’s lines of attack. Tactically, the opposition has dealt with this through bipartisanship, effectively drawing closer to the government in key areas.

Bipartisanship has become the byword on national security for Labor in opposition since the last election. However, it can be a doubled-edge sword. Too much of it and Labor looks, as Paul Kelly has argued, like a cardboard cut-out of the government. It also narrows Labor’s room to attack the Coalition’s vulnerabilities.

However, climate change is one of the key points of different. The prime minister has refused to clarify the link between climate change and national security.

An image from the week spoke volumes: While the government was under fire for being too slow in deploying the military to support flood victims Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton announced the biggest expansion of the ADF since the Vietnam War in Brisbane, while half the city was underwater.

Labor has no such qualms on climate. This issue has also allowed Labor to reposition itself in contrast to the government on the ANZUS Alliance, because US President Joe Biden has directly linked climate and security, and made it a policy priority.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese has had no problems tying together national security and climate change. Jason O'Brien/AAP

Labor’s counter-attack is built around the government’s poor performance on defence spending. This includes problems with major projects such as helicopters and new frigates for the navy. But the biggest hole that currently exists is in submarine capability.

We can expect Labor to be relentless on this issue. But submarines are the “third rail” of Australian defence policy – for both sides of politics. Generally, when you touch it, you get burned, badly.

Since 2013, the Coalition has overseen what is the biggest procurement disaster in defence history – and we currently have no submarine contract. However, Labor, as former Secretary of Defence Dennis Richardson noted this week, has its own history with submarine capability.

Meanwhile, the Coalition is keen to focus on money and leadership. Morrison and Dutton have been relentless in attacking Labor’s past performance on defence spending. They have revived, ad nauseam, Tony Abbott’s line from 2013 that Labor in government had driven defence spending down to its lowest level since 1938. Labor has attempted to counter this by committing to reaching the mythical 2% GDP on defence spending, or above.

In fact, using the percentage of GDP to measure defence spending is a poor practical measurement. But it has become the main political measure that counts on defence funding, and there seems little chance of that changing.

Focusing on funding is not the certain the win the government thinks it is. A quick look at other measures of defence spending shows the Morrison government does not compare so well. As a percentage of actual government outlays in the budget, Labor spent 6.65% and 6.52% in its last two years in office. The Morrison government spent 5.1% and 5.8% in 2021 and 2022.

No matter what measures are used, expect defence spending to be shouted at voters until election day.

On to election day

The budget later this month will be a key marker post, and I suspect it will have a heavy national security and defence focus. It seems the government has set the political playing field by using announcements of big-ticket items far off into the budget forward estimates (such as nuclear-powered submarines, submarines bases, increases to the size of the ADF) to lay the groundwork.

The Coalition’s next tactic is to pour on the announcements that will have a more immediate impact on jobs and security. Examples include the WA dry dock and the army’s LAND 400 infantry fighting vehicle project.

Labor will attack the Coalition over its record in office, and will link defence spending to the government’s (mis)handling of the pandemic and the rising cost of living. Morrison will use the benefits of incumbency to relentlessly attack Albanese and his lack of experience in national security portfolios.

But the overarching question is: does this matter to the electorate and will it change votes?

Long-term polling on this issue shows the ADF is one of the most trusted institutions in Australia. But, as Danielle Chubb and Ian McAllister have shown, being supportive of the defence force does not translate into supporting greater funding for defence.

Irrespective of this evidence, the international security landscape in the Indo-Pacific has shifted radically in recent years. We are in uncharted geo-strategic waters, and with a problematic domestic political record the government thinks national security is a vote winner.

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