Does resurrected Labor leader, Kim Beazley, have an opportunity to stand up for the community, wedge the Liberals, and gain some early momentum because of John Howard’s decision to send more troops to Iraq? Is so, why hasn’t Labor been running strongly on it?
According to our research, Australians are overwhelmingly opposed to sending 450 extra troops to Iraq. Even a third of those who vote Liberal are opposed. This analysis is based on online qualitative research conducted by former ALP Senator John Black and me as part of a segment called “What the people want” on Steve Austin’s ABC Brisbane radio program.
The answer could be that while John Howard has served Kim Beazley up a meal, Beazley’s not sure that the meal wouldn’t give him heart-burn, or worse. To understand why, let’s look at the dish.
What we found was that over the entire sample, 73 per cent of respondents disagreed with the decision - 95 per cent of Labor voters and 34 per cent of Liberal voters disagreed. This is very strong disapproval of the government’s actions, made even stronger by the fact supporters of the move were pragmatic more than enthusiastic.
Most who opposed the Government’s decision did so because of their general opposition to the Iraq war. Many also felt affronted that Australia was acting as a puppet of the US, giving priority to America’s defence needs over our own. Overwhelmingly the message came through that they did not want to know any more about the Iraq situation. If more troops were needed then it was up to the US, or some other country, to supply them. Respondents were also concerned for Australian life and limb, fearing another Vietnam. Perhaps this explains why the baby boomers were most opposed.
There were two main reasons why some voters supported the Government decision. The most popular, held by 21 per cent of all respondents and 47 per cent of Liberals, is that we should finish the job. This is a variation of the argument in the last federal election that Australia should not “cut and run”. Many supported the initial decision to go to war in Iraq and saw this commitment as a logical extension of it. Others had opposed the decision to go to war, but fell into the “you break it, you own it” camp.
As one respondent said, “As one of the ‘Coalition of the willing’ we have a moral obligation to now discharge … I do, however, remain quite aggrieved that our commitment was originally based on an artillery (sic) of lies”.
A small but significant minority was actually enthusiastic about the Iraq War, and strongly supported the troop deployment, because they saw it as helping protect us from terrorists and spreading democracy and human rights around the world. “I think the Iraqi people deserve help. The election turnout showed a brave people. The Aussies are protecting Japanese engineers - who are helping to rebuild - this is a peace mission!”
My research suggests that the Government could have put a better argument for sending the troops. Instead of a rather bald announcement they could perhaps have said something along these lines, “We recognise that many Australians do not accept that we made the right decision to go into Iraq in the first place, but we cannot undo that decision. We have a responsibility to the Iraqis and we must finish the job. This commitment will be made under a United Nations mandate and will ensure that we can more quickly return to other security issues which are just as pressing. Failure of the current Iraqi regime will increase the risk to all Australians from terrorism.”
The level of opposition and the failure to adequately explain gives Beazley an opportunity. On the face of it he could be arguing that deployment of the troops is unnecessary and expensive; there are other nations who could and should be filling the role; the US alliance is important but Australia needs to be following our own defence interests; and that this is yet another broken promise. “What others in areas like health, interest rates and education do the government intend to break?”
He could, and he would do well with electors and pundits in the short term if he did, but Beazley needs to win the next election, not the next opinion poll. While voters have strong opinions on this issue, it doesn’t mean that they will change their votes because of it. John Howard was apparently jubilant earlier this week that Beazley had let him off the hook on the decision. He shouldn’t have been.
Labor may just have learnt from its mistakes of the past. In the 2001 election, just when it was winning on the domestic issues, it threw the election away by shifting to the Children Overboard issue for the last week of the campaign - it was an issue, but not a vote mover, and talking about it stopped Labor talking about the issues that were vote movers. Last election the “troops home by Christmas” pledge played a variation on the same theme, but to less effect. That’s perhaps why Beazley’s stuck his fork into this dish, but only toyed with it - from his point of view, no matter how strong the opposition, it’s probably only full of empty calories. As he keeps saying - he’s hungry for a win.