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June 2006
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Daily Media Quotation

Defence Not Vote-Changing But Still A Key Political Issue In Winning Seats

June 20, 2006

by Nicholas Stuart - Canberra Times

'Defence is far too important to be politicised," all the politicians cry - before attempting to extract every vote they possibly can from the issue. If the pollsters are to be believed, defence isn't necessarily a vote-changing issue. Nevertheless, the emphasis the Liberal Party has placed on "keeping Australia secure" suggests that the issue does provide the foundation stone of any political strategy. What has changed, quite dramatically, over recent years is the way a strong defence is now identified, almost exclusively, with the Coalition.

When he became defence minister way back in 1984, a young Kim Beazley set himself the task of reclaiming national security as Labor's strong suit. The conflict in Vietnam had split the nation; a by-product of the divisive debate had been to slice a wedge between the forces and the ALP. Slowly and laboriously, Beazley worked hard at repairing the fissure. He was probably more driven by his own personal interest in strategic issues, rather than a desire to win the defence vote, but it paid off. A decade later, no one could proclaim Labor was "soft on defence".

The same isn't true today. Since Menzies' time, the Liberal Party has always been ready to emphasise its own national security credentials. Nevertheless, in both of the last two elections, defence has been elevated to become a central issue. Instead of simply a muted drumbeat, we've witnessed the entire shrill cacophony of advertising blasting out warnings that somehow, Labor isn't serious about defence.

Much of this broad positioning is subliminal; things like the photos of Coalition politicians greeting the troops in their newsletters. Or perhaps the television pictures of the Prime Minister meeting troops just back from Iraq, with poor Kim Beazley relegated to a "me too" part, somewhere in the background. Meanwhile, the Opposition has effectively abandoned the battlefield to the Government.

Although Beazley attempted to take up the fight with proposals for a Coastguard, Howard easily trumped him by declaring coastal integrity was a job for the navy. Ironically, this was exactly the same thing that a young Kim had also asserted when he was defence minister, all those years ago. Then Simon Crean appeared uncertain about whether we needed to invade Iraq. Then Mark Latham displayed a lack of military understanding. Then back to Beazley again, but by now people have forgotten he used to be passionate about defence. Voters are too used to him being passionate about everything, and he's lost any edge.

That's the big picture. However, as is usual in politics, the devil is in the detail.

One successful Labor politician has no doubt about why people vote the way they do. He says you only have to follow the overall swing. "If you try to stand in the way of the tide, you'll be washed out with the wreckage," he insists.

His emphasis on this broad flow of the electoral wave isn't unusual in politics. Although the electoral pendulum is a far more nuanced instrument than it may initially appear, it does seem to suggest that electorates move freely from voting for one side, then the other. Using the pendulum this way ignores the importance of small, but key groups in an electorate which may be galvanised about an individual issue. These do have the ability to change votes.

Some people certainly believe that defence is one of these issues. As Liberal Party president, Lynton Crosby continually worked to harness various tight-knit voting blocks, using them as a means to drive eventual electoral success. In this attempt he was aided with detailed polling provided by Mark Textor, who identified the hot button issues for particular electorates. On one analysis, defence has played a particularly important part in strengthening the Coalition vote in key political divisions.

The member for Eden Monaro has always sat on the government benches. Garry Nairn is the current member, representing the area from Queanbeyan to the South Coast. Back in 2001, just before the election was announced, The Canberra Times carried the story that a site for the Australian Defence Headquarters had been chosen. It was to be near Bungendore, in Mr Nairn's electorate, and he enthused about the business that would flow from this decision.

Unfortunately, the chosen site will seriously interfere with an expensive radio telescope nearby, which had just received new funding from the government at the time. As a result, mobile telephones won't be able to be used in parts of the new complex. Other locations available (already owned by the Government) would have been closer to defence housing in Canberra, for example at HMAS Harman. Nevertheless, the site eventually chosen was in the adjacent, swinging, seat. The announcement was slipped in just before the government moved into caretaker mode. It was one of the last pieces of business signed off on by the minister, the speed justified because of the importance of the announcement. However, then the project waited. And waited. Finally, in the last fortnight, details of the building contracts have finally been announced.

There is no evidence suggesting that political factors have influenced either the choice of site or the timing of the announcement. Nevertheless, at that time Mr Nairn could not have hoped for a better result. Positive publicity at the prospect of jobs and an influx of money just before the election; with an eventual increase in the number of service personnel living there later.

This sort of thinking requires an assumption, of course, that members of the defence force are more likely to vote Liberal.

Psephologist Malcolm Mackerras doesn't necessarily agree or disagree. Nevertheless, he suggests other factors were more significant during the last election.

"The interest-rate scare campaign was absolutely fundamental to the rejection of Labor" he insists. Backing up this analysis, he points to the results, where the Coalition gained nine seats. "Every single gain was in a seat where large proportions of dwellings were being purchased. This single issue hurt Labor dreadfully."

But this doesn't mean the defence vote isn't also important. In 1998, the ability to win seats like Herbert in Queensland was crucial to the Coalition's victory. This seat has a significant number of soldiers based around Townsville. An estimated one in eight jobs in the electorate is estimated to depend on defence. In the 2001 election campaign, while issuing a policy called "Putting Australia's Interests First", Mr Howard emphasised the nearby army establishments in Danna Vale's electorate of Hughes. This seat has been a jewel in the heart of Sydney's west for the Coalition.

This all leads, of course, to the recent budget. The Government announced funding to relocate 3 battalion, RAR, to the Edinburgh Defence Precinct in South Australia. This precinct is in the electorate of Wakefield. A dramatic boundary change at the last election meant the seat should have been, nominally, Labor's. Nevertheless, a new Liberal MP David Fawcett managed to hold the ground for the Coalition, but it's still very marginal. If soldiers really do tend to vote conservatively, this solid block of votes will be a welcome boost to his ability of holding the seat.

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