Monday, 12 September 2011
Oh, yes. There was that as well.
One of the more bizarre legacies from the Howard era still hanging around political commentary is the so-called ‘Tampa election’ of November 2001. Obviously it’s bizarre, not only given that the election happened just a few weeks after one of the most defining political events of the decade, but also an event that commentators have otherwise not been shy to ascribe as the cause of practically every political event since.
But not when it comes to Australian politics. Even more amazing, with a political commentary often obsessed with polls, the importance of Tampa to the 2001 election result, compared to 9/11, is not even borne out by the polling numbers. Mumble plots the movement of Newspoll over that year and, while Howard’s personal rating improved sharply after Tampa, it was the Twin Towers attack that decisively shifted the actual voting towards the Coalition. It was a phenomenon observed worldwide as, faced with an unprecedented security issue, voters turned to those in charge of the body seen as best able to deal with it i.e. whoever was in government at the time.
It was not just the 2001 election that 9/11 and the War on Terror was airbrushed from. The War on Terror’s impact was downplayed in the history of the 2004 election as well. Howard’s fourth victory was invariably seen as being about Latham’s personality problems or interest rates. But the ‘trust’ issue with Latham only started in March of that year when he promised the troops back from Iraq, and Howard explicitly included national security in his list of “who do trust?” against Latham when launching the 2004 campaign.
Nevertheless the idea of Labor’s 2001 election defeat being mostly due to Tampa has some comfort to the degree where it has become entrenched in political mythology. For Labor, it reconciled them to the defeats under the Howard years coming not from the exhaustion of its own agenda, but basically because the electorate were uncaring and xenophobic scum. It allowed Labor to rationalise its growing irrelevance from its historic base as a ‘wedge’ between its own high and mighty principles and the less angelic nature of its traditional supporters. The so-called ‘Tampa effect’ was really a way that Labor (and left-wing commentary around it) could re-represent having nothing to say to its supporters to become a problem with the supporters itself.
This is why the ‘Lindsay litmus test’ is so especially entrenched with the power bases of the party that have most interest in not looking too hard at the meaning of the end of Labor’s traditional agenda – and it is why it has come back with a vengeance as the party’s deepest insecurities about its own social role now come to the surface with its power brokers’ open re-taking of power.
For the Coalition, there was no real problem in keeping the emphasis of explaining its electoral success more on Tampa and a supposed ability to tap into the national psyche, than 9/11 and the War on Terror over which it had little control. While Howard was ready to talk about national security and the importance of vigilance after 9/11 (and still is), it was double edged for him. The lack of control over the War on Terror meant that Australia’s commitment in Iraq was kept never too far above token, as Obama himself pointed out after Howard lost his grip on the changing mood in Washington and called the next President of the United States the preferred choice of terrorists. It was far preferable for the government to pretend that “we decide who will come to our country” over hapless refugees, than having to acknowledge being an insignificant part of a military venture that meant having to defend any bogus intelligence that was thrown out.
But perhaps the real political impact of 9/11 and the War on Terror on Australian politics can be best clearly seen by going to back to the polls of 2001, and looking at earlier in that year. In March 2001, the Howard government was being routinely written off. No government had come back to win from the level the Coalition was polling at that time, indeed it was a historical low for the Coalition in or out of office. A rudderless first term was now being followed by an even more rudderless second with Howard’s lack of authority being exposed against interest groups from every angle. Yet in six months they were back in the running to equal pegging, even before Tampa sailed over the horizon.
A rudderless government was proving itself an even match for a rudderless opposition. In that way, 9/11 and the War on Terror didn’t mark the start of Labor’s problems, it marked the temporary suspension, for about five or six years, of the Coalition’s. Politically, we are now picking up where we left off before the planes hit the towers, two major parties limply failing each other but with their insecurities even more open than then. One government is again breaking all records for unpopularity and lack of authority but incredibly, or maybe not given who they are up against, might still yet come back just as Howard did even before 9/11 and Tampa came over the horizon.
Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 12 September 2011.Filed under State of the parties