9/11 – the event that never happened

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

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8 responses to “9/11 – the event that never happened”

  1. Scott on 13th September 2011 9:10 am

    If the election is in 2013 or late next year, then I suppose circumstances could change so much that Labor could win but it looks highly unlikely. It’s all about the numbers. Surely Labor would lose some seats, even if their fortunes rose significantly, and the two Independents from NSW will surely be booted out by their electorates for siding with Labor.

  2. The Piping Shrike on 13th September 2011 5:55 pm

    If it wasn’t Abbott you would write the next election off as a foregone against Labor. But Abbott still personifies the weakness of the Coalition so you can’t be sure …

  3. Lentern on 14th September 2011 2:52 pm

    I don’t think they seriously deny the significance of September 11 but that there is anything that the opposition or government could have done politically to shape the ramifications of it. National security was a bigger issue than normal at that election and the political dispute that was relevant to it was the Tampa.

    I’m not suggesting that the Tampa actually did shape the election result but I can see why left types started focussing on it in the wake of the 2001 election.

  4. Thomas Paine on 17th September 2011 7:56 pm

    The Coalition always has the asylum seeker issued sewed up in the public’s mind no matter how tough and to the right Gillard might try to be.

    Gillard’s shift to Howardism on this issue amazingly allows Abbott to attack her from the Left and make himself look more human and reasonable. This will be deadly for Gillard as it will remove some of the uncertainty some would have in voting for Abbott.

  5. The Piping Shrike on 22nd September 2011 3:14 am

    I agree re Gillard, although I think no one believes Abbott is being more humane and reasonable …

  6. Riccardo on 22nd September 2011 1:16 pm

    I’m glad Tad’s blog got a run on the ABC and people will hopefully read TPS as well. Learn the truth about the political class and their base.

  7. Thomas Paine on 29th September 2011 1:45 am

    Another game changer is now very close and it is one devastating for Gillard.

    Quite apparent that Global Financial Crisis #2 is on its way, possibly in the next few months. Housing is already softening, China will not be able to do the same stimulus again and other nations have added even more to their debt, foreign banks will fall and liquidity will freeze up all over again.

    Basically the same as last time except much worse, and Australia will not escape this episode without a sizeable drop in employment and increasing weakness in housing market and construction.

    This scenario suits the Coalition in that they are perceived to be better economic managers. Only Rudd could possibly counter that perception given his first effort on GFC #1 and if his popularity and economic credibility rebuild Labor’s primary it may bring a Turnbull to the table for his economic credibility.

    The public already have little trust in Gillard and the advent of an economic crisis arriving or close by will have them cast their eyes even more willingly to Coalition. Confidence in the Gillard govt will collapse entirely and Abbott & co will play on all this very effectively. Uunder these circumstances it is quite possible that the public in great anxiety abandon Gillard Labor en-mass taking their primary to below 25%.

    These issues ARE coming sooner or later, probably sooner by the looks of it. The faceless men better start getting their act together and prepare for themselves some special types of sandwiches, if they don’t want labor cast into total oblivion.

  8. Riccardo on 30th September 2011 2:04 pm

    Do you really think? Or will the AUD:USD fall to 0.45 again and the price of all our remaining exports prop us up again, admittedly annoying the middle class with fewer cheap holidays?

    This is Keating 101. Dollars falls, interest rates fall, automatic Keynesian fiscal stablisation occurs, wage growth ceases and some migrants leave looking for better deals elsewhere.

    Swan also assures us that the mining pipeline is now so full that even if we lost 1 to 2 years new investment, that already committed to will keep stuff happening for a while.

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