The Politics    Tuesday, April 26, 2022

War footling

By Rachel Withers

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton at a press conference in Queensland last week. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton at a press conference in Queensland last week. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Is this the moment the Coalition’s ill-founded status as “better on national security” comes unstuck?

The khaki election that the Coalition so dearly wanted has taken a curious turn. After Defence Minister Peter Dutton was criticised (yet again) for warmongering against China (and on Anzac Day to boot), Labor today came out with its new Pacific policy, including a pledge to boost foreign aid, restore Australia’s climate leadership and reinstate regular bipartisan visits to secure the region. The announcement is an attempt to capitalise on the Coalition’s recent Solomon Islands “stuff-up” and an answer to the question, repeatedly asked of the Opposition last week, “but what would you have done differently?” Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne has attempted to dismiss Labor’s plan as nothing new, even going so far as to call a rare press conference for this afternoon, while the prime minister childishly (and hypocritically) labelled the policy – which includes restoring an ABC presence in the region – as Q&A in Honiara”. But with the government warmongering and Labor pledging to restore soft power, how on earth can the Coalition still lay claim to being stronger on national security?

Despite his obvious desire for today’s focus to be fixed on the latest “Labor carbon tax” scare campaign, Prime Minister Scott Morrison spent much of it on the defensive on the issue of national defence, as he fielded questions about how prepared Australia really is for the war Dutton is invoking. (Not very, according to Labor.) Morrison’s answers on friendly radio station 2GB this morning – “Of course no one wants to see a war” – did little to counter the criticism that his government has done little to prepare for one, with everyone from News Corp to former PM Malcolm Turnbull questioning Dutton’s belligerent posturing.

Meanwhile, questions remain around what on earth Morrison actually meant by Sunday’s “red line” comments about the possibility of China building a military base on the Solomon Islands, which even Greg Sheridan thinks were stupid. (“What will Canberra do to Beijing if it crosses the red line despite our threats and blandishments? Refuse to get rich by exporting our iron ore to China?” The Australian’s foreign editor asked yesterday, in yet another screed against the Coalition’s empty rhetoric.) As retired army major general Mick Ryan told News Breakfast, “red lines” are only useful if you are willing to enforce them. But when asked again today what he meant by the phrase, Morrison refused to answer, citing “national security” and claiming that it would be irresponsible for him to do so, in yet another masterful own goal.

Could this “Pacific stuff-up” be the moment the Coalition’s claim to be the safer hands on national security comes unstuck? And could its endless fearmongering about China now be backfiring? There’s no doubt that national security has traditionally been an electoral strong suit for the government – as we are repeatedly reminded in analysis. Labor is said to be “moving into a field where the conservatives hold the upper hand”. But could it be that the Coalition only holds the upper hand here – as it supposedly does on economic management – because voters have been regularly told by the media and the Coalition that it does? This, despite the fact that the Morrison government’s national security blunders just keep stacking up.

It would be fascinating to see the Coalition’s determination to make this into an election about China come back to bite it. With the public having been made acutely aware of the threat that China poses, and realising through Dutton’s ludicrous comments that we are in no way prepared for conflict with the superpower (and won’t be even by the time our submarines arrive, 20 years hence), voters may prefer to see a party in power that understands the concept of soft power. One that wants not to appease China (which Coalition MPs know deep down is not what Labor wants to do), but to bolster our influence and secure our region, leveraging our strengths. Labor leaders spoke eloquently today about just this. The current defence minister believes the only way to “preserve peace is to prepare for war”, invoking Nazi Germany as he goes. But, as voters may be discovering, the cheaper, cleaner and more plausible way to preserve peace is to simply pursue peace.

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Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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