By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – For the first time in decades, the actions of a foreign state have taken center stage in an Australian election campaign, analysts said, as China’s security pact with the islands Solomon affects the domestic politics of neighboring Australia.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison saw a hawkish stance on China as an electoral force. But weeks before an election, his conservative Liberal Party is lagging behind on national security, accused by the opposition Labor Party of spoiling diplomacy in the Pacific and making Australia “less secure”.
University of Sydney professor Simon Jackman, who studies Australian voters’ main issues in elections, said a perceived threat from another country has not been at the center of elections since the Cold War.
“For a group of younger voters, there’s nothing (like this) in living memory,” he said in an interview.
Behind in the polls, the Liberal government of Morrison had pointed to its positions on China as a reason to support its party, and claimed without proof that Beijing supported the Labor opposition.
Today Labor is highlighting the Liberal government’s failings on national security, its alleged neglect of Pacific diplomacy and the sale of Darwin’s northern port to a Chinese firm on a 99-year lease.
Morrison said on Sunday that if China built a base in the Solomon Islands it would be a “red line” for Australia.
“We know the Solomons are a strategic destination. We know that during World War II some of the fiercest and most important battles for control of the Pacific were fought there,” the opposition leader said Labor Anthony Albanese after Beijing announced the signing of the security pact. Labor seized on the fact that Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce compared the situation to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Pivoting its campaign away from the cost of living and jobs, Labor on Tuesday unveiled a plan to boost diplomacy, soft power, climate change and financial aid in the Pacific, cementing the Solomon Pact as electoral goal.
“Australians understand this is a time of risk,” Labor Party foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong told reporters in Darwin.
Morrison said the government was already doing many of the things Labor proposed and had entered into the AUKUS and Quad security partnerships to “provide a counterweight” to China in the region.
“They are playing politics with the Pacific, and the only ones benefiting from Labor’s attacks on the government are the Chinese government,” he told reporters, campaigning in Queensland.
Australia’s former top diplomat for the Indo-Pacific, Richard Maude, said Labor and the Liberal parties were “throwing hand grenades at each other at China”, but Labor’s pledge to reinvest in diplomacy was a substantial political difference.
“On the Solomons, we’ll never know. Pacific island governments have their own agency…the Coalition is actually spending record dollars in the Pacific, despite criticism from Labour,” said Maude, Asia’s executive director. SocietyAustralia.
A poll for the Australian newspaper this week showed the centre-left Labor party maintaining its 53-47 lead on a two-party preferential basis against the conservative Liberal-National coalition.
John Blaxland, a professor of international security at the Australian National University, said Morrison’s government tried to make China a priority for voters, but it backfired.
“News from the Solomon Islands will have blunted its usefulness to the Coalition,” he said in an interview.
Both the Liberal and Labor governments have registered a ‘stop-start, feast or starve’ commitment to the Pacific Islands, he said.
Whether Australian voters care as much about a resurgent China as campaigning politicians remains an open question.
A 2001 election held against the backdrop of the 9/11 terrorist attacks saw the Liberal government return to power citing fear of terrorism to harden borders – a policy area Labor has learned to mirror.
Other than that, Jackman says, national security has rarely been a major consideration for voters. He added that there was “barely an iota of difference” between the major parties on China politics.
Polls this year showed the economy, climate change, housing affordability and health care to be more important issues for voters, he said.
($1 = 1.4004 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham. Editing by Gerry Doyle)