Has the Coalition employed ‘strategic racism’ to win elections? By Norman Abjorensen.

Norman Abjorensen
The Abbott government’s use of ‘strategic racism’

The hardline stance by the Abbott government on asylum seekers – and let’s call it for what it is: a blatant appeal to racial prejudice thinly disguised as “border protection” – has served the Liberal Party well. But rather than racism driving the policy, as has been suggested, there might well be other agendas at play.

Consider the political advantages that the Liberals have won from the propagation and exploitation of fear. The 2013 election campaign is still fresh in memory with Tony Abbott’s repeated mantra of “stop the boats”, and the explicit linking of asylum seekers and their flimsy vessels with border protection and national security. We have now seen the deployment of the armed forces to turn them back.

To take his military analogy to the point of absurdity, in an interview in January Abbott likened the situation to a war – that is, a heavily armed, First-World nation mobilised against a sporadic and unorganised invasion of leaky boats. He declined to give details about the government’s strategies because that would be “giving out information that is of use to the enemy”.

That is highly charged rhetoric and a look at recent political history suggests a pattern that is more than just crass political opportunism. 

In 2001, the John Howard-led Coalition government looked set for defeat, with polls trending downward amid a backlash from the government’s heavy-handed handling of the 1998 waterside dispute and the ongoing bedding down of the unpopular GST. To make matters worse, the tide appeared to be running emphatically Labor’s way everywhere. Labor had in the preceding years regained office in Tasmania, New South Wales and Queensland and snatched government in Victoria, Western Australia and most unexpectedly for the first time ever in the Northern Territory. During the federal campaign, the ALP also won office in the ACT.

But strange things can happen on the way to an election. A Norwegian cargo ship, the Tampa, appeared on the horizon carrying with it not only several hundred asylum seekers it had rescued from a disabled boat but also John Howard’s salvation. The government’s steadfast refusal to allow the Tampa to unload its human cargo sparked an acrimonious and heated public debate, with Howard famously declaring: “We will decide who comes to this country and under what circumstances.” 

In September came the terrorist attack in New York, which was deftly conflated with asylum seekers, many of whom were Muslim. Howard, defence minister Peter Reith and some government backbenchers were quick to point out that there could be people with terrorist links among those arriving in Australia without authorisation.

The issue dominated the run-up to the election. Talkback radio crackled with support for Howard and he managed to score a 3 per cent swing, picking up five seats. Labor slumped to its lowest primary vote since 1934, as horrified voters fled to the Greens over the meek and tacit acceptance of Howard’s tactics.

In 2004, Howard earned a further 4 per cent swing to the Coalition, delivering a gain of five seats and control of the senate, after a terrorist attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta saw Howard refocus attention on national security and, by implication, asylum seekers and hence, of course, Muslims. 

The focus on asylum seekers at the 2013 election certainly did not hurt the Liberals, and delivered savage swings against the ALP in western and south-western Sydney. Exit polls conducted by JWS Research on responses to specific Coalition policies showed “stronger borders/stopping the boats” rated third in order of importance in winning respondent’s votes (with 18 per cent nominating it as most important) behind a stronger economy (40 per cent) and cutting waste (24 per cent).

Some critics of the constant drum-beating on the asylum/border protection issue have accused the Liberals of racism. But can we really say Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison, and John Howard, Philip Ruddock and Peter Reith before them, are themselves racist? 

Some useful light is shed in a significant book by the distinguished US legal scholar Ian Haney López, Dog Whistle Politics, in which he addresses the question of race in American politics and comes up with the concept of “strategic racism”. He deftly analyses coded appeals that generate middle-class and blue-collar enthusiasm for crackdowns on crime, curbs on undocumented immigration, protection against Islamic infiltration, and so on – and US Republicans have benefited handsomely.

Haney López argues that the proponents are not necessarily themselves racist but cynically use the appeal to win elections. They then vote to slash taxes for the rich, give corporations regulatory control over industry and financial markets, and aggressively curtail social services. He argues that white voters are persuaded by powerful interests that minorities are their true enemies but they fail to see the connection between the political agendas they support and the surging wealth inequality that takes an increasing toll on their lives. In other words, the race issue is one gigantic Trojan horse.

Does that have a familiar ring to it? The “stop the boats” mantra was trumpeted loudly in the 2013 campaign, but what did we hear about savage cuts to welfare, steep rises in student fees, the abolition of the discrimination commissioner’s job, the handing over of the Human Rights Commission to an avowed opponent of its existence, the free rein given to the Business Council of Australia via the Commission of Audit, or to the far-right Institute of Public Affairs in writing policy and setting the agenda? Such outcomes have little discernible benefit to anyone but the big corporates and the very rich, and contain distinct downsides for most who responded to the “stop the boats” siren song.

Thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan pitched a shameless appeal to the “moral majority” with his folksy talk about the sanctity of the family and traditional values, not for their own sake but simply because supply-side economics, which we now know as neoliberalism, was as little understood as it was unpalatable to the average voter.

Strategic racism is simply a reprise of that monumentally successful exercise.

After the 2004 election, the Liberal Party sought to play down the issue as a deliberate focus of its campaign, despite a poll showing 10 per cent of respondents nominated it as their reason to vote Liberal. I attended an industry briefing in the election’s aftermath in which a top Liberal Party campaign strategist was asked why the Labor Party kept losing elections (by then, four in a row). “It’s simple,” he said. “A message of fear beats a message of hope every time.”

The intake of breath in that auditorium was palpable.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 21, 2014 as "Race to the polls".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Norman Abjorensen is a visiting fellow in the policy and governance program at ANU, and the author of three books on the Liberal Party.