Letter from… Sydney

As backbench pressure mounts on David Cameron to either strike some sort of deal with Nigel Farage or co-opt his policies, it is time to ask: what is the prime minister’s campaign director, Lynton Crosby, planning?

The answer might be found by looking at Crosby’s campaign history. In 2001 he was directing Australian prime minister John Howard’s second re-election campaign. He was taking no prisoners. A few years earlier the firebrand rightwing populist, Pauline Hanson, had swept onto the Australian political stage with largely unformed, but nevertheless effective, statements deploring the rise in Asian immigration and the perceived loss of an Australian identity. This ugly but potent mix struck a resonant note – particularly with older men living in the regions who felt they had been left behind in a new Australia they struggled to understand. The root cause of this unwelcome development was, they believed, the rise of Asian immigration.

As she travelled the country Hanson’s attacks were directed in equal portions at the Tories and Labor, with both parties losing supporters to her One Nation party. Despite this, leaders of the Australian Tories – the Liberal and National parties – believed she could be contained. Their confidence disappeared, though, when One Nation stripped enough votes from a first-term conservative coalition government in the 1998 Queensland elections to deliver power to Labor by the barest of margins. In that election I advised Labor as we faced the prospect of losing older, blue-collar voters to One Nation in regional areas but stood to win the support of city-based conservative voters uneasy with the decision of the Tories to try to appease Hanson and her xenophobic candidates. Labor’s leader in Queensland, Peter Beattie, refused to enter into any deals or powersharing arrangements with her, and Labor was rewarded with a bag of Tory seats in Brisbane, which exactly offset the seats Labor lost to One Nation in the regions.

Over the following three years Hanson and her party continued to harry both sides of politics but was seen as being particularly disruptive to the conservatives because she divided opinion on the right about the direction the Howard government should take. As the 2001 Australian election drew near, the question for political strategists familiar with Australia’s preferential voting system was whether Hanson’s newfound supporters would effectively return to the institutional conservative fold by giving their second preference vote to the Tory candidate ahead of Labor. Crosby and his pollster, Mark Textor, knew they had to co-opt Hanson’s supporters by acknowledging some of their anxieties and embracing some of their prejudices, potentially also picking up the erstwhile Labor supporters who now backed Hanson.

In August 2001, just weeks before the election, Howard and Crosby, guided by Textor’s polling, saw their opportunity when a boatful of asylum seekers was rescued just north of Australia by a Norwegian freighter named the Tampa. The controversy around ‘boat people’ had been building for some time. People of all political persuasions were angered by this perceived breach of Australia’s territorial integrity – but the response of Hanson’s supporters was visceral.

It was the event Crosby had been waiting for. Howard refused to allow the Tampa to remain in Australian territorial waters, forcing the ship’s master to offload the refugees onto an Australian naval vessel which transported the mainly Afghan refugees to Nauru. The more the left commentariat and Labor railed against this snub to international conventions protecting the rights of asylum seekers, the more popular the hitherto unappealing prime minister became. In August 2001 Newspoll had the Howard government’s primary vote at 40 per cent. It jumped four per cent immediately after Tampa.

Crosby’s campaign to mainstream One Nation values peaked when Howard addressed the Liberal party faithful at an election rally and forcefully declared: ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ I worked as an adviser to Labor on that campaign and saw its impact when Crosby produced a paid political advertisement showing Howard uttering those words. I suspected that they had been carefully researched in focus groups by Textor.

The 2001 election result was devastating for Labor whose leader, Kim Beasley, was attacked by the Liberals for ‘flip-flopping’ on the ‘boat people’ issue. This confused response was presented by Labor’s opponents as a sign of weakness, unlike the party’s stand in the 1998 Queensland election. In the 2001 campaign, though, Howard portrayed the refugee issue as being about security rather than race, and thereby sidestepped a potentially dangerous issue. Of course, he still attracted the support of Hanson followers who responded with Pavlovian predictability to his dog-whistle politics. In the end Howard had a comfortable victory spurred on by 9/11, which massively reinforced these security anxieties.

Given this history, I suspect that Crosby will be unable resist constructing or capitalising on a game-changing event to bring Farage’s supporters back onside. He will look for an opportunity for Cameron to do something about Europe, immigration, or both, that Labour in all conscience cannot match. The risk will be in losing Conservative supporters dismayed with this anti-Europe stance but he will take that chance and bet that he will regain more supporters than he loses.

The challenge for Labour is to pre-empt any real escalation in this rapprochement with United Kingdom Independence party supporters, if not Farage himself, by pointing out the Tories’ base political motivations in playing this card. The bigger challenge, however, will be to acknowledge the anxieties of those people who are opposed, for whatever reason, to closer engagement with Europe and who feel deep hostility towards what they see as unchecked immigration. Unfortunately, these more nuanced arguments tend to be less effective than crude ‘we decide who comes here’ declarations. However, if job insecurity underpins the antipathy towards immigrants in these early days of the economic recovery then perhaps a comprehensive jobs and industry plan should be front and centre of Labour’s response to any Cameron calcification on Europe and immigration. Whatever Labour’s response may be, it is important to understand Crosby’s history – forewarned is forearmed.

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Bruce Hawker is a former general election manager at the Australian Labor party

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Photo: cobber27

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Comments: 2...

  1. On November 6, 2014 at 4:31 am roy steele responded with... #

    Security is the new Racism? Jobs for Britishers only? sod the French, Belgians and Italians? Crosby may be the new back-of-house-palace-court-Jester to Cameron and his Eton-elitists, but this isn’t downtown Alice-Springs, its the United Kingdom where we honour the Democratic system [flawed as it may be] and we Britishers don’t ask low-life, pond-thinking hypocrites for advices on how to win an election. Next May 8th 2015 Messrs Krosby & Klowns will be packing their back-packs for a very long walk back to a very obscure pond in the Ozzie outback from which they crawled. Not even a good try cobbers.

  2. On November 19, 2014 at 8:42 pm Roger M responded with... #

    Very astute piece and I hope the powers that be in the party have taken note and prepared accordingly. However, I expect the target will be welfare-related rather than immigration / EU – or perhaps a combination of the two.

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