Labor misreads the politics of ebola

Amid criticism that it’s in constant lockstep with the Coalition, Labor seems determined to take an opposing position on Ebola. But this underestimates voter sentiment on security.

No other government has vested so much of its credibility in protecting the nation’s borders than the Abbott Government. As a result, it is arguable that no other nation measures the competence of its government and other political parties in such terms.

Yet the Labor Opposition has profoundly misread this fact when crafting its position on the Ebola crisis unfolding in West Africa.

Terrorism, war and security issues are now considered to be the third most important group of problems facing Australia, after economic issues and a group of issues involving religion, immigration and human rights.

Whether threats to the nation are imagined or real, from asylum seekers or home-grown Jihadis, Australians have largely accepted Tony Abbott’s assurances firstly in opposition and now in government that he will do whatever is necessary to protect us from them.

Abbott has also shrewdly enlisted us in the campaign to protect Australia’s borders, making it easier for us to silently assent to the harsh treatment of asylum seekers by placing them out of sight and eventually out of mind once we’ve concluded the job of stopping the boats is done.

We’ve similarly complied on combatting the terrorism threat, with half the community even indicating a willingness to give up some personal freedoms to help the Abbott Government do so.

It may appear that the security pact between the Government and the community weighs heavily in Abbott’s favour, but it is in fact a finely balanced agreement that would be thrown awry by a breach of our borders – be it a successful act of terrorism or a confirmed case of Ebola in Australia.

Any such incidence would shatter the broader community’s belief that Abbott is a capable protector of the nation. Abbott knows the consequence of the security pact between his Government and the community falling apart is electoral suicide, and his response to the developing Ebola crisis should be viewed in this context.

The disaster clearly has broad and fundamental humanitarian implications that should be considered as being above national politics. Frankly, so does climate change, but neither the Coalition nor Labor have been prepared to risk a climate action policy that goes against Australians’ majority view.

Labor PM Kevin Rudd famously welshed on “the greatest moral challenge of our time” in 2010 by abandoning his Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and then again in 2013 by vowing to “scrap” the carbon tax in response to strong voter opposition to the tax. In reality Rudd was simultaneously trying to placate those angry about increased costs perceived to have been caused by the tax while keeping climate action advocates on board by simply changing the fixed price to a floating price on carbon.

Shorten demonstrates a similar reluctance to provoke the “no carbon tax” crowd, replicating Rudd’s linguistic gymnastics by claiming Labor in government will oppose a carbon tax but support a carbon price (when in fact a carbon tax is simply one form of carbon pricing).

In short, Labor has stuck as closely to the Coalition as it can bear on the vote-killing carbon tax despite the pressing humanitarian dimension of climate change.

Labor has similarly stayed close to the Government on national security issues, knowing there is more to be gained electorally from being seen by the supportive majority as a fellow traveller than a critic.

This like-mindedness has even extended to Shorten trying to best Abbott in the macho stakes by calling Russian president Vladimir Putin an international bully who can “thumb his nose at the rest of the world, go wherever he wants without there being any repercussions”.

Yet it appears Labor is also smarting from criticism levelled at it by parts of its supporter base for aligning too closely with the Government on military re-engagement in Iraq and the suite of new counter-terrorism laws.

Labor’s position on dealing with the terrorism threat has become more nuanced over time and is not actually a blanket approval of the Government’s new laws. But its position on Ebola appears to be a defensively kneejerk attempt to prove it’s not the Government’s cat’s-paw on national security matters.

The ALP’s determination to take a diametric position to the Government on Ebola suggests Abbott was never going to achieve bipartisanship on the issue.

If he had offered to send medical teams to the viral epicentre before securing agreement for their evacuation, if needed, the PM would have likely been accused by Labor of recklessly putting Australian lives at risk in order to grandstand on the international stage, or perhaps to draw attention from his unpopular budget.

Labor also achieves nothing by trying to conflate the risk faced by Australian military personnel deployed in Iraq with medical professionals helping in West Africa.

Yes, both risk their lives in those roles, but those in the Australian community who are anxious about this issue are more concerned about what happens when the doctors and nurses return home. They are afraid hubris, poor procedures or human error will prevail over any so-called water-tight quarantine measures.

Like opposition to climate action, many of the community’s concerns about Ebola are not based in science. That doesn’t make those concerns any less real, or any less potent when ultimately unleashed at the ballot box.

If indeed the Opposition had genuinely wanted the Abbott Government to rise above base political considerations, to put global humanitarian action ahead of protecting its base, Labor would not have politicised the issue in the first place.

Just as Labor has used its bipartisan support to leverage important amendments to the new national security laws, it could have used a similarly soft political approach to guide the Government to a more internationally cooperative approach on Ebola.

But an obliging Abbott Government was never the purpose of Labor’s public posturing on Ebola; it was only ever to differentiate the Opposition from the Government. It’s understandable that the Opposition would want to limit the extent to which it aligns with the Government on key policy matters, but Labor has badly misread the politics of national security in using Ebola as a point of differentiation.

This may well win Labor a few new votes from the left, but it will lose many more from mainstream voters who won’t take too kindly to what they perceive as the ALP’s weakening resolve on border protection.