The US and Australia: two elections and two fear narratives.

Three months to the US presidential election and Donald Trump is ramping up anti-China speeches. In Australia, the Eden-Monaro by-election has passed, and Scott Morrison hastened down his China-threat rhetoric. What could be behind his changed intensity?

Fear has always been the most effective electioneering tool. Nazi leader Hermann Göring reportedly said that if you can put enough fear into people, they will do whatever you want, even go to war.

Remember that John Howard would have lost the 2001 election except that three months before, Tampa happened that brought his poll chances up to par with Kim Beazley’s on border security fear. Then, two months before the election came 9/11, which was the clincher based on terrorism fear.

As the US heads to another poll this year Nov 3, Trump faces one overwhelming fear – the virus, its economic effects, and incompetent leadership. He has no chance if this fear persists and the Republicans may lose control of the Senate. So, the China-threat may be viewed as an attempt to deflect fear from the virus.

Unfortunately for Trump, bashing China will put trade and the economy at great risk and put offside the farmers whose support he needs. Also offside will be those companies who rely on China for some part of their revenue or supply chain. They and Wall Street are flocking to the Biden camp with cheque books drawn.

The Eden-Monaro by-election and the future in Australia

The Eden-Monaro by-election, held on 4 July, was another with China-fear, but instead of helping Scott Morrison, this fear appears to have given him an unpleasant surprise.

Two weeks before the election, Morrison appeared to ramp up the China-threat narrative. At the end of a week of interesting revelations that a key Labor MP’s office had been bugged with at least one recording device, Morrison, on Friday June 19, stepped up bleary-eyed early in the morning to a hastily-called press conference and declared that Australia was under cyber-attack.

Was it a new attack? No, he admitted. Was it a new intensity? No, he said. It was ongoing. “I’m here today to advise you that, based on advice provided to me by our cyber-experts, Australian organisations are currently being targeted by a sophisticated state-based cyber-actor,” Morrison told reporters. He said the activity was “not new” but the frequency had been increasing “over many months”. He said investigations conducted so far had not revealed any “large-scale personal data breaches” of Australians’ private information. Cybersecurity, he added, had been “a constant issue for Australia to deal with”.

So where was the news that would warrant such an unscheduled press conference, some journos asked. Why was a Prime Minister apparently being summoned to step up to make a no-news announcement?

Perhaps it was an attempt to deflect attention away from inconvenient questions like who bugged the office of the MP, who incidentally is deputy chair of the powerful parliamentary security and intelligence committee, charged with keeping an eye on the security agencies, and who was it that passed the videos on to journos? Are those journos at risk of being pursued with the same vigour as those in the ABC whose offices were raided?

Have the device/devices been found? Can we be confident that the prime minister, leader of the opposition, and other Parliamentarians and staffers have not also been bugged? Certainly, nothing more has been said or heard about who did it.

Or was it an attempt to frame the coming by-election in China-threat terms, a dry-run for the next general election? If it was, it failed. The China-threat drumbeat always had the potential to cut both ways for the coalition. The Nationals never represented all farm and rural voters, just the big end. Smaller country voters, facing loss of China business and associated jobs, turned to minor parties like the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party. This party improved its showing, unusually directed its preferences to Labor. The Nationals vote was down. The leader of NSW Nationals even reportedly urged voters to preference Labor. The National Farmers Federation later confirmed their concern with China-bashing.

Since that election, Mr Morrison has toned down his rhetoric. He has refused to endorse the Trump administration’s declaration that China’s claims in the South China Sea were illegal. Asked about the US move, Mr Morrison said Australia would continue to advocate for freedom of navigation and support SE Asian countries protecting their interests, but would do so in the ‘‘Australian way’’.

‘‘We back that up with our own actions and our own initiatives and our own statements but we’ll say it the Australian way, we’ll say it the way it’s in our interests to make those statements and continue to adopt a very consistent position. It is an issue of keen interest and it is one Australia has taken a keen interest in but we have engaged respectfully, we’ve engaged proactively and we’ve engaged practically,’’ he said.

What’s next? China is playing the economic card to add to Covid discomfort. First, there were tariffs on barley and lower beef purchases. Then, the mimicking of Australia’s warning to travellers that they could be arbitrarily searched and have items confiscated when in China. Quite obviously, the message was that they can do more in future to dry up the flow of tourist and student dollars into Australia. The implications for investments are also significant. Fewer exports means less incentive to invest in costly, long-term projects.

The most far-reaching step by China is its commitment to develop the giant, high ore-quality, Simandou iron ore deposit in Guinea on the west African coast. It signals that China is positioning strategically for the likelihood that decoupling with America will continue and it should be less dependent on US allies.

The Simandou project, given the go-ahead by both Guinea and China last month, will not replace all of Australian iron ore exports to China, just about a third by 2030. Ore will flow initially in 2026, and by 2030 is expected to reach annually 220 millions tonnes (mt). The project involves two consortia including Australia’s Rio Tinto and Chinese, French, Singaporean and Guinean interests.

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John Tan was a deputy editor in the Straits Times newspaper in Singapore. He has been foreign editor and business editor.

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