The Politics of Terrorism

The Politics of Terrorism

UMR Research Director Stephen Mills describes how terrorism has influenced politics – both in New Zealand and in Australia (Dominion Post April 9 2015)

The impact of terrorism has played a part in many Western elections since 9/11.

In 2001 Australian Prime Minister John Howard was heading for likely election defeat.

He instead secured a comfortable victory by taking full advantage of the tense and fearful political climate that developed when the issue of (mainly Muslim) asylum seekers combined with the aftermath of 9/11.

That polarising election made the reputation of his political advisers Crosby- Textor. They, whether fairly or not, became branded as the masters of dark arts politics, portrayed in the media as brutally effective but prepared to tap into fear and prejudice and risk social cohesion to win elections for their conservative clients.

Asylum seekers and an underlying fear and dislike of Muslims is what the Australians call a wedge issue. As the name suggests, it is an issue that splits opposition party voters. The  Australian Labor Party (ALP)  is caught between urban liberal voters who favour a tolerant approach on asylum seekers and outer suburban and regional voters who generally want them sent back to where they came from (and aren’t too fussed on how that is done).

On asylum seekers the ALP has been left in the unlovely position of trying to straddle irreconcilable views or taking a clear position and alienating one wing of its supporters. Generally the A LP has tried to get as close to the Coalition hard line on the issue as it can but has never really succeeded in convincing voters.

Crosby-Textor have been advisers to National since at least the 2002 election including the 2014 victory. John Key in New Zealand has, however, not pursued divisive wedge issues.  A standout example is race where Key’s inclusive approach was opposite to the classic wedge issue campaign run by Don Brash, his predecessor as National leader.  Supporting the anti-smacking legislation and eventually same sex marriage are other examples.

But if the economy is weak in 2017, some of the softer National voters have tired of John Key at least a bit and Andrew Little continues to build on a strong start there may be the temptation to play the fear of terrorism card. No doubt that advice will be whispered in his ear.

With Tony Abbott’s continued leadership of the Australian Liberal party dependent on week by week polls he appears to have dialled up the threat of local terrorism. As his critics have gleefully noted the number of flags behind him at press conferences has increased from 2 to 6 and his language invokes the dire threat posed by Islamic death cults.

New Zealanders do not now seem too alarmed by any equivalent fear of local terrorist incidents.

In UMR polling in November prior to the Lindt Café siege in Sydney and the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris 42% of New Zealanders declared they were concerned about local terrorist threats in New Zealand and 31% that they were not. 27% were neutral or unsure. In February post the siege and Charlie Hebdo 40% declared they were concerned and 35% that they were not.

There would also be some cynicism to overcome if John Key did ramp up the issue.

In a UMR late February survey, given a choice 37% thought John Key talking about the possibility of threats to New Zealand from local Muslim terrorists was more likely to be based on a genuine threat of local terrorism and 48% more likely to be an attempt to soften us up for helping in Iraq and strengthening security laws.

Those numbers would, of course, turn if there was a terrorist incident in New Zealand.

If concern on the issue does rise it is almost certain that the issue would break for the National party as it has for the Coalition in Australia.  Asked in late February whether a National- led or Labour- led government would be better for handling local terrorist threats in New Zealand, 45% plumped for a National- led government and 20% for a Labour- led government.

In what already promises to be a close election between centre-left and centre-right in 2017, whether fear of local terrorism is in play could well decide the outcome.


(All poll results cited are for questions included in UMR’s two weekly telephone omnibus surveys of nationally representative samples of 750 New Zealanders 18 years plus.)