• Rikki Lambert

Is Ukraine Morrison's Tampa moment?


PM Morrison attends a prayer vigil on Sunday at a Sydney Ukrainian Orthodox church

Whilst there might not be the questionable 'children overboard' allegations that surrounded the Tampa crisis just before a federal election, it's feeling like 2001 again.


The Liberal-National coalition strategists aiming to pull an election rabbit out of the hat (they spent their 'miracle' analogy last election) looked too tricky by half putting national security firmly on the agenda by attacking Labor's standing with the Chinese communist government.


Perhaps the upper echelons of the Coalition knew that Vladimir Putin's posturing over Ukraine territory was more than diplomatic bluster, but that's history now. Prime Minister Morrison's pivot towards a strong national security narrative might well earn the Morrison-Joyce government an unlikely fourth term in office.


Make no mistake, Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has been strong in his rhetoric concerning Putin's move on Ukraine territory and expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian people.


In 2001, Labor leader Kim Beazley was similarly making strong polling headway against then Coalition PM John Howard.


Howard - like Morrison - was looking to earn a second personal term in office. Howard, however, did not have the baggage of singular prior terms of the likes of Prime Ministers Abbott and Turnbull before his own.


The MV Tampa


Enter a national security debate framed around border security when a Norwegian vessel, the MV Tampa, recovered Afghan refugees off the northwest coast of Western Australia. In the fortnight that followed, Australian SAS troops were sent to intervene in the crisis when the ship's captain looked to offload the refugees in Australian territory. The refugees were accused of throwing children overboard to assist in their disembarkation on Australian soil, but that is a story for another day.


Howard turned his metaphorical leaky election vessel around and sailed to victory against Beazley, a man who none have successfully assailed in terms of his character or earnestness of his efforts or merit in becoming prime minister in 2001.


Kim Beazley in 2001

Beazley's Labor was simply outplayed at a Coalition strong suit - national security.


Putting the Tampa revisited question to renegade South Australian senator Alex Antic on Monday, the Liberal backbencher told Flow listeners:

"One thing it (putting national security at the forefront) certainly will do is focus people's minds back on who, I would say, who are the big boys in the parliament, who they trust to run the country."
"I don't know about a Tampa-like situation but people have a decision to make as to who they think is best to lead the economy coming through and I think that choice is absolutely clear."

Just as the Australian media became engrossed in the Tampa affair because it was on the nation's doorstep, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is dominating media coverage as the spectre looms of an unthinkable third large-scale war in Europe in 108 years.


Australia's connection to the Russia-Ukraine conflict may seem remote but the Morrison government talked in early March about providing 'lethal aid' to Ukraine and on 28 February NATO allies took unprecedented steps to arm and support Ukraine. Indeed, Germany committed to step up its military spending to levels unseen for generations.


The Coalition's 2022 attacks on Labor initially centred on China before Russia made its move. Defence Minister Peter Dutton used parliamentary privilege to imply briefings he had received indicated the Chinese communist government preferred an Albanese Labor government.


Minister Dutton (right) drops a national security bomb in Question Time on 17 February

This column just two-and-a-half weeks ago described Mr Dutton's attack as a misfired custard pie. The pie may be back on this scribe's face but a potential World War III does tend to shift momentum swiftly.


Perhaps playing the China suit in the national security trump cards could have backfired, but the cards fell out beautifully in the PM's favour.


Tensions escalated on 17 February when the defence department said one of the RAAF's P-8A Poseidon aircraft detected a laser coming from a People's Liberation Army Navy vessel illuminating the aircraft while in flight over Australia's northern approaches.


Mr Albanese said on Friday 18 February that the head of Australia's counter-espionage and intelligence agency has never raised concerns with him and accused the government of being "desperate for distractions", telling reporters:

"I spoke with (ASIO director-general Mike) Burgess today and he has reaffirmed that he has not raised concern about any of my candidates. I cannot be clearer than that.
"National security is too important to engage in game playing such as what we saw on the floor of the parliament, however much the government needs a distraction."

The opposition leader's comments came after the Sydney Morning Herald revealed a Chinese spy ring attempted to install Labor candidates in NSW to get sympathetic MPs elected to parliament. The plot was foiled by ASIO.


Labor's stocks slipped further when the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption found in late February that former NSW Labor MP Ernest Wong engaged in corrupt conduct in 2015 by concealing illegal political donations from a Chinese property developer and then tried to get one of the fake donors to lie about it.


At the time of writing, a federal election date is unknown, theoretically May but possibly sooner - or, abiding an unlikely separate Senate election, as late as September.


So long as Russia wallows into an emerging Ukraine quagmire and Chinese interests serve up opportunities for headlines in Australia, the hitherto runaway election win for Anthony Albanese suddenly u-turns squarely in Morrison's favour.


The Coalition has played its national security trump card, and still has billions of taxpayer-funded aces yet to play.