What is a khaki election and is Australia headed for one?

·News Reporter
·3-min read

As a Federal Election looks likely to be called for May 2022, Yahoo News Australia is analysing the key issues affecting the nation on which both major political parties are jockeying for position.

Amid continued warnings from defence minister Peter Dutton of potential war with China, prime minister Scott Morrison appears to be preparing for a what's known as a "khaki election".

The term refers to an election fought on issues of law and order, safety and security, and primarily the threat of potential war and the subsequent stoking of fear in the public.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to members of the defence force.
A 'khaki election' refers to a strategy where governments use war or law and order issues to generate fear of change in government. Source: Getty Images.

The term was penned in 1900 when the Conservative Party government of Lord Salisbury was returned to office, defeating a disunited Liberal Party in the British general election in the midst of the Second Boer War.

Khaki was the new colour of the British Army military uniform at the time.

It is an election strategy often adopted by an incumbent government under threat of losing an election and is used as a tool to generate fear of change in an uncertain, even threatening, environment.

The term was applied most famously to the 2001 federal election in Australia, when the then Howard Government was widely tipped to lose.

Minister for Defence Peter Dutton has declared Australia would participate with its allies in any war with China, sparking suggestions of a 'khaki election'. Source: Getty Images
Minister for Defence Peter Dutton has declared Australia would participate with its allies in any war with China, sparking suggestions of a 'khaki election'. Source: Getty Images

Liberal Party polling at the time indicated that law and order was an issue that many people were concerned about.

The arrival of the Norwegian ship the Tampa, which was carrying hundreds of asylum seekers mainly from Iraq and Afghanistan, provided the perfect vessel for the Howard Government to exploit.

After the Tampa rescued the refugees from their sinking vessel in international waters off the Pacific Ocean, the ship’s captain changed course to Christmas Island seeking permission to dock with his human cargo.

Australian authorities denied the request and after the captain defied the directions and began heading to the island, the Australian military deployed military personnel to intercept the vessel and turn it around.

Just five weeks after the Tampa crisis another ship carrying refugees was intercepted by HMAS Adelaide in Australian waters, an incident where the infamous "children overboard" claims were made by then immigration minister Phillip Ruddock.

The resulting so-called Pacific Solution was created to keep illegal immigrants out of Australia and combined with the fear of terrorism in the wake of September 11, turned the electoral fortunes in the favour of the Howard Government which went on to win.

As diplomatic tensions increase with China in recent weeks, defence minister Peter Dutton has been clear on Australia’s intentions if war were to break out in the region, sparking an angry response from Chinese officials.

With the US Government issuing constant warnings over Chinese activity in the Indo-Pacific region, Mr Dutton recently said it was “inconceivable” that Australia would not join its allies in any resulting war with China.

The federal opposition has been critical of Mr Dutton’s public stance on China, with shadow foreign minister Penny Wong accusing him of provoking China and raising the possibility of war for domestic political gain.

"Amping up the prospect of war against a superpower is the most dangerous election tactic in Australian history," she said.

But time will tell if it proves successful.

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