Abbott's political task over Iraq is just beginning

There is much stronger support for the Iraq intervention in 2014 than in 2003, but that could change quickly.

There is short term reassurance for Prime Minister Abbott in the Galaxy poll published over the weekend showing that 62 per cent support Australian air strikes against ISIL in Iraq, though this is likely to provide less comfort in the longer term. 

Only 21 per cent of voters are currently against Australia joining that air campaign, so it would seem at first glance to be a popular intervention. However, the Abbott government’s task in keeping that figure low will be a difficult one.

One challenge will be the cost. In a time of budget emergency, $500 million per year for a 'war on terror' campaign will rile some. 

Some papers are reporting today that finance minister Mathias Cormann "refused to rule out" a tax increase to pay for the Iraq conflict. A 'fear tax' would not go down well.  At this stage, however, those reports are drawing a long bow – the Coalition would argue that blocked budget savings were to blame for any future tax rise. 

As defence minister David Johnston said over the weekend, this war won’t be over quickly. He told journalists: “… we must say months and more, because we want to under-promise and over-deliver here.”

The problem is, the longer the conflict lasts the more that 21 per cent, and others like them, will have to digest the horrific news stories we have seen starting with the US journalists’ beheadings and moving on to similar atrocities committed against a British aid worker and French tourist, amongst others.

Unlike 2003, this war has come upon Australia suddenly, with far less build-up than the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ narrative that led to the toppling of Saddam Hussein. 

The beheadings create a far more visceral response in media audiences than teams of UN inspectors walking in and out of Saddam’s industrial estates with clipboards in 2002.

The less striking reports of Saddam’s plans to dominate his region, and Western influence within it, were not enough to anger Australians to back Prime Minister Howard’s ardent support for the US-led intervention. 

By late 2002 and early 2003, public opinion was running against joining the ‘coalition of the willing’, but by varying margins. 

As Murray Goot, Professor of Politics and International Relations at Macquarie University, wrote in May of 2003: “While all the polls showed respondents opposed to Australia’s joining a US-led war on Iraq, Newspoll and Morgan showed a much narrower gap than did Hawker Britton-UMR.” 

“According to the Newspoll series and/or Morgan series, which ran from August to December, the level of opposition to the war was seven-to-seventeen points greater than the level of support; but the Hawker Britton-UMR poll, conducted five times between August to March, put the level of opposition 25 to 30 points ahead.”

The difference, wrote Goot, was the number of ‘undecided’ respondents in the various polls. Different approaches to asking, and then re-asking questions produced ‘undecided’ counts of 9.5 per cent in Newspoll, 4.5 per cent in the Morgan poll and 12.5 per cent in the Hawker Britton-UMR poll. 

That was important, as the real ‘undecided’ figure had historically changed the way opinion tended to track during the conflict. 

Goot wrote: “... a high ‘undecided’ had an asymmetrical effect: for the most part it pulled respondents away from the war camp rather than the peace camp. Support for going to war was not only a minority position; the minority was ‘softer’ than the majority.”

In the Galaxy poll published over the weekend, 17 per cent of voters were uncommitted. 

The question that will worry the Abbott leadership team is whether the instant, horrified response of voters to the ISIL beheading videos created a ‘hard’ level of support for Australian planes joining the air assault, or whether time will allow that 17 per cent of ‘undecideds’ to pull other voters into the neutral or anti-war categories. 

In February 2003, after many months to contemplate the risk of Saddam Hussein launching chemical, biological or nuclear weapons, Australian capital cities saw mass demonstrations against Australian involvement, with up to 500,000 people taking to the streets.

This time, the rush from the first ghastly videos being circulated to the launching of air strikes has been rapid indeed – barely six weeks. 

Both the Coalition and Labor Party committed quickly to supporting US action, though Labor released a short list of conditions in early September – it would not support deploying ground combat units, it only supported Australian operations to Iraq, wanted the Iraqi government to take over full responsibility as soon and possible and insisted that Australia should withdraw if Iraqi forces engaged in unacceptable conduct.

Many commentators around the world – including voices strongly in favour of intervention – argue that ground troops will be needed. Pressure on the Abbott government to contribute to such forces would strain the current bipartisan stance. We shall see.

What we do know is that public passions are running high after brutal ISIL images have filled numerous news cycles. 

Whether the support for airstrikes resulting from that is a lasting phenomenon is yet to be seen.