Before the bombing, says Sol Lebovic, managing director of Newspoll, national security ranked third as an issue behind education and health. It hadn't been prominent in the news or the national conversation. But it was an issue on which Prime Minister John Howard seemed to have the ascendancy. In June, when asked whether Howard's Liberal-National government or Latham's Labor opposition could better protect the country, 50% of voters polled favored the Coalition and 26% Labor. When he was elected Opposition leader last December, Latham trailed the P.M. on that question 21% to 58%. A few days before the blast, and six months after he promised Labor would withdraw Australian troops from Iraq by this Christmas, a Newspoll found confidence in Latham's ability to protect Australia had risen to 32%.
The contentious plan to bring home the troops still in Iraq hadn't been prominent in Latham's campaign before the blast; now, says pollster Rod Cameron, it's a discussion he'll find impossible to avoid. "The political argument will come back to that: Have you changed your mind about the troops? What about Spain?" Labor has long argued that having troops in Iraq has made Australia more of a target and damaged regional goodwill and cooperation against terrorism. Howard has painted Labor's plan as a cop-out in a necessary war, though his deputy, National Party leader John Anderson, said Australia "could be" more of a target because it was in Iraq.
How both leaders handle the bombing will be critical, Lebovic says. If both do it well - without appearing to take political advantage of the killings - it could be neutralized as a factor on election day. That still leaves the dilemma for Labor of regaining the public's attention as it tries to sell a swag of new policies, including its tax policy, released two days before the bombing and still a mystery to many voters. As long as this bombing, and national security generally, remains in the foreground, Labor will have a tough job, predicts Cameron. "Latham has a difficult package to sell, and one that's not just about money but about values and aspirations."
Labor may be helped, of course, if Howard's decision to follow the U.S. into Iraq last year draws greater public anger or regret now. Between the bombing and their televised debate on Sept. 12, both Latham and the Prime Minister, who is shooting for his fourth straight election victory, demurred on that issue, saying it wasn't the time for political jousting. But even when issues closer to home, like interest rates and Medicare, reassert themselves in coming days, says pollster Gary Morgan, the Jakarta embassy attack will reverberate through the electorate more loudly even than the Bali massacre: "Bali was an attack on a tourist center; this was an attack on Australia. Australians are going to be more concerned about terrorism than ever before." Whether voters decide this bombing, the first such attack on an Australian outpost, marks a stepping up of terrorists' focus on Australia or that it is more a consequence of turmoil in Indonesia, they're on new ground in this election campaign.