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National security elections: Reds under the bed



Domestic policies are often regarded as more important than foreign affairs and defence policies in influencing Australian election campaigns. But national security campaigns by the government of the day, known as either khaki elections or reds under the beds, have such a long history in Australian federal elections that they challenge the conventional wisdom.  

It is all about fear. Many critics of the Morrison government, although buoyed by the Opposition’s lead in the public opinion polls, now worry that the combination of community fears of Chinese expansionism and the Russian invasion of Ukraine will save the government’s skin at the federal election. 

Khaki elections conjure up images of the deployment of troops and military operations. But they can be about cold as well as hot wars and as much about states of mind as war itself. They are most effective when the other side of politics can be portrayed as disloyal, weak and/or misguided in the face of an international threat. 

The history of national security politics in Australia includes the portrayal by the Menzies government of Labor as ‘soft on communism’ during the 1950s. This portrayal equated socialism and communism and was built on a mixture of international and domestic fears of communist influence. Trade union politics and alleged Labor links with the Communist Party of Australia were part of the mix. The era included the Petrov Russian Spy case prior to the 1954 election, the Labor Split, and the emergence of the anti-communist Democratic Labour Party. It was all one part of a winning recipe. 

The potency of ‘reds under the bed’ slowly eased despite the Vietnam War, but even in 1972 Gough Whitlam could be derided as ‘the Manchurian candidate’ because of his visit to China as Opposition Leader. By the 1983 campaign Bob Hawke could make a telling joke about ‘reds under the bed’ when Malcolm Fraser claimed that, if Labor were elected, people’s money would be safer under the bed. 

In 2001 national security was linked by John Howard to border security during the Tampa affair and more traditional threats of war following the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre in New York. Commitment to the US alliance has also been a regular element of these campaigns. 


'National security campaigns can overwhelm most other issues. Some issues like climate action, political corruption, refugees, gender equality or Indigenous representation can suddenly seem to be not as immediate or important.' 


Now we have attacks by the Coalition government on Labor leaders, Anthony Albanese and Richard Marles, which echo past khaki elections and reds under the bed. Led by Defence Minister Peter Dutton and echoed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison they have focused on Chinese expansionism in the Asia-Pacific and Chinese support for Putin’s Russia. 

These attacks run the full gamut from allegations that Labor is weak and/or misguided on China to personal attacks on Albanese and Marles as “Manchurian candidates”, the Chinese pick for the coming federal election, and even, most outrageous, Chinese agents. The latter allegations, like those during the Cold War, invoke images of foreign spies and agents with associations with past and present Labor figures and with the Australian-Chinese community. 

Such confected allegations can be potent in some circumstances. This depends on several elements, including the prior standing of the government and opposition leadership, the objective situation, and the state of mind of the Australian community. 

The first element in national security elections is leadership, which is a major issue in this federal election. Incumbents hold all the levers of government to pull in terms of decision-making, grand gestures and addresses to the nation. Such leaders can portray themselves as strong and decisive leaders defending the interests of the nation even if the strength is only verbal rather than ever tested. Denunciations of foreign threats always evoke fear. 

The second is the crowding-out factor. National security campaigns can overwhelm most other issues. Some issues like climate action, political corruption, refugees, gender equality or Indigenous representation can suddenly seem to be not as immediate or important. Others such as health, aged care, and even economic management, where the government is under attack for its performance, can be temporarily overshadowed. 

Media attention is a key factor in this crowding out of other issues as reporting of the invasion of Ukraine shows.  

The third element is the state of mind of the electorate. Are we fearful enough of war or unsettled enough by communist expansionism to change our minds about our national leadership at the ballot box? Maybe. Timing is relevant and the election is probably still eight weeks way. A lot can change. Proximity makes a difference too; hence China can be realistically portrayed as more of a threat to Australia than Russia. The credentials of the Opposition leadership are also a factor. It must demonstrate its own strength and reliability. 



John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Main image: Robert Menzies (Museum of Australian Democracy)

Topic tags: John Warhurst, National Security, Election Campaign, AusPol, Australia



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Existing comments

John, whilst I agree that we fortunately do not have much to fear at present from Putin, (unlike Ukraine), we may soon be asked by the US to participate in an allied rescue which will involve troops and lives. If that involves Putin launching an ICBM or two then so be it.
Chinese expansionism is a polite term for a grab for our natural resources whilst China relegates us to the deep freeze of refusal to accept our exports. Chinese ownership of our infrastructure has doubled since the imposition of the unjust tariffs.
Since the beef, barley, wine, coal, crayfish betrayals China has used the tariffs as a smokescreen to help themselves to our land and water. Ports and Power. Mines and Real Estate. And they've stepped up the ice exports from HK and grown militarily bolder in the Arafura sea, illegal fishing and the Antarctic.
Now I'm no fan of Khaki elections but Chinese expansionism, border hopping, Declarations of frontier territory, Cyber attacks, land grabs, Chancellor and Research bribery, politician undue influence, intimidation and their fascist alliance with Putin need to be called out and planned for.

Francis Armstrong | 10 March 2022  

There were reds under the bed. The Verona decrypts have proven so. And 2 NSW Labor Senators were dual members, in that era serving the interests of Moscow.

Bob | 10 March 2022  

"Look, ma! What I imagined was a monster wasn't really a bear or a dragon - it was just a friendly little field mouse.
And it's gone away."

John RD | 11 March 2022  
Show Responses


(Field) mice don't (usually) bite but surfaces touched by them may bear traces which infect, even after the mouse has departed.

This is much like the very first softenings or fracturings of a culture by such things as, well, the heterosexual embrace of divorce or contraception which, like Manchurian sleepers, create, unseen, more extensive rotting or fracturing of the cultural tissue until the body of the culture becomes something else.

So, John RD, your irony is apt. Perhaps every election should be a khaki election, with the war the subject of focus being that occurring in the heavenlies.

roy chen yee | 11 March 2022  

If the remark wasn't quite so facile, one could almost take it seriously. However anyone who thinks the CCP doesn't have political and territorial ambitions in this region has his/her head buried in the sand like an ostrich.

Francis Armstrong | 16 March 2022  

I quite agree, Francis - and am surprised that as you yourself not infrequently employ irony you do not recognise at least the possibility of a similar tone in my remark, especially as I've regularly expressed my thoughts on the contemporary hegemony of neo-Marxist ideology in education, here and in other countries.

John RD | 18 March 2022  

It's not only “national security campaigns” that are “all about fear.” Fear is the whole point of climate Armageddon alarmism: “Even the rain that falls isn’t actually going to fill our dams and river systems” (Tim Flannery, 2007)
Covid fear was used to brand those opposing lockdowns as uncaring and motivated by greed. Now lockdowns are revealed as “ill-founded” and “imposing enormous economic and social costs.” No wonder Jane Fonda was ecstatic about Covid being, “God’s gift to the Left.”
And were earlier national security fears simply political ploys designed as “part of a winning recipe”?
Communists infiltrated trade unions with a view to economic sabotage and to gain influence in Labor, then closely affiliated with unions. The Venona decrypts revealed a nest of communist spies in the Department of External Affairs from 1940s onwards. ALP leader Bill Hayden wrote: “The Petrov Espionage Royal Commission of the fifties revealed…the presence of Communist stooges in [ALP leader] Evatt’s office.”
And it was Victoria’s government that signed up to China’s Belt and Road initiative (which facilitates Chinese foreign interference) and accused the Morrison government of “vilifying” China for wanting an international inquiry into Covid that has killed 6 million people.

Ross Howard | 11 March 2022  

The 'Reds under the bed' label is sometimes a convenient tag to laugh off the once seriously perceived threat of Communism. Someone like the late Senator Arthur Gietzelt was not fictional. Countries such as Russia and China are not so much Communist as Imperialist: resurrections of those old Empires. What do we do in the current situation? With our relatively small, outmoded armed forces, we need to exercise some care. Is national defence more important than a grab bag of progressive causes? Do our politicians, any of them, have the nous to cope in the current situation? Sometimes being a leader is more than (metaphorically) kissing babies.

Edward Fido | 11 March 2022  

Confected allegations from leadership that blames others and lies should be what we actually fear.

Jan Wright | 13 March 2022  

Quite right John!

Marie Bourke

Marie Bourke | 14 March 2022  

As The X-Files says Jan: 'The truth is out there'. Finding it is sometimes hard. Bob Santamaria was an ardent supporter of Franco in the Spanish Civil War. The Nationalists were supported by the Church and the Nazis. Strange bedfellows?

Edward Fido | 14 March 2022  

Timely article; it's funny how we can get so "hung up" on a few simple phrases out of the mouths of politicians when most frequently the lips are flapping out some self-serving inexactitude; you could argue that pundits can only quote what was said but that even misleads editorial. The case for national security is determined by influence of notional insecurities... who do we distrust and why? Today we're confronted with $2.20 per litre for fuel and the PM has been (rightly?) quoted that the price is due to Russia's war in Ukraine. Ostensibly so; although Russia has not restricted oil supply nor increased their price, indeed, I don't doubt that they'd be happy to export with the devaluation of the Ruble. The summary reality is a whole lot of nations have placed sanctions on Russian oil and supply... and other organizations like OPEC have set the global price of "other" oil. So the Scomo-ism that you're paying more for fuel because of Russia redirects scrutiny from who is actually selling and profiting from a misfortune crisis elsewhere. A win-win, a scapegoat for global profiteering who is prevented by international sanctions from having any influence. You'll hurt at the pump and the supermarket checkouts... but you're paying for the sanctions to hurt somewhere else.

ray | 14 March 2022  

Succinct and well-argued, John Warhurst!

Regrettably, you won't make much headway in a historical context in which the shriek of 'Christus Rex' was misappropriated by those who kept their traps shut during WWII and who only joined in when the Brits collapsed and our 'defences were down': a stunning baritone ballad from 'Annie Get Your Gun' that, sung heroically here by Howard Keel, won't soothe the intemperate overreach of the Philistines, well on show here, who nit-pick your analysis:


And so much for standing up for liberal democracy, when, if it hadn't been for the USSR, Nazi Germany would certainly have triumphed and Pius XII continued to distract himself with his canary while we settled down to a world order in which Santamaria and, in case we forgot, the 'uncovered' Fatima 'secrets', were put to nefarious fundamentalist use in orchestrating the anti-communism of the 1950s.

This proved a gift for the Right to co-opt the support of Catholics and Franco's view of the social order, still held sacrosanct by the enfeebled desperadoes who post here.

I might add to your essay, the careful analysis of the current Ukrainian crisis carried out by Pax Christi Australia. Herewith the link:


Michael Furtado | 19 March 2022  

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