Psephologists would much prefer it if election campaigns could be held in air-tight containers in which our theorems could operate without disturbance from the vagaries of reality. Certainly no one has been blind to the possibility that terrorism at home or abroad could make an ugly intrusion into the Australian election, but campaigns have a way of obscuring the long-term view and an event such as yesterday’s Jakarta bombing comes as a shock to those of us who had been confidently plotting the future trajectory of Labor’s tax policy bounce. The impact on Labor’s prospects is difficult to assess as there is no obvious precedent for the attack, at least from an Australian perspective. With no serious Australian casualties it will obviously be absorbed more quickly than Bali, whereas the Marriott Hotel bombing provoked less agitation as it did not strike an identifiably Australian target. Nevertheless, comparisons may be instructive. The Marriott Hotel incident of 5 August 2003 did not register in Newspoll, not too surprisingly, but the Government received a bounce following the Bali bombing of 12 October 2002 that appeared to sustain it through to the following February. However, it might be said that such an effect scaled down in proportion to yesterday’s less wounding atrocity wouldn’t last the remaining four weeks of the campign.
A variable on this occasion is that the Iraq war has taken place since the Bali bombing, and some have predicted the Government will be blamed for having made Australia a terrorist target. Others argue that the Coalition will benefit from their perceived toughness and the advantages that accrue to the incumbent in dangerous times, and this appears to carry more weight. No doubt there is a large constituency that is ready to link terrorism to the iniquities of western leaders, but it contains few swinging voters. The more important factor on this occasion is that the front pages have been cleared of election coverage just as Labor’s campaign was building a head of steam.