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Why Labor’s Mediscare worked
While the AEC continues to work through the backlog of uncounted votes from Saturday’s election, political pundits have been preoccupied with the question of why the Liberals performed so poorly in polling.
In a search for a simplistic and catch-all narrative, many – including Malcolm Turnbull himself – have pointed to Labor’s Medicare scare campaign as the deciding factor.
Trying to reduce an event as complex as a Federal Election to a single cause is always going to be a fool’s errand. An election is not won or lost on any single tactic, but by cumulative missteps. Crucially, one should not ignore the various contexts in which the vote was held: the eight weeks of the election campaign; the three years of the past Liberal Government; and the decades in which the public have built up their baseline perceptions of each party (what I like to refer to as our collective political mythology – the idea that Labor are bad with the economy and the Liberals are in bed with big business).
That isn’t to say that Labor’s scare campaign wasn’t effective – it certainly was – but let us not be so foolish as to ignore why this was so.
At some subconscious or gut level, the campaign was believable.
Though Turnbull assured voters his government had no plans to privatise Medicare, public trust in politicians is at an all-time low – and let’s not forget Turnbull has credibility issues of his own.
During the 2013 election, then-Opposition Leader Tony Abbott made a very clear commitment that, if elected, the Liberal Party would not make cuts to health and education.
When he and Treasurer Joe Hockey delivered their first budget, they broke that commitment – and not in some minor or technical sense: they shattered it with a blatancy that bordered on contempt, and the public never forgave them for it.
That broken promise haunts the Liberals to this day.
Then there is the matter of Turnbull’s “economic plan”. Given the experience with Abbott and Hockey – and the ever-growing budget deficit – it was academic that once the Liberal Party were returned to power they would make considerable, unannounced cuts to the budget. The only question was where the axe would land.
While the Liberal Party’s refusal to discuss or disclose these looming budget cuts during an election campaign is understandable, it had the effect of only increasing fear and anxiety around cuts to health.
Though Turnbull assured voters that his government had no plans to privatise Medicare, the public’s trust in promises made by politicians during election campaigns is at an all-time low – and let’s not forget that Turnbull has credibility issues of his own.
It’s been no secret that he has had to compromise on his personal views regarding issues like marriage equality and climate change in order to placate the conservative Right wing of his party. What is to say his hand could not be forced on the issue of health funding, too? (Observe the internal war currently raging between Turnbull and Bernadi, with the latter honestly believing that the election was lost because their platform was not conservative enough.)
The Liberal Party has a history of being less-than-enthusiastic about Medicare. The policy is, after all, a left-leaning Labor Party policy with socialist roots. The classic Liberal Party position has been to privatise public service and assets where it can. This Ghost of Liberal Past still whispers in the ear of voters, in the same way that they hear rumours of Labor union thuggery and poor economic management.
In short, the scare campaign worked because it effectively echoed and amplified the public’s already existent fears, and aligned with voters’ lived experience of the outgoing Liberal Government.
That is not to say that Labor doesn’t deserve heavy criticism for the tactic – the scare campaign certainly pushed the boundaries of what can be considered ethical or acceptable – but it should be placed into proper context.
Was the campaign all that different from the Liberals’ accusations that Labor was running “a war on business”? Or that Labor’s proposed changes to negative gearing will lead to a drastic fall in house prices? Or the various other invocations of certain economic doom should Labor be elected?
This Ghost of Liberal Past still whispers in the ear of voters. The scare campaign worked because it echoed and amplified the public’s already existent fears and experience.
Sadly, wilful distortions and outright lies have become all too common in our political discourse. In an effort to provide soundbites which “cut through”, MPs are increasingly resorting to producing mantra-like repetitions of polarising slogans – and they’re certainly finding it a lot easier than producing and selling complex policy change.
Tony Abbott was the master of the soundbite when in Opposition, but when he actually seized power it became apparent that he had failed to develop a coherent policy vision for the future.
By endlessly repeating the line that the Liberal Party “has a plan for jobs and growth”, Turnbull has cast himself in a similar light: all talk and little policy substance. A corporate tax cut does not an economic policy make.
We should all be furious about the base and deceitful turn our political discourse has taken over the last decade. The polls reflect voters’ disillusionment: they’re turning to minor parties and independents more than ever before. From a long-term perspective, I can only see this as a positive thing. Our political system needs to undergo significant change.
But as for the claim that Labor, in a vacuum, have created a singularly deceitful scare campaign that cost the righteous Liberals the election: please, spare me.