‘Dear swinging voters with mortgages, if you vote for the opposition, your interest rates will go up’. That was the essence of John Howard’s campaign launch speech yesterday.
Australian politics is replete with scare campaigns, but this is probably the lamest one we have seen in recent elections. Economists and other experts have already put the lie to it, but that doesn’t stop Howard repeating it over and over again. The Coalition obviously thinks it works by provoking some anxiety out in the mortgage belt electorates.
The other old bogey – one that has been dished out regularly in Coalition campaign launches over the past five decades – was the spectre of union control: ‘Labor would return control of industrial relations to the union movement.’ It’s a key feature of policy speeches (on both sides) that they usually include a play upon traditional hatreds. Communism, elites and the unions are the Coalition’s favourites.
Aside from the threat and fear element, Howard’s speech at the Coalition’s Brisbane campaign launch was a prime example of a twin set of practices that are now endemic in Australian politics: targeting and electoral bribery.
Howard and his advisers slice the electorate into discreet segments that they try to buy off during the election by handing out economic ‘rewards’ (bribes). There were tidbits not only for the mortgage belt, but for older Australians, for stay-at-home mums and families with young children.
Also on show was Howard’s continuing attempt at what he calls ‘base-broadening’ “ trying to win over voters who traditionally make up your opponent’s support base. At the 1996 election, the Coalition had some success in winning over blue collar workers “ especially male blue collar workers. This is a group that it continues trying to wrest away from Labor. Aside from the electoral impact in a tight election race, what could be more demoralising for a self-proclaimed ‘labour party’ than to see ‘working class’ Australians vote for the Liberals?
The attempt to chip off (or ‘wedge’) Labor’s base was most obvious in Howard’s speech when he claimed that: ‘The Coalition has been a better friend of the workers of Australia than Labor could ever dream of being’.
‘Base-broadening’ also helps explain why, during his speech, Howard attempted to link himself with his opponents and piggy-back onto one of Labor’s crowning policy glories. He argued that: ‘Both sides of politics in Australia are committed to the maintenance of Medicare. There is no argument between the Labor Party and the Coalition on Medicare’. He obviously felt it was an important message because he repeated it again toward the end of his speech: ‘I said earlier that there were many issues that divided the Government and the Labor Party, but one of them was not Medicare’.
Howard couldn’t resist throwing in his favourite rhetorical flourish: ‘mateship’ (twice). He also used another tactic to try to empathise with the ‘battlers’ when he stated that: ‘I want an Australian nation in which a high quality technical education is as prized as a university degree’ (to much applause from the party faithful at the launch). I haven’t yet heard a journalist ask why, if Howard values technical education so much, he didn’t send his children to trade school rather than university? (One recently asked whether Latham will send his son to a public school, provoking an angry response from Latham).
‘Choice’ is one of the most over-used and under-explained terms in political discourse. Howard used it a lot in his speech, even though sending their children to private school or staying at home to look after them full-time aren’t really ‘choices’ at all for many Australians.
According to ACOSS, in 2000, ‘one in seven children lived below the poverty line.’ And, in 2004, the ‘number of people relying on unemployment benefit for over a year … is still about the same as it was seven years ago. One in six children is growing up in a jobless family.’
So although there was a good dose of party drum beating about Australia’s ‘strong economy’, and $6 billion of high spending promises aimed at middle Australia, there were also real contradictions between the ‘strong economy’ that Howard emphasised and the circumstances of the real ‘forgotten people’.
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