who cares?


The recent revelation that the Reserve Bank complained to the AEC about a campaign leaflet distributed by the Liberal party during last year’s election campaign has led to calls for greater scrutiny of political advertising. Greens leader Bob Brown has called for a commission to be set up to vet advertising to ensure its ‘truth’. Section 52 of the Trade Practices Act has been raised, possibly creating some recourse against deceptive and misleading political ads. Labor leader Kim Beazley claimed the ad in question to be the greatest fraud perpetrated on the Australian people during his time in politics.

For all these bold statements, one would expect some sort of reaction from voters. Given the recent interest rate rise, such revelations might be expected to reinforce public discontentment, turning off more voters from the Coalition. However, in the latest Newspoll conducted last week, the net effect was zero. Compared to the interest rate issue itself, the political squabbling over a few leaflets made no discernible difference to public opinion.

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Thanks to Peter Nicholson at the Australian

Two underlying themes explain this distinct lack of interest. Firstly, political mudslinging, negative campaigns and downright slander are as old as democracy itself. Compared to ancient Athens or republican Rome, our elections are refreshingly devoid of threats of exile or street brawls between rival groups of supporters. The vast majority of voters expect politicians to lie, pork barrel and otherwise abuse the system to get re-elected. Integrity is a virtue largely the preserve of country independents and Catholic nuns. The Democrats, the party committed to ‘keeping the bastards honest’ is regarded more as a circus than a circuit breaker.

Secondly, voters look at the substance of issues, the central question of right and wrong. Hence the Australian response to the Iraq war casts the majority as supporting the invasion, despite misgivings about the absence of UN approval and doubts over weapons of mass destruction. The removal of Saddam Hussein is a fairly impossible outcome to argue with.

This phenomenon was also at work in the children overboard affair. The core point was that a majority of the public considered ‘queue jumpers’ to be the kind of people who would throw their children into the sea to capitalise on the decency of naval personnel. Whether they did or not became almost irrelevant for mainstream discourse. Liberal party advertising and the statements of ministers reinforced old fears of marauding hordes, creating a convenient outlet for insecure voters to vent their frustrations upon.

The interest rate leaflet is another case in point. When asked about the 2001 election, then Liberal campaign director Lynton Crosby gave credit for the victory to interest rates. The 2004 election proved this statement to be prophetic. Massive swings in mortgage belt areas created the impression of a landslide victory. Almost the sole reason for this result was the saturation message ‘keep interest rates low’. Memories of 17 per cent interest rates haunted some of the very people who might otherwise have gone for a more aspirational message. Despite it being well known in financial circles that this was a load of rubbish and that the credit for low interest rates lay with the Hawke-Keating reforms, Labor did next to nothing to counter these perceptions. The handful of ads screened dismissed Liberal claims without providing any evidence for Labor’s role in Australia’s economic success. This was akin to laying sandbags to fend off a tsunami: Latham and Labor were swept away and dashed to pieces in the forests of Tasmania.

To prevent such deceptive and misleading advertising having effect in future, two courses are open. The first requires differentiation: all politicians lie “ why is this worse? What issues are at stake? Presently, the general view is that this is the system and how it is supposed to function. This perception can only be changed by portraying these excesses as not being merely bad in themselves, but eating away at the core values of Australia and Australians.

Than, having appealed to values such as a fair go, personal responsibility and the like, politicians must work to restore some sense of integrity and present the groundwork for their policies. Only when confidence is restored at some level will grave abuses of the system be visible on the radar of public opinion and produce support for such estoteric ideals as truth in political advertising.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.