The Negative Art


He looks angry.

Peter Debnam shucks and dives around the screen like a boxer dodging punches. Claustrophobic, slightly panicked and adrenaline high, his face takes up the entire TV screen.

Don’t worry, he’s not going to hit you, but, he is going to hit someone. Like any good boxer, he waits for the opportunity to land a perfect uppercut. You can almost see it coming, this king hit. The galloping cadence of his voice is like a muscle tensing. Each sentence is a punch. ‘Mr Iemma and his Ministers are in crisis more worried about their own survival than fixing the State’s problems,’ he says.

It’s a quick jab. You can see his teeth. Some are crooked.

‘When something’s rotten to the core, there is no choice but to get rid of it.’ A straight across the jaw, maybe a cross.

‘When something’s rotten, there’s no choice but to get rid of it,’ he says, delivering the final blow.

Like the punch Ali held back from Foreman in the ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ you get the impression Debnam is holding something back too. He looks too mad and he barely has time to blink when the screen fades to black and encourages you to ‘vote for the Liberal Party.’

It’s little wonder he’s fit to kill. Peter Debnam has been the victim of negative political advertising, a staple of the modern political diet. Like ‘Rumble in the Jungle,’ where the crowd chanted ‘Ali, bomaye!‘ (‘Ali, kill Him!’) as Foreman entered the ring, Debnam has realised just how negative advertising can get.

Back in October last year, a month before Debnam’s attack ad, the NSW Labor Party chanted its own version of bomaye. In a Labor organised meeting at Harris Park, participants in a focus group were invited to discuss some ‘issues’ surrounding Peter Debnam.

‘Peter Debnam doesn’t understand people like us. He’s the member for Vaucluse, he lives in a multimillion dollar mansion bought by his wife and is a member of the local yacht club … [his]own father struggled with depression and maybe their family has the private resources to deal with it, but other families need help and cannot afford these kind of cuts,’ the crowd was informed.

The issues discussed at the meeting became public knowledge on the November 14 last year, a first strike in the negative strategy. Audience reaction to the accusations would help determine the strategy for the negative campaign.

Yet, except for the seat he represents, none of it was true. But that’s the beauty of a negative campaign. Nuance isn’t really all that important. Debnam does not live in a multimillion dollar mansion (he lives in a block of flats), and his father’s depression was a side effect from a bout of pneumonia.

Negative political advertising is to politics what steroids are to any sport. It’s the black art of the black arts: you name it and the negative ad can do it. It’ll make you angry furious that those bastards in high office would even … It doesn’t appeal to the better angels of your nature it gives them a one fingered salute. It focuses on problems, some real, some imagined. But it does not focus on solutions, and it’s a growing phenomenon in Australian politics.

‘It turns people off the key issues,’ says John Kaye, Green MLC candidate for the upcoming NSW State election. ‘When we spend our time as politicians slagging each other off, we are turning people off engaging in collective thought on those issues, and we’re also wasting airspace for what ought to be dedicated to finding real solutions.’

And Greens candidates should know. In the 2004 Federal election alone, the Greens came up against a hefty campaign of misdirection and smear from some hefty political players. Former Deputy Prime Minister, John Anderson, declared at a National Party meeting in his seat of Page in 2004 that people should be ‘very, very, very afraid of the Greens.’

‘They are watermelons,’ he said, ‘many of them green on the outside and very, very, very red on the inside.’

In South Australia too, the Family First Party released campaign ads with the following inflammatory phrases: ‘Don’t risk it. A vote for the Greens is a vote for extremes.’ ‘Heroin, ecstasy, the Greens want to legalise the whole lot.’ ‘They’re giving my kids easy access to marijuana.’ ‘That’s not Green, Bob, that’s extreme.’

James Arvanitakis, lecturer in Cultural and Social Studies at the University of Western Sydney, considers such negative campaigning as a threat to democratic decision making. ‘I think negative political advertising does harm the political process, I think politicians take advantage of people’s cynicism and you get this message of œbetter the devil you know.  It takes away from specific policy issues.’

Or does it?

Thanks to Alan Moir

On 5 November, 2005, the Federal ALP released a negative ad about John Howard. Really it’s about interest rates. But really it’s about Howard. It starts with Howard at a podium, asking the audience who they trust to keep interest rates low.

Then the screen goes black. From the dark, a low hum swells slightly in the background. A picture of his profile appears on the screen. Howard’s voice is heard again. ‘Who do you trust’ is repeated over and over again as Howard’s nose extends outward like Pinocchio’s, forming a graph of rising interest rates.

A voice asks, ‘Who do you trust now?’

Since the Liberal Party ran their 2004 election campaign on trust, it’s not a surprise that the counter attack played on undermining that trust. Australian politics is taking its lessons from the America of the spinmeister Karl Rove. In the United States, negative campaign ads have been a feature of the electoral process nearly as long as the republic has been up and running.

As far back as 1876, Democratic presidential hopeful Samuel Tilden spread the rumour that Republican Rutherford B Hayes had shot his own mother in an argument. Hayes responded by insinuating that Tilden was a syphilitic thief.

Starting innocuously enough as whisper and innuendo, negative advertising was brought into sharp relief during the US presidential campaign of 1964.

The first modern negative ad, as the ‘daisy girl’ is known, was devastatingly effective. A young girl sits in a field, plucking the petals off a daisy. She counts, ‘one, two, three, four …’ before a stern, militant voice takes over. Ominous, it echoes counting down: ‘six … five … four … three … two … one.’ The camera zooms into the girl’s pupil, until the whole screen is black.

A nuclear bomb detonates, eradicating the darkness in a firestorm. Even in black and white, the image is formidable. Then, dropping an anvil on the hyperbole, President Lyndon Johnson’s voice implores us: ‘We must either love each other, or we must die.’

The words ‘Vote for President Johnson on November 3rd, are the last thing you see.

The ad never mentioned Johnson’s opponent for the 1964 presidential campaign, but the message was clear. A vote for Barry Goldwater was a vote for nuclear war. The ad screened only once, a virtual below the belt shot.

‘Negative advertising is a virus that infects the culture of politics,’ said Kaye, ‘once one side does it, the other side does it and it becomes part of the culture of politics.’

Kaye concedes, though, that it is tough to remain morally pure when you’re on the receiving end of a negative attack. ‘There’s a temptation, but one should resist that sort of temptation. I’ve had various accusations thrown at me over the years. Fred Nile likes to say things about the Greens that are often not true, and there’s a temptation to come back and say things about Fred Nile that are true.’

He pauses a second.

‘But we generally avoid that.’

But despite its growing prominence in Australia, the bla
ck art remain black. No one, at least within the Big-Two Parties, seems willing to talk about it.

Elisabeth Scully, the Communications Director for the State ALP dodged enquires made for this article. The black art spell-casters don’t like to reveal their tricks. Pressed for a comment, she refused: ‘We really don’t comment on negative political advertising or advertising in general,’ she said.

Arvanitakis considers it dangerous to move to dirty-laundry politics. It creates, he says, only an illusion of control, and that handing over the reins to someone whose reputation is in disrepute would create havoc.

The NSW State election is almost upon us. Like all big fights, the stakes are high and the need to win often overshadows the real issues.

During a heady week of dirty politics in November last year, Peter Debnam fired a salvo at Bob Debus. Under cover of parliamentary privilege, the Liberal leader accused Debus of being under investigation by the Police Integrity Commission a negative tactic which seemed to damage Debnam more than the Labor Party.

Trying to reach the leader, at that time, proved very hard, but Matthew Abbott, a Debnam spokesperson, said that with the stakes so high, ‘it’s only going to get worse.’

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