Are Coalition scare campaigns running out of steam?

Scare or fear campaigns are as old as politics.  Scare the daylights out of the plebs and then pledge to protect them.  Better still, scare them about what your opponents are proposing to do, or even what you think they are going to do, or even what you have erroneously or dishonestly claimed they are going to do, and then commit yourself to not doing that.  Fear is corrosive and evokes a desire for protection from the threat.

When the general public wallowed in ignorance, fire and brimstone preachers of another era could instil the fear of eternal damnation, purgatory and an eternity in the fires of hell among those who disobeyed them, disbelieved them or even entertained different views.  The subjects quivered in terror, obedience followed.  In settings other than ecclesiastic, fear worked wonders – fear of losing one’s job ensured compliant workers, fear of tempest made taking shelter obligatory, and fear of the consequence of political decisions made voters apprehensive and ready to look elsewhere for leadership. [more]

Even with an educated public, politicians still believe they can scare voters sufficiently to have them change their mind.  There are examples of this, as Dennis Atkins pointed out yesterday in The Courier Mail in a piece Coalition begins tax attack: “Any student of politics knows a properly constructed tax scare can kill an insurgent advance. The best examples in recent history were the Fraser government's ‘tax on the family home’ bogey that sank Labor's Bill Hayden in 1980 and the Paul Keating demolition of John Hewson's goods and services tax in 1993.”  But this is not exactly recent history.  Are the people as naive now as they may have been then?  The Coalition must think so because all this week in Question Time it has been asking the PM and Treasurer to ‘rule out’ tax increases in the light of the Henry Tax Review, particularly capital gains tax on expensive family homes.  Presumably based on stories in The Weekend Australian that the Government insists are pure fiction, the Coalition spin doctors must have some belief that the tax increase bogey will work again.

The Coalition is enamoured of scare campaigns.  For some time the Nationals and some Liberals have been running a climate change scare campaign that has predicted massive job losses with the CPRS, the exporting of countless jobs, companies and emissions overseas, the devastation of agriculture and the driving of the cost of the Sunday roast to $100.  The Coalition ran a scare campaign continually about the Government’s stimulus package, saying it was too much too soon, poorly targeted reckless spending that would do no good at all, would not create one job, but would rack up massive deficit and debt that would burden generations long into the future.  The deficit and debt mantra was the subject of a TPS piece on 13 May The Coalition’s Budget Rap – deficit and debt, deficit and debt.  Then the Coalition ‘debt truck’ was resurrected with a $318 billion ‘debt bomb’ graphically adorning the mobile display, and paraded around Perth on a trailer.  The initial scare campaign did seem to gain a little traction since it coincided with a small improvement in the Coalition’s and Malcolm Turnbull’s poll ratings, but that spectacularly evaporated in the wake of the OzCar fake email affair.  This episode seriously damaged Turnbull’s credibility and the Coalition’s with it, damage that continues to this day.  This may explain why the re-launched debt truck has had no affect on ratings at all.  We haven’t seen it lately.  What is more, with the help of the stimulus packages, Australia is now sailing out of the economic whirlpool into which it was being drawn, giving the lie to the reckless spending jibe and the debt and deficit scare campaign.

This week’s ACNielsen poll gives Turnbull a net satisfaction rating of negative 30 points with 60% disapproval.  Can a man with this woeful satisfaction rating expect anyone to even listen to him, let alone believe what he says?  His rating of 17% as preferred Opposition leader puts him third behind Peter Costello on 35% (and he’s not available) and Joe Hockey on 19%.  In this week’s Essential Research Report Turnbull on 12% ranks fourth behind ‘Don’t know’ 33%, ‘Someone else’ 24%, and Hockey on 16%.  Even among Coalition voters, only 26% think Turnbull is the best leader of the Liberal Party.  With credibility as low as that, how can he convincingly ‘sell’ a scare campaign about tax.

Another Coalition scare campaign couples tax rises with rising interest rates.  Turnbull insists that to pay off the debt, the Government will raise taxes, and interest rates will go up.  He hopes people will believe him and vote him in as PM next year to save Australia from Labor’s profligacy and financial mismanagement.  Faint hope.

The thesis of this piece is that Turnbull and the Coalition have so lost the ear of the people, have so lost their trust, have so destroyed their standing as a credible alternative government, that few are listening, even fewer believing, fewer still ready to follow them.  Their scare campaigns are running out of steam and will fall flat.  They may well prove to be a negative for them.  The rationale for this view is that the electorate is much more perspicacious than the Coalition acknowledges.  When the OzCar affair occurred pollsters must have wondered how that episode would be reflected in the polls.  They didn’t have to wonder for long.  When they came out right after the event, they were disastrous for Turnbull who recorded the heaviest fall in satisfaction in Newspoll polling history.  Clearly the people were watching, listening and judging.  They were not a detached, poorly informed bunch disinterested in politics that some believed them to be.  That episode ought to have convinced even the most sceptical observers that the voters are not stupid, dumb and disconnected from the political process.  They can judge who’s trying hard and who’s just knocking.  They can judge who’s trustworthy and who’s not.  They can sniff disingenuous behaviour a mile away.

If the Coalition persists with its tax scare campaign, it will quickly run out of steam, wallow, and drift even further behind, splashing around in the wake of the Government’s ship of state as it steams ahead, steering Australia on a steady course towards economic recovery.  And no one will throw the Coalition a lifeline.

What do you think?

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19/08/2009Well, there was a Radio National series a couple of years ago about the Liberals. To me, it seemed that the only way they have got into power (from Menzies on) is using scare campaigns. History repeating itself - I wonder if they know how to produce positive policy?


19/08/2009Well I think that you are mainly but not entirely right. I agree the public is smarter than the pundits think, in fact the arrogance of the pundits in presuming the masses are thick and apathetic is irritating, but constant repitition, of any one of the examples of mantra mumbling referred to previously, will, I reckon, have an impact on voters. Over time. Remember the debt and deficit mantra was, apparently, depite being about as soundly founded in fact as this latest shrieking mantra [can you shriek a mantra?] having an impact in the polls. As a positive for the COALition even if not for Mal himself. Some people, not many perhaps, but some, were influenced enough by the debt/deficit mantra to swing from the Greens/ALP to the forces of darkness. And I reckon some of that few will stay on the dark side. Similarly a few may cross the chasm to the COALition, and some reside there at least semi-permanently, on this current beat up. And the next, and the next. Drip drip drip. Wears away the stone, eventually. Maybe. I'm a pessimist.

Bushfire Bill

19/08/2009A quick correction, AA. You wrote: [i]"... that few are listening, even fewer believing, fewer still ready to follow them."[/i] Shouldn't that be: "that few are ready to follow them, even fewer listening, fewer still believing them"? Just a quibble. I noticed that, after The Australian ran the story on the weekend, this topic developed as one of their classic bootstrappers. Within a day or so Liberal MPs were quoting "newspaper stories". Note the disconnect between "The Australian" and "newspapers". Pretty soon we should expect The Australian's complemantary reference to stop referring to "Coalition MPs", substituting "widespread criticism". The Australian is famous for its Tax Scares. I remember from my youth the perennial bootstrapper was "The Tax Revolt". Apparently The Australian had detected that the people were in "revolt" against the tax "hikes" and "Grabs" about to eminate from whatever-Labor-government-that-was-in-power-at-the-time. The idea was that if you opened your window you would see thousands of angry taxpayers marching through the streets, with torches and pitchforks presumably, zeroing in on Parliament House. So many "experts", "commentators", "accountancy experts", "business people", "investors" and "home owners" were being quoted in the string of stories, there just [i]had[/i] to be a crowd outside ready to lynch the Labor Treasurer. Of course, if you really [i]did[/i] open your window, all you'd see outside was life as usual. But such is the nature of the bootstrapper that they hoped you never would open that window and look outside for yourself. The current "Can you rule out new taxes?" campaign may as well be asking, "Can you rule out that husbands will stop beating their wives". There is no answer. There is only political cat-calling no matter [i]what[/i] the answer is. Swan is correct to refuse to answer these questions.


19/08/2009Is the coalition dirt unit now ensconced in the offices of Ltdnews? It would appear so as the libs are out of funds, out of policies, out of office and out of luck. So what is left why a good old scare campaign, reds under the bed done, yellow peril done, in comes baldrick alias any lib you can think of, a cunning plan. Tax hikes on the old family castle, those dastardly Labor tykes just up their alley. Right we are home and hose, into power at the flick of a leopards tail. Now what does Joe/Josephine Public think oh oh oh damm they are not reading the newspapers they all on the bloody Internet thanks to the NBN cash splash we are all rooned. WHEN will these clowns learn they are no longer trusted have no credibility and just oppose for opposing sakes. If it’s not in their interest let alone the National interest forget it, their interest is the same as the National interest. Yeah right.


19/08/2009I think to date, apart from the short time before the fake email, the Govt. has been able to answer every scare campaign with telling us that the Libs have only got that line to take. They've got nothing else. Heard Hockey admit this afternoon that he is not averse to taxes going up, that they have no tax plan and are waiting for the Henry report. Still doesn't stop them acting like dolts but that I think most of the mob are switched off (except for their old demographic which has always fallen for the scare tactic).

Sir Ian Crisp

19/08/2009Ad Astra, try typing in ‘ALP uses scare tactics’ on Google™© and you will see that both major Australian political parties are incapable of transcending the grubbiness that is known as Australian politics. I read an article in one of our papers that highlighted the shallowness of thought which is entrenched in both our major political parties and their reliance on scare campaigns. It said something like (after the election of Howard for another term)…For their crime at the ballot box the people of ‘western Sydney’ are currently being portrayed as self-indulgent toads and dullards who are intellectually susceptible to scare campaigns about interest rates ― as opposed, obviously enough, to those dispassionate and ferociously impartial information campaigns about Liberal disunity (1987), the absence of a coalition health policy (1990), or the impact of a 15 per cent GST on the cost of living (1993). Didn’t the mighty ALP folk hero EG Whitlam opening his “It’s Time” campaign at the Blacktown Civic Centre ― right in the heart of ‘western Sydney’ and it’s self-indulgent toads, dullards and intellectually challenged canaille? Ad Astra: bribes, scare campaigns, lies, obfuscation, deceit, theatre of the depraved and other ‘entertainments’ ― things honest people would normally shun are eagerly embraced by our political parties.

Ad astra reply

20/08/2009Paul, fred, It would be unlikely that scare campaigns will cease to have an affect. Some will be gullible enough to believe the scare no matter how disingenuous it is. The thrust of this piece is that the effect of a scare campaign depends to a considerable extent on the credibility of those promoting it, and that the Coalition and its leader have so lost credibility that their scare campaigns will remain largely ineffective until they become a credible force in Australian politics. Using another metaphor, they have been shown to have ‘cried wolf’ over the bank guarantee, the stimulus packages, the school-building programme and the Stern Hu affair; add to that the further loss of credibility over the OzCar fake email affair; add to that the success the Government seems to be having handling the GFC, and you have one party that has very few runs on the board and is on the nose, and the other that seems so far to be having success. Both put out propaganda, but which will the people believe? So what I’m saying is that the extent to which scare campaigns can work is strongly correlated with the credibility of their promoters. The Coalition would be well advised to warehouse its scare campaigns until its credibility returns and the people once again begin to listen and believe, as will surely happen over time, perhaps a very long time. BB, I was using the word ‘follow’ not in the sense of ‘keeping an eye on them’, but in the sense of ‘going along with them’. That is why I used the sequence: listening, believing, following (going along with them). You’re right, [i]The Australian[/i] seems complicit in this scare campaign. Did they start it, or were they fed it by the Coalition? Where did the rumour/leak come from? It seems obvious now that Kevin Rudd has ‘taken on’ News Limited, unwilling as he is to wear the biased stories they run about him and his Government. It has a way to go yet. Like you, I detest those references to unspecified ‘widespread criticism’, unnamed ‘reliable sources’, or ‘informed authorities’ which I suspect means something journos heard in the tea room or in the press gallery or at the pub. Your list: ‘experts’, ‘commentators’, ‘accountancy experts’, ‘business people’, ‘investors’ and ‘home owners’ ring many a bell in my head. It really is outrageous that such sloppy journalism or malevolent writing, whichever it is, can occur. I believe though that bloggers such as us do have some small influence. Journalists do read blogs; it would be only the most barefaced that would ignore the comments bloggers make. So I guess we have to just keep hacking away, and call their ‘bootstrapping’ efforts for what they are. The ‘can you rule out’ caper is as old as journalism, and despite its inherent flaw as a legitimate question, is still trotted out even by experienced journalists such as Kerry O’Brien and Tony Jones, always looking for a gotcha moment. Frankly, it’s about time politicians refused to answer such a question. In QT, Wayne Swan was getting close to that – the short stinging answer always sounds better that the long and usually futile attempt to answer the unanswerable question. Bilko, You ask [i]“When will these clowns learn they are no longer trusted have no credibility and just oppose for opposing sakes?”[/i] Frankly, I have no idea. It seems as if they roll on like zombies doing what they’ve always done, still believing it will work as it has done previously. They seem oblivious of the political context in which they are working. If I were a Coalition member I’d be standing up in the party room and demanding this nonsensical scare campaign cease as no one but the rusted on will likely believe it and worse still it’s making the party look stupid and inept. Watching Joe Hockey ask his questions yesterday I sensed his heart was not in it and he was just going through the motions to satisfy the party room ‘strategy’. BH, I agree, [i]“most of the mob are switched off (except for their old demographic which has always fallen for the scare tactic).”[/i] That is why I asserted that their campaign is running out of steam and is doing them more harm than good. But they seem hell-bent on self destruction. Sir Ian, Of course you’re right, all political parties indulge in scare campaigns and they have been successful. The thrust of this piece is simply that with such shattered credibility, any scare campaign the Coalition runs is likely not just to fail, but to further diminish its credibility, just as the credibility of the boy who called wolf was finally destroyed. While it might be true that [i]”bribes, scare campaigns, lies, obfuscation, deceit, theatre of the depraved and other ‘entertainments’ ― things honest people would normally shun are eagerly embraced by our political parties.”[/i] it doesn’t have to be this way. Hope springs eternal that this type behaviour will be discarded by the people, who look to their politicians for better. Of course politicians could promote this by behaving honestly.

Just Me

20/08/2009Scare campaigns can work very well, but only when used sparingly. When used as the default day-to-day tactic, they quickly loses their potency, particularly in open democracies where voters can get info from alternative sources and be much better informed. I am surprised that a major political party, with a solid long term track record of electoral success, is not heeding this basic rule of political psychology. They really must be in pieces at the moment.


20/08/2009Just a passing thought that I grabbed before it escaped. I don't reckon there is much doubt that the credibility of the COALition is not what it used to be and Ad Astra gives several fiascos as contributing to that. I'm just wondering how powerful an influence the Lindsay pamphlets affair was in this respect, the demolition of credibility of the Libs etc over scare campaigns. Caught absolutely redhanded in one of the most 'deshpikkable' dirty tricks imaginable I suspect it was a turning point for lots of fair minded Australians.


20/08/2009Actually Fred I think Lyndsay was more the confirmation (Libs = Dirty tricks/scum) most were looking for after they tried to saddle us with "SlaveChoices". Cheers Eb.


20/08/2009At the last election Labor ran a series of "anti-ads" (for want of a better description). You may remember the format. They were set in a boardroom with a TV on the table. The TV would show a few seconds of a current (then) Liberal ad, then Kev would grab the remote and switch off the telly, to speak through the camera directly to the audience in response to the message of the Liberal ad. This coming election I wonder if they might develop this a little further. They could start by showing a snatch of 2007's scare ads: the ones saying that a Labor government would be under the heel of the "70 per cent trade union bosses" bogeymen. Kev could switch off the TV and ask the audience (through the camera): "Well, was there any truth to what the Liberals were saying in those scare ads last election? Of course not. You have seen that the Rudd government is not and never was under the control of 'union bosses'. The Liberal told you porkies as they tried to scare the heck out of you. Right now they are running *another* scare campaign, this time about debt and deficit. Again they're trying to deceive you and scare you. Don't be fooled. Don't fall for the latest Liberal Fear Campaign." ... Or words to that effect. You get the idea. The Liberals and their sordid Fiberal manipulation techniques have to be shown up for what they are. This might be a way to do it. Think this idea could have legs?

Ad astra reply

20/08/2009Just Me, The Coalition are in pieces, in fact more fragmented than Labor was at its worst. Turnbull seems to have lost authority over his party; the Nationals and some Liberals just do as they please. Some even walked out of QT. He seems never to have come round to the fact that running a political party is not like running a business where employees do as they’re told. He has not mastered the skill of uniting party members who disagree with each other. They behave as if they should be able to do what they want. It reminds me of a situation where the school master has lost control of his class – Summer Heights High all over again. fred, Ebenezer You’re probably right. The Lindsay affair may well still linger in people’s memories. It certainly stymied the Liberal campaigning in the pre-election days; even Peter Costello acknowledges that. Rx, Your ideas for the Labor election campaign sound attractively plausible. I hope someone from the Labor re-election team reads your idea and give it the legs it deserves.

George Younan

20/08/2009these are not scare tactics or campaigns but a wakeup call to all those who are caught up in the governments rhetoric, what the government is actually doing, is running a campaign against the opposition as a mirror of themselves. "To simplify it" as the PM would say - so it can’t be repeated by the opposition.


20/08/2009I also noticed the movement in the polls with the debt and deficit line being pushed by the Coalition. It would appear though, that the Coalition are unable to maintain any coherent line about anything as Turnbull has no authority within his party or across the Coalition. The Libs. are in an unenviable position. They can't ditch Turnbull because they haven't anyone else and they need his money, and they certainly can't make any gains with the electorate with him as leader because he's shot his credibility with the fake email affair. It's all very well shouting "boo" at someone, but if, when they look at you and see a bloviating marshmallow, well the scare thing has just deflated really.

Ad astra reply

21/08/2009George, Welcome to [i]The Political Sword[/i]. Political scare campaigns are defined in a 2003 paper [i]Scare Campaigns: Negative Political Advertising in Australia[/i] by Dr Sally Young of The University of Melbourne as [quote]“making false claims about...opponents or reducing complex issues to simplified slogans”[/quote]. The claim that the Government is about to introduce new taxes including a capital gains tax on the family home is supposition, based presumably on stories in [i]The Weekend Australian[/i], which the Government has stated are ‘fiction’. Quite properly Wayne Swan is not going to deny or confirm any rumour about the recommendations of the upcoming Henry Tax Review. Until the Review is published, any predictions about tax increases are speculative. As they are the basis of the Opposition’s campaign, it therefore remains a ‘scare campaign’. This sort of campaign has worked for them in the past, so they’re trying it again. Of course the Government is running its own campaign against the Opposition, asserting that it is so divided as to be unfit for government, and that Malcolm Turnbull lacks the judgement and authority necessary to lead it and be the alternative PM. You may wish to call that a ‘scare campaign’, but at least the Government has plenty of hard evidence, which is already in the public domain, to back its campaign. monica, You’re right – the debt and deficit campaign did get some traction but that was lost with the fallout from the OzCar fake email affair. Once the credibility and authority of the perpetrator is eroded, any new scare campaign will have difficulty gaining traction, and any old one will lose momentum.


21/08/2009aa "Of course the Government is running its own campaign against the Opposition, asserting that it is so divided as to be unfit for government, and that Malcolm Turnbull lacks the judgement and authority necessary to lead it" this is fact not fiction and so does not qualify as a scare campaign, the scary bit is IF Turnbull ever became PM, I need a tranquilliser after saying that

Ad astra reply

21/08/2009Bilko, There would be a rush on tranquillizers if MT ever became PM.

Sir Ian Crisp

22/08/2009Ad Astra, I think you should lower your expectations. The latest headlines suggest that the current camorra of grubs in Canberra can’t even resist the temptation of raiding the taxpayers’ piggybank in order to buy things like chocolates, lollies and batteries. It seems that once a politician is introduced to the trough an anaclitic relationship is formed. On the same day that the ‘lolly buying’ was reported we had Peter Garrett, alleged MP, issuing warnings to firms about rorting. Comedy of the highest order for sure. I can picture you sitting in your study blissfully woolgathering about the day when politicians are decent, honest, accountable and people of the highest calibre. Meanwhile, behind your back, our politicians are carefully planning raids on the taxpayers’ purse. I was right: our politicians are grubs.


22/08/2009Aa sorry off topic but "wooley Days " has a brilliant story of a blogger chasing ltdnews over a copywright issue


22/08/2009AA off topic from "Blogotariat ABC TV let the cat out of the bag last night and the NSW Nats are red faced and protesting that purchasing this domain name and setting it up with Melbourne Information Technologies Australia Pty Ltd was sooooo innocent - not namejacking the Premier at all, at all: Whois Record Domain Name: Registrar ID: Melbourne IT Registrar Name: Melbourne I Status: ok Registrant: NATIONAL PARTY OF AUSTRALIA - NSW Registrant ID: ABN 40538388169 Eligibility Type: Registered Business Registrant Contact ID: 0322O988805 Registrant Contact Name: NATIONAL PARTY OF AUSTRALIA - NSW Read more » the dirt unit has moved to the NSW Nat office unless it is the Lindsay leaflet scam mob getting clever

Ad astra reply

23/08/2009Sir Ian, I heard about that but haven’t yet read the article. It always amazes me that well-paid people find it so difficult to resist these little perks. Although such behaviour might be described as ‘grubby’, I still have the view that most politicians do want to make a difference and improve our country. A minority seem self-centred and a few are crooks. The bad apples give the rest a bad reputation. Also, those who write the rules governing the use of expense allowances should be more conscious of the perceptions that even minor misuse can create, especially in the hands of tabloid journalists, and phrase them more explicitly. I would use prefer to use the word ‘grubby’ to describe the behaviour Bilko is talking about where a political party registers a domain name using an opponent’s actual name. It’s hard to invoke any legitimate non-political reason for doing this. It looks and smells adversarial. Bilko, Back at my computer after a day away. I’ll try to track down ‘Wooley Days’. Re the Nats and the domain name, what on earth were they proposing to do with The only reason I can conjure up is that they intended to post things on what seemed to be a Nathan Rees site that would place him in a poor light. Shades of the Lindsay pamphlet! Given the disaster that was, one would assume that any sensible party operative would avoid like the plague inept behaviour like this.


23/08/2009aa some people never learn. They look to be on a winner in NSW but this sort of publicity could easily do them serious damage, if only the NSW labor mob would extract their collective fingers and get their act together.
How many umbrellas are there if I have two in my hand but the wind then blows them away?