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?