‘Phantom’ campaigning will make a ghost out of democracy

It’s not quite true to say this election campaign is devoid of policy. In fact, the major parties are releasing policy almost every day. This week, for instance, Labor made a reasonably major NDIS announcement, pledging a broad expert review of the scheme and an increase in staff numbers at the agency that runs it.

Meanwhile, the Coalition announced two new hydrogen hubs, and that it would reduce regulation on resources companies. But it doesn’t feel like there’s much policy because there’s no overarching vision that ties these policies together in a compelling way. That makes them bitsy, dry, ultimately forgettable. There are differences between the major parties, but they aren’t vivid or easily distilled.

The Coalition announced on Tuesday two new hydrogen hubs in Western Australia.

That leaves us in the strange situation where the clearest narrative each side is offering is about its opponent, rather than itself. Accordingly, we’re stuck in a negative loop: what most commentary is calling a series of “scare campaigns”. That’s true, but incomplete. Australian politics hasn’t devolved merely into scare campaigns. It’s actually much worse than that.

I’d say a scare campaign is where you take your opponent’s policy and make voters fear it by painting an exaggerated picture of the destruction it will wreak. It’s the stuff of Paul Keating’s attack on John Hewson’s GST, of Whyalla wipe outs and $100 lamb roasts upon the introduction of a carbon tax, and of destitute seniors if Labor takes away their franking credits.

The current example of this is Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor’s dubious claim that Labor’s plan to upgrade our electricity system to take in more renewable energy would make the average consumer $560 worse off per year. No independent analysis backs this claim, and Taylor is yet to release the modelling that supports it.

By that definition, scare campaigns exist in a world of mischievous – even devious – misrepresentation. But, being generous, they have one redeeming feature: the policies in question actually exist. Australian politics is instead being overrun by phantom campaigns, where the policy behind the threat doesn’t exist at all. You simply declare it into existence, then tear your opponent to shreds for having it attributed to them.

The archetype for this is undoubtedly Labor’s 2016 “Mediscare”. That was doubly reprehensible because Labor wouldn’t even put its name to it, masquerading instead as Medicare itself, falsely accusing the Coalition of a plan to privatise it. The 2019 version was the Coalition’s Facebook campaign against Labor’s non-existent “death tax” policy. But 2022 has confirmed that phantom campaigns are now an entrenched feature of our democracy. Both parties are running several of them.

In Labor’s case, they centre around Morrison’s proposed Health Minister Anne Ruston. The first is a kind of Mediscare redux, seizing on comments Ruston made seven years ago that Medicare was “unsustainable”. Labor thus declares a returned Morrison government will make cuts, and repeats this despite the fact the Coalition has emphatically and repeatedly ruled that out.

But the second is even more dishonest. It misrepresents Ruston’s comments on the welfare system in 2020, to allege the Coalition wants to place pensioners on a cashless debit card – which quarantines up to 80 per cent of a person’s welfare, so it cannot be spent on things like alcohol or gambling.

The Coalition has never had such a policy, and Ruston said last year it “never will”. Income management programs like this exist, but are used (controversially) in some remote Indigenous communities and otherwise on a voluntary basis. Ruston’s 2020 remarks were making the largely logistical point that it might be worth moving people already on some income management program, onto a single platform, namely the cashless debit card.

Bill Shorten announced on Tuesday that a Labor government would overhaul the multi-billion dollar NDIS.Credit:Joe Armao

It had nothing whatsoever to do with extending income management to pensioners en masse. And in this case, Labor’s invention isn’t even believable. Even the most cynical view of the Coalition would say that while it might be comfortable imposing such things on Indigenous communities, it would never do that to its own voters, like pensioners. And yet, Labor’s campaign continues in subterranean fashion, largely on Facebook in the manner of its “death taxes” forerunner. Labor surely knows what it is doing.

Meanwhile, Scott Morrison was in Western Australia this week promising that his re-elected government would introduce neither carbon nor mining taxes, as though it were 2010 and Labor hadn’t long since abandoned both.

Online, the Coalition is still running the 2019 campaign, with Facebook ads saying Albanese can’t be trusted with people’s retirement savings because he supported the “retiree tax” at the last election. This is perhaps less blatantly false than Labor’s debit card claims because it doesn’t allege Albanese still has that policy, but it’s certainly in a similar spirit. Much like Mediscare II, it takes a politician’s past position, and implies it is current.

These sorts of campaigns are almost completely disembodied from the particulars of 2022. They are now scripts that can be rolled out with equal (il)legitimacy in any given year. These are phantom campaigns because each side is campaigning not against the other’s platform, but its spectre.

Who needs to criticise a policy, even outlandishly, when you can simply make one up on the basis that, you know, it’s the kind of policy the other mob would have? Boil such campaigns down and they are reduced to: “You can’t vote for the Coalition because they are the Coalition”, and similar for Labor. And so, in a campaign of policy without narrative, it offers the opposite: narrative without policy.

This is insidious. In the aftermath of the 2020 US election, I argued America was becoming a post-democracy: a place with democratic trappings (elections, parties etc), but few of the underlying pre-conditions of democracy, like an even loosely agreed set of facts that might form the basis of a public conversation.

Phantom campaigns – so prevalent in the United States – are a telling sign of that decay. We are nowhere near American levels of dysfunction, cushioned as we are by compulsory and preferential voting. But those buffers can only work for so long.

This week has shown we’re busily working at wearing them down. Campaign with phantoms long enough, and you might eventually find your democracy has become one.

Cut through the noise of the federal election campaign with news, views and expert analysis from Jacqueline Maley. Sign up to our Australia Votes 2022 newsletter here.

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