The thing foreign observers probably notice most about United States election campaigns is the extraordinary quantity and virulence of negative advertising – ABC’s Lateline showed some choice examples earlier this week.

One might almost think the Victorian ALP was watching, because yesterday they brought out their own attack ad against Liberal leader Ted Baillieu – a TV spot that accuses his real estate company of benefiting from school closures under the Kennett government.

“Yes, he not only backed selling schools, his real estate agency sold them.”

By American standards it’s tame stuff, but it’s the sort of ad we’re really not used to in Australia. Of course we have negative advertising – remember “Memories”, the bull in the china shop, the Guilty Party, and so on – but they’ve generally been political in nature, focusing on real or alleged shortcomings in policy or administration.

This is something a bit different; it links in to a policy issue, but the question of financial gain – which Baillieu does not deny – gives it a very personal edge.

Conventional wisdom is that Australians don’t like dirty campaigning and react against it, but there’s very little evidence either way.

Clearly there are both cultural and structural factors that have given us a different style of campaigns to the Americans, but it’s not clear what is cause and what is effect.

It may be that the reason we don’t like this sort of ad is just its unfamiliarity, and that if parties go further down this track – the anti-Latham ads of the last federal campaign were another step that way – then voters will come to take them in their stride and use the information as much (or as little) as they use any other advertising.

That may not be good for democracy, but at least it could spice up our TV viewing.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey