As lies go, Mediscare was a whopper. The electioneers that conceived and executed it are masters of their dark art, for its consequence was extraordinary.
Phone calls to cancer sufferers telling them their funding would be cut by the Coalition or day-of-poll text messages purporting to be from Medicare asserting imminent privatisation were clearly compelling.
A post-election quantitative study of 1000 voters by JWS Research concluded:
“Health was the dominant issue for voters in the 2016 Federal election campaign, with 57% nominating health issues as a key vote influencer, including 39% who nominated hospitals and health care generally and 38% who mentioned Medicare specifically.
“Medicare was the dominant issue for ALP voters (59%), followed by economic/ taxation issues (50%), education issues (42%) and employment and jobs issues (36%) also rating highly.
“Supporting the late-campaign effect of Labor’s ‘Mediscare’ campaign, there was above average mention of Medicare as a vote influencer amongst people who voted on Election Day (46%) and those who only decided their vote on Election Day (41%).”
It seems probable that Mediscare cost the Coalition between four and six seats, thus a far more respectable majority.
Does this matter?
Fibs are hardly new to election campaigns, and the headline “Politician Fails to Tell Truth” is unlikely to shock. However Mediscare was distinguished by its brazen combination of audacity and marginal seat impact, setting a new benchmark for effective electoral mendacity. (Yes, I’m well aware Angry of Brunswick will rush to the keyboard justifying Mediscare, or citing more outrageous deceits by the Coalition, but for the sake of debate, stay with me.)
A big lie, well told, injected into debate not long before the final whistle can not only change the result very significantly, it carries little or no legal, political or financial risk for the perpetrators after the poll. Champagne anyone?
This is unlikely to escape campaign planners; a strategy that shifts four to six seats can’t be ignored, because elections are lost, not won.
Oppositions don’t win them; their job is to reach minimum expectation in order to remain standing while the incumbent is booted out. Governments don’t win them; their task is to grimly hang on to marginal seats as voters swing against them nationally.
If you reach back through 116 years of Australian federal elections you don’t find a triumphant procession of victors carried to office on the shoulders of ecstatic voters, you see losers wondering what the hell happened when they thought they’d been doing such a wonderful job.
Turnbull toppled Abbott because he wasn’t cutting any mustard for the Australian public. Abbott had been the antidote to an unacceptable Kevin Rudd, who in turn had knifed the unloved Julia Gillard, who had ironically replaced dysfunctional Kevin ’07.
Rudd was the remedy for a decade of John Howard, who originally stayed a sufficiently small target to allow Paul Keating to be ejected. Paul Keating was the replacement we had to have for Bob Hawke who was the crowbar we used to lever out unpopular Malcolm Fraser. Fraser had been needed to replace the untenable Gough Whitlam who called time on woeful William McMahon.
This pattern of incumbent collapse continues back to Edmund Barton and since that time their electioneers have hunted for ways to increase the despicability of the opposition. Within this context Mediscare proves effective falsification a strategy that parties would be cavalier to ignore.
Next election invented scares must surely be anticipated by major parties. In realising that little can be done to counter blatantly confected claims an “if we can’t beat ‘em join ‘em” response seems probable, for doing nothing would be manifestly foolish.
Social security to be halved? Why not? Minimum wage to be scrapped? Sure. Super to be taxed at PAYG rates? Good idea. If it passes a two-day credibility test with swinging voters, let’s take it for a trot.
It is likely that third parties will front the dueling deceptions, but the brutal success of Mediscare cannot be ignored.
The consequence of this will be further dumbing down of debate with votes falling against the less convincing liar.
May the worst man lose.
*Toby Ralph is a marketing consultant and board member who, among other things, has worked on nearly 50 elections around the world.