Chase your shadow till the sun goes down… Why Mediscare worked and what it means

The 2016 election campaign covered nobody in glory.  The ALP appears to have the second lowest primary vote since at least the 1940s, and the ‘other’ vote is creeping up closer to a quarter of the primary.  A lot can be overstated in election post-mortems.  People cherrypick the facts and figures that they want, imagining hypothetical other universes where people respond in the same way to different environments.  Is the ‘other’ vote a good feature of preferential voting, allowing people to prefer alternative options but not losing the opportunity to support the ultimate candidate?  If we moved to a different voting system, would people still feel confident to vote for ‘others’.  And so on and so forth.

There are two things that I want to explore through scribbling down some blog posts.  The first (this post) is the ‘Mediscare’.  The mainstream will explore the ethics of deception during election campaigns, whether this was really deceptive, and the extent to which this influenced the vote (remember, the ALP still had a very low primary vote).  I want to explore the context which made Mediscare possible and what that says about conservative Australia at the moment.

The second thing I want to explore some time over the next few days is the nature of invalid votes.  There is a lot of resentment from progressive Australia about the high amounts of invalid voting, with particular animosity towards those (like me) who deliberately spoiled their vote.  I’m interested in this debate because it’s often used as a veil to strip people of compulsory voting, and as a soapbox to claim that people have an obligation to support a political party, regardless of the quality of its candidates or policies — see especially the odious and fatuous rhetoric that the suffragettes suffered so that women could vote and so women have an obligation to vote for a political party.

On to Mediscare…

Until the final weeks of the many, many week’d campaign, this was a surprisingly civil election.  The spiteful ‘We have a war to win’ baldernonsense that passes as political debate was mostly out on the fringes.  There was a little bit of biffo about Turnbull’s finances, and the ALP spin doctors went into overtime trying to hide Shorten’s extremely privileged background.  But it was overall a very boring campaign.  Three ‘leaders debates’ were held, and people went to sleep.  Journalists were outraged by this lack of exciting material to publish, and so published lots of thinkpieces about how boring everything was.

That changed in the last fortnight of the campaign.  The ALP began to run on a campaign of ‘Save Medicare’ even though nobody had mentioned much about changing Medicare.  Everybody agrees that it was a scare campaign; nobody seriously thinks that Medicare was an issue until the ALP ran the slogans.  And Queensland Labor even sent out text messages purporting to be from Medicare itself stating that the Turnbull government was going to axe it.

Let us put to the side questions about the ethics of deception and the extent to which the deception was effective.  What does it mean that this deception was even possible?

It is not merely enough that an audience is gullible and ignorant for a deception to be possible.  It might be a happy fiction to believe this is the case — see, for example, discussion about Brexit voters being deceived because they didn’t have enough information to detect the deception.  But deceptions also work on the cagey and well-informed.  A former head of New Zealand’s immigration service faked her education.  That’s not even the funniest New Zealand fraudster story: a former Chief Scientist for the New Zealand Defence Force fabricated his entire career (including military career and career as a spook).

So we should resist the temptation to answer the question of why politicians can get away with lying with ‘Because people are dumb.’

Instead, I think the most useful answer sounds tautological on first pass: politicians can get away with lying because the lies are believable.

The ALP could say that the Coalition was going to slash Medicare because the Coalition has done nothing to assure us that it has a plan for protecting Medicare.  We all know that healthcare costs in Australia are a problem.  The Coalition has even mentioned it on occasion.  But by not following that up with some kind of plan, by not following it up with some statement of principle, by leaving a vacuum where ideas should be, the Coalition invited people to imagine what the Coalition might do instead.

And people imagined negative things.

This is a piece of rhetoric that absolutely should not have been possible.  Even though election campaigns shouldn’t really be about policies, we should have known that Turnbull valued Medicare and had a plan to keep Australia’s universal healthcare system affordable.

Worse, the Coalition shouldn’t have been forced to retreat into technicality when confronted with Mediscare.  Very few people understand Australia’s bewilderingly complex health system.  When Mediscare was on the table, it was not wise to respond: ‘No, we’re not privatising Medicare; we’re just considering privatising the system that runs Medicare.’  The general knowledge of Medicare is not sufficiently nuanced and subtle that it can distinguish these claims.

The Coalition has a ‘hard man’ image that is unhelpful.  It’s hard on asylum seekers.  It’s hard on welfare cheats.  It was therefore reasonable for people to believe that the Coalition was going to be hard on Medicare.  The Coalition needs to show that it can temper its hard line approaches when it comes to social services, especially healthcare.

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