As scare campaigns go, they’re not as scary as elections past

It’s also hard to pinpoint the difference from other claims routinely made. Morrison asserts that boats will start again under Labor, even though Shorten has said he will largely adopt the government’s approach. Shorten claims the Liberals will cut services – several times at yesterday’s campaign launch – while Morrison swears they won’t. But somehow these claims seem more reasonable – certainly they don’t occasion outrage.

Horror show or comedy?Credit:Simon Bosch

There is one important difference. On both Medicare and death taxes, technology was used – in the former case by Labor – to suggest the claims came from reliable sources. “Fake news”, in other words. But I don’t think that explains the gap entirely.

During this campaign, frequent comparisons have been made between Bill Shorten and John Hewson – two opposition leaders who proposed tax reform. But Hewson’s defeat was not just about the details of a tax policy. His opponent, Paul Keating, painted a world for voters, the world he said Hewson wanted to build. That world was mean and unforgiving.

In 1992, Hewson accused Keating of wanting to “pull everyone else down to the lowest common denominator”. Keating’s speechwriter, Don Watson, has recounted Keating’s brutal twist: “He would say, ‘John Hewson says if you reach back for them, they will drag you down.’ Six months later he had developed such a way with the line you could sense a surge of shock and anger in the audience.”

What is the equivalent picture in this campaign? For Morrison, it’s Shorten mismanaging money. For Shorten, it’s “cuts and chaos”. As scare campaigns go, they’re fairly narrow. Neither conjures up a graphic picture of the next few years. Even when Shorten warns of chaos, he rarely talks about the men who may still be there – Dutton, Joyce, Abbott – but only about Turnbull, who has already gone.

Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison in the second leaders' debate on Sky News on Friday night.

Bill Shorten and Scott Morrison in the second leaders’ debate on Sky News on Friday night.Credit:Sky News

Yesterday, at Labor’s campaign launch, there were signs that Labor recognised this. Penny Wong mentioned each of those men in quick succession. And Shorten – with Keating looking on – delivered his own brutal translation of Liberal language, a line he’s been using for the last few days: “Every time you hear the Liberals say, ‘Australia can’t afford it’, what they really mean is, ‘You don’t deserve it.’”


Nor, for the most part, do we get evocative images of each man’s desired next few years. For Morrison, that’s because there are no policies, no pictures to paint. His attempt at a stopgap – saying 700 measures had been announced in the budget – has sounded pathetic.

Shorten has more to say, but as Shane Wright argued in this newspaper, most of it, at least during this campaign, has been about cash. And the problem with cash is the problem with any talk of figures these days. Apparently solid numbers are thrown at us – surpluses, emissions, rebates. We know most will crumble, or lead directly to dispute. For a similar reason, I think the fuss about the cost of Shorten’s climate policy is borderline absurd. Economic models are not to be trusted. But I’m also not sure what the alternative is. We just give up asking politicians for specific figures?

Well, perhaps. As with the scare campaigns we will and won’t accept, the line between what we will accept not knowing and what we demand to know seems somewhat arbitrary. Shorten gets asked because we know something of his plans. Morrison escapes questioning because we know nothing of his.

An election is not like buying a new fridge. We are electing people, not purchasing a product with defined dimensions. Even the most informed voter can only know so much. Most of us will vote based on a thousand bits of information, some decades old. But that is the most important point: we get to decide, and we get to decide how we decide.

Coming back to scare campaigns, I suspect a large part of the unease about recent attempts is simple novelty. The more familiar a claim, the less remarkable it becomes. Perhaps there’s no such thing as unacceptable exaggeration – just claims that are more or less likely to be believed.


In 1983, Malcolm Fraser warned that if Labor won, people would be better off keeping their savings under the bed. Bob Hawke responded, “you can’t put your money there because that’s where all the commies are”. It was not an argument that could be won – only voted on.

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald and a former adviser to Labor prime ministers Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard.

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