Trashing democracy in an election campaign

By Andrew L. Urban.

On Thursday, June 30, 2016, two days before the 2016 Federal Election, Sky News Channel’s Political Editor, David Speers, hosted what was called a Focus Group discussion with 12 uncommitted voters at the suburban Rooty Hill RSL club. It turned out to be not so much a focus group but a politically uninformed, scatterbrained group.

The group as a whole displayed little or no engagement with the election campaign – or indeed politics in general. That is why they had been selected by a research group as ‘uncommitted’. They were not just uncommitted: they were uninformed.

This hour of dispiriting television showed how creating a scare campaign (Mediscare) based on lies and deception will always work on a swathe of voters who only see the headline. Scaring people and then posing as the hero who saves them is a time honoured tactic – not of the brave and heroic but the deceitful and morally weak. Democracy in Australia was dealt another blow with this electioneering tactic, undermining its value and trustworthiness. That also applies to the Labour party which ran the campaign.

After this element of Labour’s campaign was unleashed, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull repeatedly denied that the privatisation of Medicare was any part of the Coalition’s plans. Vehemently. To no avail; Labour kept on and on, its faith in the gullibility of voters who were like that focus group. Indeed, that televised focus group is evidence that such deceit works – at least with the uninformed.

The 12 not very angry men and women agreed on one thing: yes, they were worried by Labour’s Mediscare campaign in which the big threat revealed was the privatisation by the Coalition of Medicare. Unfortunately, there was no time or perhaps no stomach, to ask the group what they understood to mean by ‘privatisation’ and why did that worry them. The answers would have been far more valuable for political discourse than the knee jerk reaction.

Why this aspect of Labour’s campaign is the most reprehensible among any others is because it is a conscious and cynical decision to mislead voters. Misleading Parliament is not tolerated and nor should it be tolerated in an election campaign. Breaking the trust of Parliament is no worse than breaking the trust of the people – surely. They are the same thing.

The collateral damage of labour’s scare campaign was good policy: privatising the clunky old payment system which incurs waste and inefficiency to a vast bureaucracy that spends 16% of the entire budget. With unseemly haste, the Coalition abandoned that when Labour began to accuse it of privatising Medicare, fearing the contagion of the lie.

The Mediscare is only the most odious example of how democracy is threatened by the very function on which it survives: the democratic vote.

The proposed plebiscite on same sex marriage became the other battleground where democracy came under threat, when some (notably lead by high profile lesbian Labour Senator Penny Wong) insisted that the plebiscite be abandoned as it would incite bigotry and hate speech against the GLTB community. This was another scare campaign that was unsupported by logic or facts.

The irony seemed lost on them that the debate was already under way and the only hate speech and bigotry had come from the Wong side: eg Labour leader Bill Shorten calling Liberal MP Corey Bernardi a homophobe for disagreeing with the concept of same sex marriage.

That argument is baseless and without merit: it is simply illogical. If, as Wong suggests, instead of a plebiscite the Parliament simply votes on the proposed legislation, why would that not trigger the same bigotry and homophobia? Indeed, a vote by the general voting population would be far less divisive. The people would ‘own’ the result of a plebiscite. The power of a plebiscite is in its ability to shield the community from anti-democratic forces; those (especially extremists) who stand against same sex marriage could not claim to have been steamrolled by the political system.

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