Tony Abbott’s manipulation of public perception

art-353-tandberg-300x0Australia’s Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says in today’s newspaper:

The problem with the Parliament at the moment is that almost nothing is ever said which isn’t basically crude political head-banging. Both sides are guilty but I think that as prime minister Gillard was particularly bad at it.

Abbott’s hypocrisy is staggering. In reality, it is he and his Liberal Party who have for three years led a relentlessly negative campaign against Labor, its successive leaders Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd, and the Greens whose vote Labor relied upon. Instead of presenting an alternative policy vision, the Liberals have spent most of their time inventing baseless reasons why the incumbent government and its policies are illegitimate. And instead of criticizing policies in detail, the Liberals have attacked them with simplistic three-word slogans and misleading fear tactics. It’s pretty obvious they aim to bring down the government whatever it takes.

I believe the Liberals’ negativity has been a deliberate strategy to cultivate in the minds of voters a certain set of perceptions which help the Liberals both electorally and ideologically. A lot of voters do not follow politics closely, and as a consequence tend to generalize the behaviour of specific politicians to all politicians, and particularly the incumbent government. Thus the Liberals, abetted by their allies in the Murdoch media, have intentionally created an atmosphere of chaos in Canberra to trash the reputation of politicians, knowing many voters would ultimately blame Labor and the Greens.

They have demonized the Greens in particular because they represent a far greater ideological opponent than Labor, who these days are little more than an electoral threat to the Liberals. The Greens were accused of secretly controlling the government despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This antipathy has recently culminated in Abbott’s sweeping declaration that he will not do deals with crossbenchers and that minority government is a “failed experiment”. Never mind that minority governments are commonplace in other countries and Australian states, or that Abbott’s own party is in a permanent Coalition with the Nationals. Abbott’s message is that the hung parliament has been the worst in a very long time. In my opinion, the hung parliament was actually a slight improvement on its predecessors because it resulted in meaningful negotiations with crossbenchers – particularly the Greens, who have consistently advocated policies in the public interest, unlike Liberal and Labor who are both in the pocket of big business, especially the fossil fuel lobby.

The flip side of the Liberals’ message is that they would restore order and stability and trust in government and be “a mature government, run by grown-ups”. Apparently focus-group research shows this is how voters remember the last Liberal government led by John Howard. I have argued the Liberals may actually be hiding a radical neoliberal agenda of austerity, deregulation, and decentralization which will lead to less democracy, less stability, less equality, less accountability, and rising greenhouse gas emissions. Those who fondly remember Howard have perhaps forgotten these are exactly the sort of actions he took when he was elected. (Remember “non-core promises”?) More recently, the Newman government in Queensland did the same thing. If my suspicions are correct, the Liberals are trying to sneak into government by opposing a “great big new tax”, so they can blindside Australians with great big new cuts.

Naturally, when Abbott is in power he will want voters to support his government. However, there is another way in which making “politics” a dirty word is advantageous to the Liberals no matter who happens to be in power at the time. A pervasive “anti-politics” attitude among the public provides a convenient justification for the Liberals’ ideology of minimal government. Abbott and the Liberals will argue that the general unsuitability of politicians for leadership, which “everybody” knows to be true, just goes to show that most important decisions should be taken out of their hands.

All this explains why Abbott complains about political negativity despite being the principal source of it. There are unmistakeable similarities to the more extreme obstructionist strategy of the US Republican Party, as revealed by former Republican insider Mike Lofgren:

A couple of years ago, a Republican committee staff director told me candidly (and proudly) what the method was to all this obstruction and disruption. Should Republicans succeed in obstructing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s generic favorability rating among the American people. By sabotaging the reputation of an institution of government, the party that is programmatically against government would come out the relative winner.

A deeply cynical tactic, to be sure, but a psychologically insightful one that plays on the weaknesses both of the voting public and the news media. There are tens of millions of low-information voters who hardly know which party controls which branch of government, let alone which party is pursuing a particular legislative tactic. These voters’ confusion over who did what allows them to form the conclusion that “they are all crooks,” and that “government is no good,” further leading them to think, “a plague on both your houses” and “the parties are like two kids in a school yard.” This ill-informed public cynicism, in its turn, further intensifies the long-term decline in public trust in government that has been taking place since the early 1960s – a distrust that has been stoked by Republican rhetoric at every turn (“Government is the problem,” declared Ronald Reagan in 1980).

Don’t get me wrong: politics is plenty corrupt and there is certainly reason for discontent with both of Australia’s major parties. But in my view the source of the problem is not the politicians per se; it is corporate control of those politicians. Reducing the size of government will not significantly empower ordinary individuals, it will only further entrench the power of business and make the problem even worse. Corporate leaders are unelected, employed to ruthlessly pursue their company’s self-interest, and not accountable to the broader public in the same way politicians are. However corrupt political parties may be, at least in theory we could vote them out and replace them with parties that would actually represent our interests.

The perceptions the Liberals have fostered appear to have taken hold in the public imagination. Please think critically about them. As voters, we must not allow our perceptions to be manipulated in this way. We should not conclude that government is bad, that hung parliaments are bad, or that the Greens are bad, because that’s only what the Liberals and the business lobby want us to think. And we must not reward Abbott for his negativity.

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