While I’m on a political leadership and election strategies theme, I observed in a comment to a post yesterday that a recent speech by Labor’s prize nincompoop Mark Latham revealed the ALP’s intended “wedge” propaganda lines for the next election.
Thinking more about it, although Latham’s stuff is every bit as poisonously divisive as any of John Howard’s wedge issues, this isn’t wedge politics in the true sense. It’s more a rallying call to the Labor faithful:
Under the Howard Government, power has been concentrated in the hands of the few, not the many. This is a government for the insiders, for political appointments and cronyism.
Labor’s task is to break down this power-elite, to disperse economic, social and political influence as widely as possible. Our job is to re-enfranchise the outsiders.
With the rise of globalisation, our role has become more important. Too much economic power is concentrated in the hands of big corporations – companies that want all the rights of free trade and investment, yet few of the responsibilities of good corporate citizenship.
In part, this has led to the shocking level of asset inequality in Australia. The top 20 percent of households own 65 percent of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom 20 percent owns nothing at all. The Howard Government has no strategy or policies for dealing with this imbalance. In fact, it never mentions poverty as an issue.
Under Howard, the old boys club is back in town. The power-elite in Sydney and Melbourne passes on an expensive education and extraordinary wealth to the next generation. This is why the insiders’ network is so strong – its members look after each other with appointments and preferment. Too much power is concentrated in the hands of too few people.
The hallmark of true wedge politics is that its messages pitch to your opponent’s “soft” support base. Latham’s rhetoric will play well down at Trades Hall, but I doubt that any part of his message will resonate powerfully with a significant group of existing Liberal voters.
Labor will nevertheless need to refine its negative campaigning (i.e. wedging) skills if it expects to have any chance in the next election. As I observed yesterday, politics is a mostly amoral game where, as Richo famously put it, you do “whatever it takes”. I don’t say that with any relish, because I’d very much like to see a more principled, policy-based political milieu in Australia. However, I can’t see it happening. Wedge and related negative campaigning strategies are potentially so effective (especially in marginal seats) that no major party can afford not to employ them. Moreover, although such strategies undeniably have a corrosive effect on the body politic, I can’t think of any cure that wouldn’t be worse than the disease.
Nevertheless, there’s certainly scope for bringing some of the more subterranean “wedge” message delivery systems (like direct mail, email, telephone canvassing and push polling) under the scrutiny of the Australian Electoral Commission, to ensure that propaganda isn’t seriously false and misleading. I agree with fellow constitutional law academic George Williams that regulation of that sort could be implemented without infringing the implied freedom of political speech in Australia’s Constitution.
Depressing as it may be, the reality is that pretty well all marketing, not just the political kind, is squarely based on exploiting some variant of the Seven Deadly Sins. Try and think of a commercial of any sort that isn’t based on greed, envy, fear, hatred, revenge, thrusting ambition, or sheer lust. Lust is the purest and most wholesome of the bunch, I reckon. Maybe that’s the answer to the corrosive effect of wedge politics. Sex!! Annalise Braakensiek for Labor leadership. Nigella Lawson to replace Costello as heir apparent for the Libs. Geoff Honnor may wish to nominate a couple of gay icons for deputy leaders. I think we’re onto something here.