Showering in excreta

There’s an interesting contrast between the way personal smear negative campaign tactics work in the US and their relative lack of success in Australia. As Scott Wickstein pointed out in a comment to my previous post, the Bush memo fiasco and Swift Boat Veterans nonsense are not only smears, but attempts to divert public attention from the disastrous course of the war in Iraq and a variety of other far more crucial issues at home and abroad. Why Kerry allowed his followers to engage in such stupidity is beyond my comprehension, because it would surely have been in his interest to keep the focus on those genuinely crucial issues where Bush is vulnerable.

From Bush’s viewpoint, however, it’s all manna from heaven. Both stunts have been spectacularly successful in diverting public attention, judging by the number of column centimetres they continue to generate in both the mainstream media and the blogosphere.

Compare that with the attempted campaign smears by Labor and the Coalition to date. Leaving aside the Scrafton affair, which just preceded the campaign proper, both parties’ attempts at personal smear so far have failed dismally. Labor’s “Howard’s 27 lies” smear (which I see has now expanded to 35) has been rightly and comprehensively ignored by mainstream media and blogosphere alike, as has the Coalition’s attempt to dredge up Latham’s record as Mayor of Liverpoool a decade ago. Of course, the latter may have something to do with the fact that charges of financial mismanagement have no substance whatever:

Professor Daly, the man appointed to investigate Liverpool Council, has stated unequivocally that he “could find no evidence of imprudent financial management” during Mark Latham’s time as mayor of Liverpool.

Earlier this year John Walker, a Liberal councillor in Woollahra, strongly endorsed the Latham record at Liverpool. Mr Walker, who was general manager of Liverpool Council in the Latham years, said of Latham: “He is strategically brilliant, the agenda that he created [at Liverpool] was the best I’d seen in my career in local government.

Moreover, Liverpool Council’s strategy of debt reduction by keeping rate rises above the inflation rate is a very familiar one for local councils, and widely regarded as prudent. It’s precisely the strategy that Darwin City Council has been pursuing for over a decade now, and it’s been dominated by CLP cronies throughout that time.

But maybe the ALP and Coalition smears have fallen in a heap partly because Australians have a bit more nouse and commonsense about those sorts of things than Americans. I’d like to think so anyway, because these pseudo-scientific smear and wedge tactics have a real potential to fatally undermine the integrity of our political system. Not only might such odious practices alienate citizens completely from the political process, but they might also deter decent, well-qualified candidates from standing for elected office if doing so feels for all the world like permanently showering in excreta.

About Ken Parish

Ken Parish is a legal academic, with research areas in public law (constitutional and administrative law), civil procedure and teaching & learning theory and practice. He has been a legal academic for almost 20 years. Before that he ran a legal practice in Darwin for 15 years and was a Member of the NT Legislative Assembly for almost 4 years in the early 1990s.
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Alan
Alan
2021 years ago

There’s at least a couple of institutional factors apart from the sheer brilliance of the Australian electorate. Compulsory voting and preferential voting both make life more civilised.

The smears in the US are at least partly about suppressing turnout. If you can eviscerate your opponent you reduce their chance turning out their base to vote.

The Bush campaign has as much as admitted that their strategy is get their base to vote while blocking Kerry’s base with attack ads and in some cases techniques like those used to block African-Americans from voting in Florida in 2000.

Equally, you can’t get too vicious with opposition parties if you’re chasing their second preferences in the Senate.

Our habit of regarding politicians as human beings rather than sacerdotal figures probably helps as well. I was silly enough to watch NBC’s Meet the Press one night when they were all getting into a lather about whether it was appropriate to call the (fanfare) President of the United States a deserter. I would’ve thought ti more important to ask if it’s appropriate for the said public official to be a deserter.

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2021 years ago

Alan

I’m not sure about the preference point because the Libs don’t usually preference Labor in the Senate or vice versa, but your other two points are good ones. I sometimes wonder about compulsory voting, but there is a range of good reasons to retain it, and yours is one of them.

Our healthy disrespect for politicians is also an excellent point. If most of us assume they’re all philandering shysters anyway, and don’t really give a stuff about it as long as the joint runs reasonably smoothly, we’re hardly likely to get carried away by smear revelations. Is the Pope a catholic? But of course that’s just an aspect of the good old Aussie nouse and commonsense I mentioned.

Alan
Alan
2021 years ago

The classic preferences argument is to compare calm, civilised, preferential Ireland with first-past-the-post Northern Ireland.

While the two major parties rarely exchange preferences directly, a proportion of their voters do. There’s little point in actively alienating people who might, just might, give you a second preference.

John Quiggin
John Quiggin
2021 years ago

Now, I’m really confused. In the previous post you bag me for ironically observing that the SwiftBoat/Memogate scandals aren’t worth paying attention to (BTW, giving the full post would have made my position a bit clearer), and that I should have been “forthright” in condemning the Memogate guys.

Now you say, the stunts in the Australian election shouldn’t distract attention from the main issues. As Pauline would say, please explain.

Eterio Herrera
Eterio Herrera
2021 years ago

I am just amazed of how majority of Australians forget the tactics of our Prime Minister secret activities of hiring his son for political maneuvering in this lyingly contested election. He was before the architect of Push Polling with morgan poll, but sadly no one has ever remember that incident, and now he can boastly do his dishonest way of promises and beat around the bush of his core and non core promises, my only hope is for all australians to remember our fair dinkum mentallity that makes more human than any other citizen in this heavily missile bombarded world.

don
don
2021 years ago

I think Alan’s point about compulsory voting is a good one. It doesn’t explain why smear campaigns don’t get picked up by the media here but it does help explain why campaign strategists don’t rely on negative campaigning as much in Australia as they do in the US.

Stephen Ansolabehere (MIT), and Shanto Iyengar(UCLA)offer evidence for the thesis that attack ads suppress voter turnout in their book ‘Going Negative.’

Not everyone agrees, Martin Wattenberg reaches a different conclusion here:
http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/issr/crisp/may14.pdf

Of course the turnout suppression thesis doesn’t explain why campaigners in countries without compulsory voting differ in their reliance on attack ads and smear campaigns.