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Mediscare blame obscures government's weaknesses

John Warhurst |  02 October 2016


The main message of the 2016 election review delivered recently at the National Press Club by Tony Nutt, the federal director of the Liberal Party since late last year, was essentially that the Turnbull government only failed to have a convincing victory because of the so-called 'Mediscare' by the Labor Party.

Malcolm Turnbull with Mediscare ghost cutout is haunted by other more significant issuesAs a good party bureaucrat the federal director undoubtedly enunciated the primary message which the government has decided to try to sell to the electorate. In his position he could do nothing else and he knew that this was the story which the media would pick up on.

It is a message that deflects attention from the current and past weaknesses of the government and the prime minister. It is like a football coach who after a loss or an unexpectedly narrow win blames his team's performance on the dirty tactics of the opposition. In doing so you inevitably brush over the weaknesses or limitations of your own performance.

It can be successful in the short term, although in this instance it was not because the media/press gallery was far from convinced that Labor's scare tactic was any worse than those employed by the Coalition itself in recent times on different issues.

By emphasising the Medicare controversy Nutt placed the focus firmly on the importance of the eight-week campaign period rather than what preceded it (including Tony Abbott's departure), avoiding any convincing explanation as to why the government and the new prime minister fell so dramatically from favour after the initial Turnbull honeymoon period.

They had in fact already disappointed sections of the electorate and thrown away a golden opportunity to consolidate their position. The campaign itself, during which the Mediscare took place, didn't really change much at all in terms of voter preferences. The government began in a virtual tie with Labor and the Greens and that's where it ended with the government just marginally ahead.

The federal director also advanced the counterintuitive proposition that the Coalition government was the underdog in campaigning terms and so won the election against the odds. This is a useful insight into the thinking of Liberal party insiders and shows the value of speeches like this by party bureaucrats even if they are heavily constrained by the need not to be critical of their own party.

Nutt, a professional with lengthy Liberal Party staff experience at the highest levels, emphasised that the party had limited resources and even limited professionalism when compared to the combined abilities of the Labor Party, the unions and community groups like GetUp! In particular he advanced the proposition that the Liberals were outgunned when it came to running field campaigns, that is campaigns on the ground in local electorates.


"The Liberals dropped the ball in the months before Turnbull called the poll and now have to pick it up again. This will involve the government finding its own voice rather than blaming others."


Furthermore the federal director reiterated regular calls by the Coalition in recent years for the business community to 'find its voice', that is to get firmly behind the conservative parties in election campaigns. Labor and Green supporters may find this hard to believe because it is counterintuitive in progressive and left-wing circles scared of business power, but undoubtedly the Liberals are frustrated by what they see as half-hearted business support.

In this way this public election review can be interpreted as including a call to arms and a plea both to party supporters to become more wholehearted and to the party apparatus itself to become more professional. But, on the other hand, that was not the main message. The danger for the Liberals is that such 'blame the other side' explanations breed complacency and self-satisfaction within the party and among its key supporters. If the message is that the opposition can only threaten the government by playing dirty and telling barefaced lies then there is no incentive to do better.

Yet clearly there was more to the close election result than a Labor scare campaign. The Liberals dropped the ball in the months before Turnbull called the poll and now have to pick it up again. This will involve the government finding its own voice rather than blaming others.


John WarhurstJohn Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University and a former chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

Cartoon by Chris Johnston



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Submitted comments

The popularity of the Coalition during Malcolm Turnbull's early prime ministership was due to a collective sigh of relief over Tony Abbott's departure and the hope that 'things would be better now'. Unfortunately, stale and habitual responses prevailed. Blaming the opposition for less than expected outcomes avoids responsibility. A good starting point for Turnbull may be to wear a muscle shirt to the next Cabinet meeting - chilly, but nothing beats a new look.

Pam 04 October 2016

Malcolm Turnbull is being dragged down by Abbott's legacy. He seems to have no vision of his own. It's the fourth year into this government and no major policies have been implemented. Still blaming Labor, although it was Labor that gave us the NDIS, Gonski and the NBN, all of which are being eviscerated..

Rose Marie Crowe 04 October 2016

How would it would have been if after the NRL Grand Final the CEO of Melbourne Storm had fronted the media - weeks after the loss - and explained the loss in terms of the Cronulla supporters being more numerous and vociferous than the Storm's? Of course that support contributed to that unquantifiable quality of the Sharks - a desperate spirit to win. There was enough truth in the Mediscare campaign to raise a spirit of fear among people who depended on a Bulk Billing GP scheme. The calling of a Double Dissolution was a tactical mistake but who is going to admit to that? And how does the Coalition (where the Nationals wag the Liberal tail) get away with railing against the alleged coalition between Labour and the Greens? The Fourth Estate has an important role to play in Australian politics but has allowed itself to become a distributor of one-sided views with articles like John Warhurst's a notable exception.

Uncle Pat 04 October 2016

"This will involve the government finding its own voice rather than blaming others." But, John, if they have nothing to say and are afraid of contradiction by their own back bench? No wonder they have to blame renewables for blowing down power towers while the "renewable" wind towers stand up to the storm. No they are a sad lot now. And the leadership vacuum they inhabit is just irresponsibility to say nothing of lack of guts. "We had hoped for so much... " And Keating's assessment that the man has poor judgement seems truer every day.

Michael D. Breen 04 October 2016

Both sides of politics are equally culpable when it comes to the deplorable muck raking rot that goes on during election campaigns these days. I hope that some pollie, some day, has the fortitude to mount a campaign without resorting to the vulgar rubbish that they do today.

Russ 04 October 2016

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