If you spend much time on social media you’ll know that relitigating the 2019 federal election is a favoured pastime for many, especially those on the left.
It’s a mostly futile exercise. It’s been eight months since the Coalition was reelected; wishing it didn’t happen is a waste of energy, especially when the problems Australia faces are, to a large degree, independent of who sits on which side of the parliamentary chamber.
I also don’t really buy into the popular notion that the Coalition’s victory was somehow illegitimate. Yes, commercial media broadly backed Morrison and yes, Clive Palmer’s million-dollar campaign blitz likely poisoned the well (especially in Queensland), but Labor also failed to grasp the mantle.
Yet while the Coalition may not have necessarily “cheated” their way to an upset victory, it’s hard to ignore the mounting evidence that they had their thumb on the scales.
The sports rorts scandal, a shameless $100 million pork-barrelling program rolled out in the months leading up to last year’s election, is perhaps the most egregious – and corrupt
– example of the lengths the Coalition was prepared to go to to cling to power.
That wasn’t the government’s most expensive vote-buying exercise, however. That title falls to the $1000 tax offset
for low- and middle-income earners, announced in the budget just weeks out from the election.
But the skulduggery started long before then. Months before the election was called Liberal MP Tim Wilson was caught out
using parliamentary processes and taxpayer funds on a blatantly partisan disinformation campaign to smear Labor’s franking credits plans.
Then came the “death tax
” campaign, what a Guardian investigation
referred to as “fake news, open and shut”. The investigation said the lie emerged from a Daily Telegraph
article in July 2018 reporting that the ACTU backed an inheritance tax, which was followed by an “uncritical” discussion on Sunrise
Six months later, as the election loomed, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg issued a media release
warning of Labor’s supposed plans, and by April memes about Labor’s death tax were popping up all over boomer Facebook.
Underpinning the Coalition’s scaremongering was what turned out to be a very effective social media campaign. Orchestrated by a pair of Kiwi social media wunderkinds, Sean Topham and Ben Guerin
, the campaign delivered an endless stream of intentionally amateurish memes
that pushed a consistent message that Labor was coming for your wallet.
Learning the wrong lessons
In the aftermath of the election the conventional wisdom on the right was that Labor was “captured by the left
”, Australians actually love coal, and Scott Morrison’s daggy-dad everyman shtick was wildly popular.
On the left, the conclusions were – and remain – mixed. Depending on where you sit Labor was either too aligned with the Greens or too aligned with the government; either too radical or too conservative
But Labor only lost the election by a handful of votes in a handful of electorates, which means all the Coalition’s disinformation and vote-buying campaign had to do was persuade a few thousand voters across the country. Did it? Maybe. Probably.
Either way it should make us rethink the lessons we think we’ve learned. Progressive parties have a hard enough time in elections: conservatives merely have to promise to protect what people already have; progressives need to paint a picture of what might be. It’s a harder sell.
For me, the lesson from all of this for socially democratic parties is that they should accept that conservatives have the upper hand in corporate and social media and get over it. Focus on the big stuff and leave the pettiness and bullshit to your enemies. Present a clear, unwavering, unambiguous vision of environmental, economic and social justice bound in class solidarity.
In other words: damn the memes and carry on. That’s how we win.