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Labor Council of NSW
I'm here today to talk about an unusual topic for one of these gatherings. But it is a topic that is vital for us to address if we are to have a proper contest of ideas at the next election - if the next election is to be about the nation's future.
Politicians don't often venture to comment on campaign strategy. It's meant to be an invisible art, practised by a few experts and not of much interest to those outside politics. But in the modern politics practised by the conservatives, campaign strategy has to be watched more closely. That's because the actions of a few are starting to endanger our society. Their actions are tearing apart Australia's social cohesion.
Let me give you an example from a sport we all know at least a bit about - boxing. As much as it may not always look like it, boxing has rules. One of the most important rules in boxing is that you can't hit below the belt. It's there for a good reason. For one, it's pretty unpleasant for the person who's fighting fair, but for another, it would end most bouts straight away - no contest, no skill, no sport.
Well, I'm here to tell you that our political opponents have form in this type of dirty boxing. John Howard, Philip Ruddock, Amanda Vanstone, they all keep a close eye on the ref, and the moment he's not looking, they deliver the low blow or lift the knee.
And if we don't want the politics of ideas to become history in this country, we have to stop the cheating and see how they go in a fair fight.
I'm talking about that phrase you might have heard a bit lately: 'wedge politics'.
Few Australians outside the world of professional politics understand what the term 'wedge politics' actually means. But it is important that they do understand - because it's playing an increasing and damaging part in the conduct of election campaigns.
Only by fully understanding it can we stop it.
In essence, 'wedge politics' is simple. It involves:
Ultimately it comes down to this: splitting the nation in two and picking up the bigger half.
These are the tactics the Liberals imported into Australia in the lead up to the 2001 election.
Now they're at it again, casting around for a racially or socially divisive issue.
It's obvious that the Howard Government's strategy for the next election is to distract people from their highly unpopular domestic agenda through dirty wedge politics.
The Government knows that the Australian people will never support their plans to destroy Medicare, massively increase university fees and make Australia a more unjust, unfair and unequal place.
I want to use this opportunity today to remind the Australian media and alert the Australian people to the fraud that the Howard Government will attempt to foist on the Australian people over the coming months.
It is my belief that only by confronting wedge politics head on can we ensure that the tragedy of the 2001 federal election - which John Howard grabbed through a shameful campaign of dog whistles and lies - is not repeated in the 2004 federal election.
I want to spell out John Howard's long and consistent record of playing vicious and divisive politics, suggest some issues that we should all look out for between now and the next election, and state how I think we can defeat wedge politics and return our elections to what they should be - a contest of ideas and policies about how to take our nation forward.
John Howard has a long and consistent record of wedge politics.
He's never been 'honest John'. We sometimes forget that the term was originally meant to be ironic.
In fact, John Howard's whole career has been a sequence of probes to find the one issue with the power to incite the needed degree of resentment and fear in the Australian electorate.
When his probes found the issue of race 2001 he drilled down and sucked dry the well of fear and hatred.
FIRST GO AT RACE POLITICS - 1988
John Howard first tried to elevate race to the top of the political agenda in 1988.
It's important to recount the history of that story and the lessons Howard learned.
On 15 May 1988 Howard made a press statement calling for a 'full and open debate on the direction of Australia's immigration policy'.
As he intended from the start, it sparked off a fierce and hostile debate in the community about the level of Asian immigration.
During the course of the debate, Howard called explicitly for Asian immigration to be slowed down.
In August, the then Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, put a motion to the parliament denouncing Howard's views. While the Liberal Party voted against the motion its then Shadow Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock and a number of other Liberal Party MPs crossed the floor and voted with the Government.
With his moral authority destroyed, Howard's leadership collapsed soon after.
Howard learned the key lesson from this episode: appeals to xenophobia must be implicit, never overt. A veneer of respectability must be maintained at all times.
SECOND GO AT RACE POLITICS - 2001
When Howard got the opportunity to use xenophobia as an electoral issue again in the 2001 federal election, he got it right.
The Tampa episode wasn't just a lucky break for John Howard. It was the pay-off from a search for the ultimate wedge issue that had taken up the whole of his second term.
His first term had of course been marked by his aggressive use of the Native Title issue - displaying false maps in support of his assertion that indigenous Australians would make Native Title claims over most of Australia.
Between 1999 and 2001 an increasingly desperate Howard had been trailing badly in the polls and began thrashing around for wedge issues to deflect attention from his unpopular policies.
It was a consistent strategy - which a senior coalition figure admitted at the time was derived directly from American-style wedge politics.
Throughout that term Howard's pollsters and strategists were testing which wedges would work and where his Rottweilers should be directed.
All of this was happening against a backdrop of increasingly strident anti-refugee sentiment within the electorate.
In April 2000 nightly news bulletins began carrying images of asylum seekers rioting in the Woomera detention centre.
Philip Ruddock moved to exploit the issue and fan the flames of resentment. He warned of four million potential refugees being smuggled around the world. He claimed that whole villages of asylum seekers were on the verge of arriving to spread TB. He started calling them "queue jumpers" and he accused them of demanding luxuries denied hard working Australians.
As the election approached, political pollsters of all parties started to identify a profound lack of interest in politics and party policies. Few issues connected. But one issue stood out. Focus group participants - especially those most affected and annoyed about the GST - were consistently venting their hatred of asylum seekers.
Few remember, but even before the Tampa arrived the Liberal Party had started distributing leaflets in marginal seats highlighting the Government's strong stance against refugees and detention centre inmates.
But it was the arrival of the Tampa that gave the issue the sense of drama it needed to achieve critical mass. Howard - who had been preparing for such an event - saw an opportunity for a populist campaign, and the rest is history.
Of course, concern about asylum seekers and cultural difference has always been present, beneath the surface of Australian politics.
But this time there were two new factors: a desperate John Howard who was already predisposed to exploit race as an election issue; and a sophisticated Liberal campaigning machine that had learnt the art of successful wedge politics from George Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, and his Republican masters.
As a reward for his success, John Howard was elected as President of the International Democratic Union (IDU) - the union of the world's right-wing political parties... and the only union he's ever supported!
It was telling that when John Howard went to Washington in June 2002 to address the IDU he took his chief strategist, Lynton Crosby, who was introduced to President Bush as 'the Karl Rove of Australian politics'.
Howard's actions in turning back the Tampa sent a message that was ostensibly about border protection and stopping terrorists entering Australia, but there is little doubt that it was really the same appeal to prejudice he tried in 1988.
In a revealing aside during the 2001 election, he claimed to Paul Kelly that he regretted his Asian immigration comments in 1988, condemning them as - in his own words - "clumsy". Sharp observers will note the careful words - not "wrong", not "racist" - just "clumsy". The John Howard of 2001 had learnt how to make racial appeals much more dexterous (or Textorous).
Howard's strategy in the 2001 election campaign is familiar to all students of political campaigning.
It was the same strategy employed by George Bush Senior in the infamous 1988 US Presidential election campaign, and was derived ultimately from Nixon's famous 'Southern Strategy' of the 1968 and 1972 elections that used appeals to prejudice to split the Democrats' blue-collar base from its growing white-collar wing.
Political junkies know the story well: the Bush campaign, well behind in the polls against the Democrat Michael Dukakis, made aggressive use of Willie Horton, a black prisoner who raped a white woman while on a weekend prison release program. Horton's case and his image were used in Bush campaign advertisements, ostensibly to paint Dukakis as soft on crime, but in reality to profit by inciting racist sentiment against him.
Like most racial appeals, this one's greatest strength was its deniability. The Bush campaign publicly insisted it was about crime. But no one was in any doubt about the real dog whistle at the core of the strategy.
HOW WE STOP HOWARD SUCCEEDING AGAIN
The good news is that there is a good chance that the wedge strategy of John Howard will not succeed again - but only if we're prepared to call a spade a spade.
I did that this time last year and was condemned for it. I'm back - but am laying out the analysis to back up my claim.
Recent research shows that covert appeals to prejudice tend to work only when they are allowed to remain covert. They lose their effectiveness when they are called for what they are.
An important new book by US political scientist Tali Mendelberg, The Race Card, analyses George Bush Snr's tactics in 1988, and uncovers a paradox:
She shows that although Bush ended the primaries behind Dukakis in the polls, his numbers soared in June with his first mention of the Horton story. In October, when the Horton message reached its greatest intensity, Bush pulled ahead decisively. Soon after race entered the discussion, however, Bush's ratings began a steep slide.
In the end, of course, Dukakis lost the election. The debate about race came too late to completely undo the effect of the Horton message.
What made the difference? Mendelberg reminds us that on 21st October 1988, former Democratic presidential hopeful the Reverend Jesse Jackson attacked the Bush campaign for conducting a racist campaign with Willie Horton. Bush's numbers began to slide. Mendelberg offers and then proves a theory that once explicit, a racial campaign falls in upon itself. Unfortunately for Dukakis, a few weeks were not long enough to get him back into the race. Mendelberg has two prescriptions: (1) political candidates can turn an implicit racial campaign into an explicit one by calling it what is; and (2) the counter-claim must be broadcast and debated to encourage voters to re-evaluate the issue.
That's why it is so important for journalists and commentators to call a spade a spade when it comes to race-based campaigning.
The George Bush campaign didn't work twice. Bush tried it again in 1992 against Bill Clinton, but it didn't succeed - because it had already been exposed by journalists and Democratic politicians as the naked appeal to race that we all, deep down, knew it was.
That's why it is so important that John Howard's wedge politics are denounced as the appeal to prejudice that they are. Being up front is the only way to head them off and restore integrity and policy debate to our political system.
A CITIZEN'S WEDGE WATCH
It is in that spirit today that I want open a discussion among the press and the people about the campaigning tactics now being employed by John Howard to prepare the ground for the next election.
We know what the likely issues will be. Some have already begun to be pushed by John Howard.
Just last week the Government used the arrival of 14 refugees on Melville Island to reintroduce regulations to excise 4,000 islands from Australia's migration zone.
The Government would have us believe we're being overrun by 14 Kurds and that to repel the invasion we have to remove 4,000 islands from our migration borders.
Listen to Minister Vanstone's rhetoric:
"Fourteen today, it might be 1400 tomorrow. What would people then say?"
It's a naked appeal to fear and xenophobia. Let's say so, loud and clear.
I applaud the recent editorial in The Australian newspaper warning Howard that he won't get away with a Tampa 2. The same newspaper editorialised against Howard's cynical manipulation of the original Tampa incident, only to make him Australian of the Year. Let's hope The Australian's latest warning is reflected in its news pages.
And let's hope television news bulletins reflect the growing cynicism about Howard's shameless manipulation of a few asylum seekers arriving by boat. Terrorists like Willie Brigitte have plenty of money. They don't have to risk a long, hazardous boat trip. They arrive by plane, equipped with tourist visas issued by the Howard Government.
At every step since September 11, Labor has gone out of its way to be bipartisan on national security, and to find the right balance between defeating terrorists and defending the rights that we are fighting for.
Despite this, John Howard repeatedly refuses our offer of bipartisanship because his real objective is clear - to paint Labor as weak on terrorism. It's a disgraceful slur and an attempt to question the patriotism of Labor members.
I well remember TV news bulletins carrying pictures of one of Howard's Rottweilers, Peter Slipper, saying - on the day that Labor voted down a bill that would have legalised murder by authorities boarding vessels in Australian waters - that Labor MPs were traitors to their country. Voters got the message loud and clear. Howard never repudiated Slipper.
The Willie Brigitte fisaco has demonstrated the incompetence of the Howard Government, not any inadequacy of the current anti-terrorism laws that give ASIO stronger powers than the FBI or MI5. But Ruddock immediately called for stronger ASIO powers. Tougher laws wouldn't have stopped the Howard Government issuing a tourist visa to a terrorist.
By calling for yet more anti-terrorism laws when it is failing to use the laws at their disposal, Howard and Ruddock are seeking to capitalise on anti-Muslim sentiment, especially in Western Sydney.
It's dirty wedge politics, playing on anti-Muslim prejudice. Let's say so, loud and clear.
In August the Prime Minister raised the issue of gay marriage in a direct copy of a tactic used the previous week by George W Bush.
Here's what he said: "Marriage... is about children, having children, raising them, providing for the survival of the species."
Even though legislation is both unnecessary and hasn't got a chance of passing the Senate, don't be surprised if John Howard introduces a bill into the House before the election to ban gay marriage.
It's a direct appeal to prejudices against gays, lesbians and single parents. Let's say so, loud and clear.
In the search for votes, the rights of the unemployed, the rights of minorities and the rights of genuine refugees, come last. It's the action of gutless bullies. It's government by focus group. And it's the ultimate surrender of moral and political leadership.
Is this the sort of political system we want? Where a political party seeks to set Australian against Australian, to exploit race as an election issue, to tear apart our social cohesion for its own electoral survival?
Anyone can win a boxing match by punching below the belt. But a referee won't let a boxer get away with dirty tactics. It's got to be the same in politics. It's up to those who believe in a proper contest of real ideas and not cheap prejudice to call John Howard and his team on every low blow.
Let's see how they are on the real issues. What have they got to fear from a fair fight?
Our elections should be a contest of policies, unclouded by bigotry or racism.
And for that to occur, the media must not condone John Howard's wedge tactics again.
When the wedges are hammered into Australian society, Howard as wedge-master should not be lauded by the media as a ruthlessly brilliant politician, as he was for his manipulation of the Tampa.
The media must be prepared to call a spade a spade.
Instead of being praised as a political genius, Howard must be condemned for his lack of real leadership, his immorality and his destruction of social cohesion in this country.
Let's keep American-style wedge politics out of Australia and make the Tampa election an aberration never to be repeated.
Address to National Union of Workers
Melbourne, 14 November 2003
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