The parties’ spin on the 2016 election result
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Towards the end of the election campaign, the Australian Greens joined the Liberal and Labor parties in lodging their policies for costing with the economists in the Parliamentary Budget Office.
It was a long list. There were 100 separate policies – the same number Labor had been boasting it was presenting to the electorate.
The one on which the Greens had arguably campaigned hardest, especially in Melbourne’s inner-city electorates where they came closest to winning an extra lower-house seat, was their policy on asylum seekers: to close offshore detention centres and bring in 40,000 more refugees a year, plus another 10,000 as part of the skilled migration program.
But the Parliamentary Budget Office’s costings reveal some curious anomalies – and just a hint that, like the other big parties, the Greens know how to spin.
According to the policy parameters the Greens provided to the PBO, the promise to increase the intake from the current level of 13,750 to 40,000 a year did not actually mean immediately.
In the first costed year, 2017-18, the policy was to increase the intake to just 30,000 and then to 35,000 the following year. The intake would only reach 40,000 in the third year and stay at that level for the fourth, 2019-20.
And under the policy the PBO costed, now publicly available, the intake would only remain at 40,000 over those two years.
After that, it would drop back dramatically to exactly what it is now – 13,750 a year.
“Beyond the 2016-17 Budget forward estimates period Australia’s humanitarian intake would revert to current policy settings,” the Greens’ parameters say.
Greens’ immigration spokeswoman Senator Sarah Hanson-Young insists the party did not intend for the intake to drop back to 13,750.
“It is the Greens’ intention that the number of people we help would remain at 50,000 per year,” Hanson-Young told The Saturday Paper. “But the mix of humanitarian and skilled refugee visas could change beyond the [four years of the] forward estimates. Any change in that mix would affect the cost of the policy, making a medium-term projection unreliable, and so was not included in the costing.”
The PBO cast doubt on its own costing because of the nature of the parameters.
“This costing is considered to be of low reliability due to the considerable uncertainty around the magnitude of the potential behavioural responses, particularly the number of boat arrival asylum seekers,” the PBO document says.
“This analysis does not include any potential impact of the proposal on the numbers of asylum seekers, as it is not able to be determined with any accuracy. Any change in arrival rates as a result of this proposal could significantly alter its financial impact.”
Hanson-Young acknowledges that the Greens’ policy to increase the intake contains variables that make it hard to cost.
Much of the Greens’ campaign material on asylum policy promoted the increase to 50,000 along with a $2.9 billion saving from closing the detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru – a policy the party says makes its planned increased intake “cost neutral”.
“People seeking asylum have been an asset to Australia for generations and they can help make our country stronger than it has ever been,” their policy document says. “Closing the offshore detention camps will let us save money, while creating a safe way for people to seek asylum in Australia and helping 50,000 people per year.”
That included the 40,000 a year in the humanitarian category – although the statement doesn’t stipulate that level would only be reached in two years for two years – and the rest in a new special category that would reserve 10,000 places in the existing skilled migration program for skilled humanitarian applicants.
Further down the policy document, it says the $2.9 billion estimated savings from closing offshore detention centres would be “reinvested into a fairer system that helps more people”.
“It’s clear that closing Manus Island and Nauru and putting a time line on detention saves a significant amount of money over the long term,” Hanson-Young said.
But when the Greens lodged their final “fully costed election platform” with the PBO on election eve, the closure of the offshore detention centres was not listed at all.
In the wake of the July 2 election, the Greens face the prospect of losing at least one and possibly up to three of their senate seats for a net gain in the house of representatives of none, beyond the one already held by Adam Bandt.
But because of a double-digit swing in the inner-city seats where they had focused their campaign, leader Richard Di Natale has been claiming the campaign as a success.
Di Natale speculated this week that perhaps voters now perceived the Greens as a major party, therefore supporting them in the lower house but eschewing them in favour of smaller, newer parties in the senate.
It is spin worthy of a major party. And the Greens aren’t alone there.
Labor is claiming victory in the face of defeat after its Medicare privatisation scare swung voters dramatically away from the government in the campaign’s final days.
One senior Labor figure says there hasn’t been a scare of this magnitude since the “reds under the beds” anti-communist campaigns that began in the late 1940s.
Labor’s claim in the run-down to the poll that the Coalition planned to sell off the public health provider resonated with enough voters in the right places that it almost won Labor government – on its second-lowest primary vote ever.
One such seat is Lindsay in Western Sydney, where the defeated member, Fiona Scott, blames what she says was Labor deception about Medicare for her loss.
Scott, a former corporate marketing executive, argues there should be laws governing the spin put on political messaging during election campaigns, to punish those spreading untruths.
Scott points to trade practices law which, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission confirms, makes it “illegal for a business to engage in conduct that misleads or deceives or is likely to mislead or deceive consumers or other businesses”.
“It makes no difference whether the business intended to mislead you or not,” the commission says. “If the overall impression left by a business’s advertisement, promotion, quotation, statement or other representation creates a misleading impression in your mind – such as to the price, value or the quality of any goods and services – then the behaviour is likely to breach the law.”
In the corporate world, the law allows for one exception – in the case of “puffery”, which is exaggeration so wild or vague that it couldn’t possibly be treated seriously, such as claiming to have “the best steaks in the world”.
Scott believes Labor’s campaign on Medicare went beyond puffery.
“Why are political parties and unions not held to the same account as corporations are? Political parties and legislators should be held to at least the [same] account as corporations are.”
One of Scott’s constituents has complained that she was bailed up outside a polling booth and told that if she had a heart attack in Penrith, she couldn’t be treated at Nepean Hospital because its roof had collapsed due to Liberal Party funding cuts, and that the Liberals planned to further privatise Medicare. The woman didn’t believe it but was angry she’d been approached in that way.
Scott argues it has certainly been damaging to her. “I lost my job over it … Companies deserve that form of protection … Australian voters deserve that form of protection.”
On election day, Scott posted a photograph on her Facebook page allegedly depicting Labor campaign workers in the early hours of that morning tearing down her posters at a polling booth.
“It is a federal offence to rip down Corflute signs,” her post says.
Scott has lodged a complaint with the Australian Electoral Commission about the behaviour of Labor and its employees and volunteers in her electorate.
Her Liberal colleague Craig Laundy was returned in his seat of Reid but experienced similar things and is also complaining.
Laundy says that during the campaign, he would arrive at a railway station to talk to passing commuters and soon after, “two black shirts” from unions would turn up and stand behind him and start shouting about saving Medicare “and other things”.
“It’s just all based around a lie,” Laundy says. “Not coming from a political background, it was a bit of an eye-opener … Things like robocalls – text messages to private emails.”
Laundy says it’s time for the Australian Electoral Commission to look at fact-checking political advertising.
But the commission is clear on the issue of content: “The AEC has no role in regulating the political content of electoral advertising.”
Electoral law provides punishment for misleading voters on how to cast a valid vote but not on the content of political messages. As the commission says: “This means that the AEC has no role or responsibility in handling complaints about allegedly untrue statements in published or broadcast electoral advertisements that are intended to influence the judgement of voters about who they should vote for.”
The issue of policing truth in political campaigning was tested in a case before the High Court in 1981, Evans v Crichton-Browne, in which the court ruled it also had no role in regulating the arguments.
“In a campaign ranging over a wide variety of matters,” the court found, “many of the issues canvassed are likely to be unsuited to resolution in legal proceedings, and a court should not attribute to the parliament an intention to expose election issues to the potential requirement of legal proof in the absence of clear words.”
In other words, the judges believed it wasn’t for them to say that parliament wanted election issues canvassed in public debate to be subject to legal tests for truth.
As one electoral expert observes: “How do you have an arbiter of the truth?”
Labor has levelled the same allegations of dirty spin against the Coalition in the West Australian seat of Cowan. There, the Liberals accused Labor candidate and deradicalisation advocate Dr Anne Aly of being soft on terrorism because she had recommended that jailed self-styled Islamic preacher Junaid Thorne be a candidate for a deradicalisation program.
Victorious in the seat over the Liberal incumbent, Luke Simpkins, Aly has since said her election as the first Muslim woman to federal parliament showed that “smears” did not work.
But the spin in elections doesn’t end on election day. Spinning the result is as important as the pitch on the way there.
This week, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull laid out his terms for interpreting the result.
“I know that Mr Shorten’s attempt at a victory lap might have misled you,” Turnbull said at a news conference, referring to his opponent’s continuing post-election circumnavigation of the country, thanking Labor candidates and supporters.
“But we have actually won the election. That’s the mandate. We’ve won the election. We have a majority in the house of representatives.”
Shorten is also seeking to set a victory narrative in place, despite his party’s low vote overall.
But as Attorney-General George Brandis quipped on ABC TV’s Q&A program on Monday night: “There are no prizes for second place in this business”.
Responding to comments from deputy Labor leader Tanya Plibersek, he said: “We won the election. We won the election clearly. We won the election, by the way, with a better result than John Howard was able to achieve in 1998, for example, and he went on for another decade.”
Turnbull and his closest supporters are forced to define mandate as including this narrowest of victories to avoid having the government seen as precarious in the way Julia Gillard’s was. They’re also seeking to hold off the push from the conservative wing of the party.
The conservatives want to use the Liberal-Nationals’ near-death experience to claim a right to greater influence over the party’s policymaking direction and decision-making generally.
Leading the charge is former minister Kevin Andrews, who now takes on the mantle of “father of the house” following the retirement of the previously longest-serving MP, Philip Ruddock.
Andrews and fellow dumped frontbencher Eric Abetz are calling on Turnbull to appoint predecessor Tony Abbott to the new ministry.
They are suggesting Turnbull’s near-defeat means voters want – or perhaps need – a Liberal Party guided more firmly by conservative views.
Turnbull is set to appoint his frontbench next week, when Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove returns from Bastille Day celebrations in France to swear them in.
There is no indication he’ll accede to the demands – or that any of the spinning from any of the parties will stop any time soon.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 16, 2016 as "Hard politics and messy spin". Subscribe here.