If the polls this week are anything to go by, the Morrison Government’s border security scare campaign is working.
The question is, could fear be enough to win the Coalition the election?
“Every [boat] arrival in Australia is on Bill Shorten’s head,” the Prime Minister said after the Coalition’s historic loss over the medevac bill.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton took it a step further, telling 7:30 “we have people that can come to our country from Manus or Nauru, people that have been charged with child sex offences, people that have been charged [with] or have allegations around serious offences including murder”.
The Coalition hopes to reframe the election as a battle over border security, fuelled by the fear of asylum seekers swamping Australia’s shores under a Labor government.
But a look back at previous elections shows scare campaigns can be hit and miss.
When fear works
Fear campaigns are as old as Australian politics itself.
In the 1950s, the Liberal Party would often claim that Labor would allow communists to take over the country.
That transitioned into a relentless campaign against the Labor Party giving too much power to trade unions — a line that continues to this day.
Fast-forward to the notoriously effective “Tampa” campaign orchestrated by the Howard government.
The Coalition’s focus on border security following the Tampa incident won it favour with the electorate and the government was returned to office for a third term later that year.
But fear campaigning is not limited to the conservative side of politics.
Labor’s 2016 “Mediscare” campaign occupied a large chunk of the election coverage, and polling found 50 per cent of the electorate believed that the Coalition would move to privatise Medicare if it won the election.
Labor targeted 1.6 million voters in marginal seats with phone calls and social media posts about saving Medicare, and the activist group GetUp! ran a campaign on saving hospitals, which reinforced Labor’s campaign.
Although the campaign did not lead to Labor winning the election, it did force Malcolm Turnbull to come out in the final days of the election campaign declaring “Medicare will never, ever be privatised”.
When fear backfires
But the fear factor doesn’t always work.
In the lead-up to the Victorian election last November, a key focus of the Liberal opposition’s campaign was the supposed threat from African gangs.
The opposition framed Victoria as the “state of disorder” and pitched crime as the number one issue facing the state, using videos of a small group of about 200 Sudanese men as evidence.
Even federal politicians pitched in, with Mr Dutton claiming that Melbournians were afraid to go out to dinner.
The problem was that it went against the lived reality of people in the state, the majority of whom could see through it as a cynical attempt to shore up votes.
Even Victorian police were at pains to point out that the state does not have a sophisticated organised criminal gang problem with Sudanese youth and that these were isolated incidents.
The Victorian Liberals suffered electoral wipe-out, winning just 28 seats compared with the 37 they held before the election.
So why revert to fear?
Although the public dislikes scare campaigns, polling suggests fearful messaging is more persuasive than positive campaigns.
Once a fear is planted in a voter’s mind — whether it be the threat of immigrants jumping queues to get into the country, or of a marginal group getting some advantage over everyone else — that fear can be a stronger motivator than reason.
In the case of the medevac bill, we already know that it will only apply to those on Nauru and Manus Island currently, not new boat arrivals.
We also know that anyone brought to Australia for medical treatment will be kept in an onshore detention centre.
Yet polling from this week suggests that the Coalition’s border scare is cutting through.
Whether medevac proves to be the Coalition’s “Tampa moment” remains to be seen.
The danger for the Morrison Government is that if voters suspect they’re being manipulated at the expense of vulnerable asylum seekers, the Coalition could face a similar fate to its Victorian colleagues.