In Douglas Adams’ wonderful Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy in Four Parts, a giant computer called Deep Thought is built to calculate the answer to “the ultimate question about life, the universe and everything”. After 71/2 million years of deliberations it delivers the answer – 42 – and when everyone’s disappointed, it kindly points out that perhaps they didn’t know what the question was.
That’s the problem with answers. They are highly dependent on the question you ask.
Which brings me to the Commission of Audit and Strong Choices, federal and state examples of the LNP’s propaganda campaign to persuade Australians that we are in dire straits economically and we must all suffer cuts to services we think are essential to a healthy society and good quality of life – health, education and pensions for the elderly.
The terms of reference for the Commission of Audit do not ask “how do we make Australia’s economy strong for the future?”.
They do not ask “How do we ensure all Australians can participate in society.”
They do not ask “How do we maintain our belief in a fair go for all in a difficult global economy”.
They ask “How do we deliver a budget surplus” – the underpinning implication being that a budget surplus is a Good Thing. This is a furphy.
Likewise, the Queensland LNP’s Strong Choices campaign, which is a propaganda campaign dressed up as public consultation, the question is not “How do we make ordinary Queenslanders’ lives more comfortable?”. The survey only gives people the opportunity to decide what public spending is cut and what public assets are sold. If you try to say “I disagree that we need to make cuts or sell assets”, it tells you you’re wrong and you can’t complete the survey.
The LNP are using tried and true propaganda techniques to try to terrify the Australian public into believing that ordinary people – wage and salary earners, benefit recipients and small & medium business operators – must suffer in order to deal with an economic crisis.
Strong Choices is an example of the false dilemma, or false dichotomy propaganda technique. Queenslanders are presented with only two choices, as though that is the limit of options available to the government. When people choose the ‘least worst’ of the two, the LNP government will then say that they are just doing what the people wanted. Democracy in action – not!
Propaganda was first defined in the early 20th century, and it was refined by one of the all-time masters of the dark art: the National Socialist Party of Germany. At the Nuremberg trial, Goering famously said
“Of course the people don’t want war. But after all, it’s the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger.”
The economic ‘war’ we are being dragged into by the LNP is variously framed as a war on ‘out of control’ public spending by Labor (overlooking the big-spending habits of the Howard government), a war on ‘entitlement’ (which extends to pensioners – including war veterans – and disabled people but not to MPs and mining companies) and a war on debt.
Of course, the war metaphor is also being used to justify our inhumane asylum seeker policy. “Stop the boats” is called Operation Sovereign Borders, telling us we are supposed to believe that desperate people in leaky fishing boats are somehow a threat to our ability to govern ourselves as a nation. If you oppose this policy, you are positioned as a supporter of ‘evil people smugglers’ or as someone who wants asylum seekers to drown at sea.
In both cases (economy and refugees) the appeal to fear is the primary propaganda technique being used. If we do not make cuts to essential services and sell public assets to the private sector some terrible future will eventuate. On releasing the Commission of Audit, the Treasurer Joe Hockey said that if we don’t do the things laid out in the recommendations, Australians will have to suffer a lower standard of living in the future. Scary, huh? The trouble is, his solution is to make us suffer a lower standard of living now.
The commissions of audits at both state and federal level are all part of the propaganda too. This is appeal to a false authority. In both cases, people who would give the answers the government wants were appointed to run the commission, which is then referred to as though it is an independent authority. Queensland appointed former federal treasurer Peter Costello, Hockey appointed the head of the Business Council of Australia, an organisation that represents the interests of big business. It is very much in the interests of big business to sell public assets to private enterprise. In the UK, the sale of the Royal Mail (at half its actual value) earned one private company £8million in a week.
Telling us that a budget surplus is a necessary condition of a strong economy is an example of circular reasoning: if an economy with a surplus is a strong economy then to have a strong economy you must have a surplus. This is simply not true. It is actually a very sound economic principle to borrow money to pay for things that deliver value over the long term (like infrastructure, education and health care do). Debt is not an intrinsically Bad Thing. And Australia has one of the lowest debt to GDP ratios in the OECD anyway, and will do even if all the scary things Hockey is warning us of come to pass.
I could go on (and no doubt will). The point is that we are being sold lies. There is no economic crisis. On almost every measure of economic well-being, Australia ranks amongst the top in the world.
There’s no doubt that Australia’s economy does need reform. We’ve relied too long on the resources sector delivering growth and there are structural inequalities that need addressing. The trouble is, at both state and federal level, the LNP are more interested in persuading us to admire the Emperor’s new clothes than they are in admitting that he isn’t wearing any. Arm yourself with the facts. Don’t believe the spin.
Some handy references: