On the night of 2 July, 2016, following what was a mostly tepid national election campaign, the (then) Liberal Party prime minister Malcolm Turnbull launched a tirade on national television, asserting that the tactics used by the Labor Party over previous weeks had involved ‘some of the most systematic, well-funded lies ever peddled in Australia’.
Media and academic commentary also centered on this as a key reason for Labor performing better than expected (Errington and van Onselen, 2016; Sydney Morning Herald, July 2, 2016). Notwithstanding this commentary, the effects of the campaign were unproven.
He was referring to the centre-left Labor Party’s negative ‘Mediscare’ campaign. Using a series of television advertisements, Labor claimed the incumbent center-right Liberal-National Party Coalition planned to privatise Australia’s public health care service, Medicare. This was arguably one of the highlights of the 2016 Australian federal election, and has been as the major reason the Coalition only narrowly escaped defeat (by one seat) after just a single term in office (there has not been a one term government national government in Australia since before the Second World War).
Notwithstanding this commentary, the effects of the campaign were unproven.
In our forthcoming article in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties (co-authored with Andrea Carson and Aaron Martin), we aim to ascertain whether the campaign had a measurable effect on the election outcome.
We predicted that a case as dramatic as the Mediscare campaign likely had an impact on issue salience (increasing the perceived importance of healthcare as an election issue) and vote choice. Voters have been shown to have a ‘negativity bias’, and television advertising has been found to notably increase the salience of issues. The use of campaigning and increased media coverage of an issue can in turn prime voters’ decision-making process. The Labor Party attempted to do this with healthcare at the 2016 Australian federal election. Our results indicate they may have been successful.
The full paper can be read here.