Hewson's view: Can a scare campaign on boat people save the Morrison government?

Be afraid?: A boatload of asylum seekers arrive on Christmas Island in 2013. The Morrison government is reopening the Christmas Island detention facility claiming the medevac legislation will restart the boats.

Be afraid?: A boatload of asylum seekers arrive on Christmas Island in 2013. The Morrison government is reopening the Christmas Island detention facility claiming the medevac legislation will restart the boats.

This week Scott Morrison launched what will be a massive scare campaign on border security following his historic loss in the Parliament on the so-called medevac legislation.

The legislation supported by Shorten and Labor, backed by key independents and minor parties, simply sought to establish a process whereby those refugees currently on Manus and Nauru, in genuine need of medical treatment, could be temporarily transferred to the mainland for such treatment.

Although to be initially driven by doctors, it allowed for layers of "safeguards" and approvals, with the Minister to have final discretion to block a transfer on national security and criminal grounds.

It was an attempt to introduce a more humanitarian element into a process of offshore detention that had seen around 1000 stuck on these islands for many years, many suffering deteriorating physical and mental health.

Morrison seized it as what he hoped would be an election-winning issue, as it was for Howard in the past, arguing that this legislation, which he also promised to repeal if re-elected, would destroy the offshore processing system by opening the floodgates to a new onslaught of “boat arrivals”, as well as suggesting that those on Manus and Nauru, once here, would find some means to stay.

He then backed this up by reopening the Christmas Island Detention Centre to handle this onslaught, estimating the cost of doing so at some $1.4 billion over four years.

Morrison has refused to acknowledge that there are no genuine signals to people smugglers encouraging them to have another go, nor that it is only confined to those already on Manus and Nauru, not new arrivals.

His decision on Christmas Island is also little more than a stunt, rivalling his similarly desperate decision, when facing the prospect of losing the Wentworth by-election in the final days of his campaign, to move our Israel embassy to Jerusalem.

Morrison has refused to acknowledge that there are no genuine signals to people smugglers encouraging them to have another go.

So, it is a blatant scare campaign that he plans to run hard through to the May election.

Shorten will similarly run scare campaigns on Medicare, as he did so successfully in the last federal election almost seizing government from Turnbull, and probably the banks.

As we have seen several scare campaigns run successfully over decades in this country, it is reasonable to ask whether they will still be as successful as they were in the past, with voters having increasingly lost a lot of faith and trust in our politicians and our political system?

I have the lived experience of two significant scare campaigns in my ’93 election loss, one on the GST and one on health.

Contrary to the now popular myth that it was the GST that did most damage, it was actually a much lower key strategy run into some 13 key marginal seats, flyers, door knocking, local media etc., which swung enough voters in the final 10 days of the campaign.

The successful scare was a totally false claim that it would cost Mum and a couple of kids some $90 to go to a doctor.

In many ways I was an easy target – I was relatively new to politics; my Fightback package called for significant and broad-based reform in almost every area of public policy; I was a “risk”, who knew what I would actually do if elected?

Shorten is much better known, but not really liked with a sizeable negative “net satisfaction” rating in the polls, running second to Morrison as “preferred PM”, seen as far too close to the union movement, and leading a party that under the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd governments did open the floodgates with thousands attempting to come by boat and over 1000 drowning at sea.

Morrison sees all of this to be capitalised on in his scare campaign.

However, a clear message of recent by-elections and the Victorian state election was that voters are increasingly concerned about the inhumanity of our asylum seeker policies, and especially as the government has failed to complete these policies with an effective resettlement strategy – indeed, the NZ offer to take them still sits on the table.

Both major parties have been increasingly “on the nose” and independents are increasingly being seen as both a protest and a hope for better government.

 So be the May election.  

John Hewson is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, ANU, and a former Liberal opposition leader.