Anthony Albanese should know that scare campaigns work

This is the reality of running a fear campaign. Albanese and the management team calculated that the danger of a government attack on the “character test” was serious when the actual change in the law was not significant enough to warrant rejection.

It was a setback – and humiliating, according to the government. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke got what he wanted. His success, however, was undermined by his own admission that the government will run out of time to push the bill through the Senate before the election.

So it was a corner, not an urgent change. Even so, Albanese made sure to show up in Parliament to stand on the same side as Morrison in the vote.

Labor saw the next fear come. Morrison has signaled in the media that he will challenge Labor to pass a gun law amendment that would impose mandatory sentences on offenders – something caucus members have rejected in the past. This time, however, Albanese knew it would have to pass with the support of Labor. To do otherwise would invite another claim that he was soft on crime.

Labor Party Leader in the Lower House, Tony Burke, on Thursday moved to suspend the House Rules and start debate on the Guns Bill. It took the government by surprise, with no minister ready to speak, but Dutton reacted quickly by putting the bill to a vote as soon as possible. He passed the Chamber.

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In minutes, Labor reversed years of policy and sacrificed its age-old concern that mandatory sentencing was bad because it imposed an outcome on judges. It was another setback. But it was a rational political decision to clean up the decks for the election.

“It’s going to be an angry and vicious campaign,” says a Labor leader. “They’re going to be relentless in driving corners, attacking individual character, relying on fear and fueling division.”

The fear of China is the big one, of course. Morrison is desperate, cheeky and shrill. His assertion on Wednesday that Labor MP Richard Marles was the ‘Manchurian candidate’ was outlandish, false and more than a little silly. How could it be otherwise? It refers to someone who is brainwashed by an alien power and driven to commit treason – until the hero of the story stops him.

Incredibly and foolishly, Albanese was stung into repeating this stupid claim himself on Thursday afternoon when he told parliament that Morrison was the real Manchurian candidate. He missed the opportunity to take the high road. He was sucked in by fear.

The intervention of ASIO’s general manager, Mike Burgess, was essential. His interview with Leigh Sales on the ABC 7:30 a.m. Wednesday night was mandatory pre-election viewing. It explodes the myth that one party is more vulnerable than another to the risk of foreign interference.

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Still, Morrison gets everyone talking about work and China. And that’s the point.

Scare campaigns are ugly, but scare campaigns work. Just ask John Howard, who fought hard for border security in 2001 and destabilized Labor long before 9/11 changed the campaign trail. Knowing this story, members of the Labor caucus naturally respond to Morrison by complaining about his fright. But complaining about a fear doesn’t stop it. Having the media on your side doesn’t stop it either.

Labour’s own experience shows how difficult it can be to create a strategy to neutralize and overcome a fear. As Labor leader in the 2016 election, Bill Shorten falsely claimed that it was government policy to privatize Medicare. As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull struggled to dispel the idea as talking about the claim only seemed to spread the vague idea more widely.

Fear of China may hurt the work at a time when it seems underpowered when it comes to defense and national security. The decision to move Marles from the defense portfolio to an economic role, with jobs and reconstruction, now seems reckless. His replacement in the defense portfolio, Brendan O’Connor, is reliable but not aggressive. Shadow attorney general Mark Dreyfus is an advocate rather than the political fighter Labor needs right now.

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Keneally, however, made offense the best form of defense. She was in the media all week with claims the government was fumbling the character test just as she secured a deal within the Labor Party to neutralize the issue.

The contrast between Labor and the coalition in Parliament raises questions about the strength and energy of the Labor team. Morrison stepped up his rhetoric against Albanese this week with help from Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Defense Secretary Peter Dutton when the government chooses to butt heads. The fact that they are rivals for leadership does not prevent them from doing the dirty work; in fact, it gives them an incentive.

Albanese is his own attack dog. That leaves him exposed to Morrison’s mockery over the ‘grunts’ and ‘grunts’ of the man who would be prime minister. Morrison isn’t one to lecture, especially given this week’s inflammatory allegations, but Albanese needs more support. Kevin Rudd led the 2007 campaign with flippant disdain for his opponent while his deputy, Julia Gillard, unleashed missile after missile on the government.

Albanese would need someone like that. He kept the caucus together and refused corners on religion, migration and gun law. Yet the greatest and most powerful fear has only just begun.

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Maria D. Ervin