Wayne Swan: Don't underestimate these noxious tactics

Listening to Michael Howard on asylum and immigration, I feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair this week raised a letter I sent to him warning of the campaign tactics of Lynton Crosby, whom Michael Howard has hired to run his campaign. As I pointed out to Mr Blair, we in the Australian Labor Party have come to know Mr Crosby's tactics well. Now I see them in operation in the UK general election.

Tony Blair this week raised a letter I sent to him warning of the campaign tactics of Lynton Crosby, whom Michael Howard has hired to run his campaign. As I pointed out to Mr Blair, we in the Australian Labor Party have come to know Mr Crosby's tactics well. Now I see them in operation in the UK general election.

Just listen to the words of Michael Howard on asylum and immigration over the last two weeks, and it is clear how closely the British Conservatives have been copying the Australian premier John Howard's 2001 campaign tactic of exploiting fear and race as a substitute for a longer-term policy debate about the future of your country. I feel an overwhelming sense of déjà vu.

Mr Crosby first trialled these fear campaigns in the 1992 Queensland state election, for which I was then Premier Wayne Goss's campaign director. In that campaign, Mr Crosby authorised the broadcast of a cynical television advertisement in which the death of a young Queenslander was exploited for political gain.

The case was also raised in negative newspaper advertisements that accused the Queensland Labor Party of being responsible for a tragic death brought about as a result of government policy. The television advertisement was fiercely criticised, and the Liberal/National Parties were forced to withdraw it quickly in the face of wide condemnation. But Mr Crosby found that it did the trick.

This type of campaign has been Mr Crosby's hallmark ever since. He refined his noxious tactics with the assistance of US Republican Party consultants and his partner, Mark Textor, who has been accused of "push polling" (feeding voters "information" about a candidate under the guise of taking a poll to see how this "information" affects voter preferences). Mr Textor's techniques, coupled with Crosby's cynicism, have proved deadly to progressive parties in the past.

Mr Crosby's 2001 Australian election campaign was perhaps the most despicable waged in Australian political history. It set out deliberately to vilify asylum-seekers, to imply that they were possible terrorists, and to signal a crack-down on immigration. Most of the asylum-seekers exiled in the "Pacific Solution" (in which "boat people" from Indonesia were held in camps on two ocean islands) were subsequently granted entry to Australia.

Again, Mr Crosby did not let the facts get in the way of the campaign. While in the UK recently, I saw coverage of the Tories' adverts in the local press in which they claimed that money spent on asylum and immigration could have been used to lower council tax. This is exactly the sort of thing we have seen in Australia.

The whole point of his 2001 campaign was for the Australian Liberal Party to portray itself as anti-immigrant to exploit national security fears in order to deflect attention from the impact of Liberal Party tax policies and cuts to health and education spending.

So what can the Labour Party and the British public expect in the closing days of the campaign? Crosby's Tories will now deliberately focus on a small number of core issues in key marginal seats. It suits their purposes to be behind in the national polls because it helps them say to people that Labour are "home and dry" and what voters should do is "send a message". This is the "back door" strategy.

You can expect Mr Crosby to deluge selected constituencies in the last week of the campaign with written material highlighting these issues. The letters will be prefaced with the claim that the Tories can't win so "just send a message" to Mr Blair. They will be delivered too late in the campaign for New Labour to respond or for the Tories' tactic to be held accountable in the media.

It is of little surprise to me to see the Conservative Party in Britain displaying these very same tactics and techniques in 2005. Rather than the realistic and honest presentation of workable policies, they choose to impose on to the political landscape of another country the fear campaigning that has worked for them in Australia.

My message to Tony Blair has been just this. Do not underestimate the nature of the campaign the Conservatives are fighting. Above all, expose it. I believe the British people must be persuaded that a campaign like this deserves to be punished at the polls.

The writer is an Australian Labor MP. He currently holds the post of Shadow Treasurer

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