Look, down in the gutter, is it a cat, is it a window, is it a brand? No, it’s PETER DUTTON!
Recently the Minister for Home Affairs, the Honourable Peter Dutton, suggested that certain protestors should have their welfare benefits cut, face mandatory jail sentences, and be publicly shamed.
Even for Dutton this seemed pretty extreme, unless viewed through the cynical lens of contemporary right-wing political practice, because in fact this kind of statement comes straight out of the playbook.
Superficially it might look like a statement about political protestors, or perhaps about welfare, but in reality its accomplishing multiple goals:
- It’s a classic Crosby-Textor “dead cat”
- It’s designed to move the Overton Window
- It reinforces Dutton’s brand as a tough, uncompromising right-winger
- It exhausts the opposition, constantly having to refute rubbish
- It’s part of a government-wide smear campaign against the vulnerable
The Smear Campaign
To take the last point first, for a government frequently criticised for being a policy-free zone the Morrison government has been both prolific and punitive when it comes to policies “caring” for Australia’s most vulnerable. Since May, it has announced or brought in the following:
- Drug-testing welfare recipients, despite opposition from experts
- Rolling out the cashless welfare or “Indue” card despite considerable evidence it doesn’t work
- Adding more onerous provisions to ParentsNext payments, frequently disadvantaging the most vulnerable group, single mothers
- Continuing and ramping up the infamous “Robodebt” recovery program, shortly to be the subject of a class action challenge
- Refusing even to discuss raising the unemployment or “Newstart” allowance which has had no effective increase in twenty years
In addition to these formal moves, all of which will hurt the already vulnerable, the government has mounted a public-relations attack on the same groups. Dutton’s pronouncement, made to the 2GB radio audience rather than as a formal policy, is only the latest in a sequence of similar variations on a theme.
In Dutton’s case he’s simultaneously linking the ideas that (climate) protest is a fundamentally illegal activity, and that anyone receiving government assistance can automatically forfeit even basic human rights. In fact, not only can they forfeit rights, but they can and should be subject to degrading and humiliating treatment because they’re receiving assistance.
The Social Services Minister, Anne Ruston, after raising the prospect of drug tests for welfare recipients again deliberately linked the themes of drugs and welfare by suggesting that raising the Newstart allowance would just be a gift to drug dealers. Remember, this isn’t a backbencher, this is the actual Minister for Social Services! She subsequently backed away from this comment, but when seen in the overall context of the government’s strategy it’s obvious this wasn’t a chance remark at all, it was a deliberate provocation just like Dutton’s, and with the same intended results – people on welfare are just drug users, and don’t deserve even the money they currently receive.
When global accounting firm KPMG recently came out in favour of an increase to Newstart, Liberal MP Andrew Laming promptly appeared on TV claiming, with absolutely no evidence, that KPMG were “making it up” and that it was “rubbish“.
Senator Hollie Hughes’ contribution to the inquiry into Robodebt was to chide participants for calling it “Robodebt”. Apparently Senator Hughes thought that the most important problem people faced, when presented with incorrect, ruinous debts was the name “Robodebt”, and it was causing needless anxiety…
Of course the almost universal epithet “dole bludger” has entered the lexicon thanks to endless headlines and repetitions in the predominantly Murdoch press.
There are many more examples, but the same basic themes recur: people receiving government assistance are not worthy of compassion. Rather they are lazy, obligation-shirking, drug-taking bludgers. They are a burden on the public purse, they don’t even deserve the basic rights and freedoms any ordinary Australian can claim. They should be given less than the bare minimum needed to survive, and be subjected to onerous and humiliating tests and requirements in the pretence that these will make them worthy of a job or assistance.
They deserve to be punished for being vulnerable.
It’s The Poor’s Fault
The fact that there are three times as many unemployed as jobs is irrelevant, as are all of the arguments by all of the experts, and all of the hard data demonstrating that none of these policies work. Because this is not a government driven by facts, or even by public opinion. It’s a government driven by a moral ideology that poor and suffering people are poor and suffering through their own fault.
Perhaps this should come as no surprise when the Prime Minister himself believes that wealth is God’s reward, and poor people are poor because God is punishing them.
More generally, social research shows quite clearly that conservative or right-wing voters genuinely believe that poor people are poor through their own fault, and that they deserve punishment rather than help.
This research from the U.S. Pew Research Center illustrates the point starkly. Around sixty percent of Republicans think the poor are poor because they’re lazy (even if they work two jobs!), while only twenty-five percent of Democrats believe this. Contrariwise, the majority of Democrats think it’s due to circumstance, and only a small proportion of Republicans do.
Now the evidence on entitlement and the role played by chance and external factors in success is overwhelming, but the conservatives not only retain this belief, they’re happy to ignore experts and research when it suits, and this is entirely consistent with the idea that people value values more than facts. How else could they continue to propose policies that are totally unsupported by facts, in fact which the facts show don’t work.
However the Australian public don’t share these extreme beliefs, so it’s the government’s job to persuade them, which brings us back to goals 1,2, 3 and 4 above.
The Dead Cat
The government has been somewhat on the back foot on welfare since the widespread and vocal debate about Newstart, a discussion that even predated the election, and led to apparent internal division only months into the new parliament.
Likewise the continuing global focus on the climate emergency is not showing the six-year incumbents in a flattering light.
With the prospect of Senate enquiries into both Robodebt and Newstart, together with the global and continuing protests on the climate emergency, the government needs circuit breakers to grab the headlines and control discussion and debate.
Enter, or rather fling, the dead cat.
The dead cat is a technique straight out of the dirty-tricks playbook of Crosby-Textor. The basic idea is simple; if you’re losing an argument on facts, or you want to change the subject, you throw a dead cat onto the table, metaphorically speaking.
Dutton’s ridiculous suggestion was a dead cat. It was a deliberately outrageous, provocative suggestion designed to produce comment, discussion, outrage, and ideally to divide the community. Like it or not, whatever the headlines and discussion were previously, they’re now about Dutton’s remark. The cat has done its work.
“But what about the odium or even ridicule that Dutton will suffer?” you ask. Easy. It’s three years to an election, and he can just say he was joking. This story will be gone in a week, unless they want it to continue, and Dutton will suffer not one bit. If anything, his reputation as a hard-headed right-winger will be enhanced.
Which brings us to the window
The Overton Window
This idea, simply put, is that for any policy or proposal there is a range of publicly acceptable variations, and outside those there are ideas that, currently, are regarded as being too extreme or dangerous. The acceptable ideas are within the “Overton window”.
If you want to move public opinion so that people see a currently unacceptable idea as acceptable, you have to move the window, and clearly there are two basic ways of doing this: incrementally, or in a leap.
The incremental approach consists of arguing for the idea that is only just outside the window, trying to move public opinion in tiny increments in the direction you’d like.
The other approach is to propose and support an idea that is way outside the window, and currently much more radical than the public accept.
This latter is the technique currently in daily use by President Trump and his administration, and has been used here by Dutton. Its purpose is not to get immediate agreement to an idea that was unthinkable yesterday. Rather the whole purpose is to make the unthinkable thinkable. If a major public figure suggests something so extreme in one direction it forces discussion into canvassing ideas in that direction. While the original idea might still be unacceptable, suddenly less extreme versions of the same idea become worthy at least of discussion and debate.
The window has been moved, even though people don’t realise it.
Climate protest is illegal activity by dole bludgers? We should cut off welfare for protest? Public shaming for naughty welfare recipients? Maybe those are too extreme, but now the idea that protest deserves punishment, and that welfare should be conditional on good behaviour, suddenly those ideas are in play.
The window has been moved.
Peter Dutton, Right Wing Hero
So in one outrageous, appalling remark, Dutton has accomplished many things, not the least of which is to cement himself in the public mind as the hard man of the coalition. That won’t help him today, but when the leadership rhetoric starts up again, and the politics of fear and uncertainty and invasion are cranked up again it will be the strongest leader who appeals the most, and that’s the mantle Dutton wants to wear.
Moreover, he’s achieved all this with a thirty-second radio grab.
Anybody following the Trump regime in the U.S. will have experienced this. Every day brings some new craziness, a new outrageous policy or idea that has to be refuted.
The advantage is entirely with the proponent. Like Trump, Dutton only has to spend thirty seconds on the radio or on Twitter to let loose an idea that will consume possibly many days of news cycles, and cause all of his opponents to rush off (like me, here…) to write articles and go on talk shows explaining why it’s a terrible idea.
Thirty seconds effort, days of reward. And if in the end the idea tanks, it’s simply quietly left behind and something else is tried. These ideas are all trial balloons, checking to see how far the public will let him go, how far he’s managed to move the window, and if this one fails there will be another one next week.
So this wasn’t a momentary lapse or brain fade, as Ruston would have you believe, it’s a calculated step in a deliberate, brutal propaganda war on the vulnerable, and ultimately our democracy.
Don’t fall for it.