Labor’s pensioner scare campaign wedges Coalition between a rock and a hard place

When Labor looked back at its bruising and unexpected 2019 federal election loss, it had a clear conclusion: the party likely lost votes because of false claims it intended to introduce a “death tax” and when MPs tried to rebut them, it just made matters worse.

It learned just how damaging such a campaign can be, and months out from the next election, which must be held by May, Labor MPs are sharing videos and posts on social media claiming a re-elected Coalition government will force aged pensioners onto cashless debit cards.

Social Services Minister Anne Ruston is fighting a scare campaign from Labor claiming the government wants to force pensioners onto a controversial cashless debit card. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen/ screenshot

Those cards are being used in five regional communities and the Northern Territory and are designed to stop welfare recipients spending on alcohol and gambling by quarantining money from cash withdrawals, gift card purchases or spending on prohibited goods.

The political downsides of rolling out that system, which critics already view as paternalistic and counterproductive for people who may need cash to fund their children’s school activities or purchase second hand goods, are obvious.

“Only a government with an electoral death wish would restrict millions of age pensioners to drinking fruit juice and playing poker with match sticks,” as one pensioners’ lobby group put it.

But the Coalition government does not have a death wish and Social Services Minister Anne Ruston has declared the government will not force pensioners onto the cashless debit card.

“I can categorically say there never has, there isn’t and there never will be under this government any intention to require age pensioners to go on to the cashless debit card,” Senator Ruston told Senate estimates in October. “I can repeat that all day if you would like me to.”

But it hasn’t stopped Labor’s social campaign, where a growing group of MPs are flooding Facebook with warnings that pensioners should be wary.

Justine Elliott, Labor’s MP for Richmond on the NSW north coast, kicked it off in June this year saying senior citizens should say goodbye to cheap food and drinks at your local club and pub, or even buying a lotto ticket. Her reasons were quite transparent. She has a huge number of retirees in her patch.

But more and more members of Parliament and candidates followed – in Melbourne, Tasmania, Perth, regional Queensland and NSW. Warren Snowden, the retiring MP from the Northern Territory, took out a half page advertisement in the NT News.

Labor’s deputy leader Richard Marles is the highest ranking opposition MP to buy in, declaring this month the government wanted to force pensioners onto the card.

“That’s a fact. Stop lying to people,” Mr Marles wrote replying Senator Ruston on a Facebook post which engaged thousands of his followers. “Only Labor can form a government to get rid of Scott Morrison and scrap the cruel cashless debit card for good.”

Mr Marles based his claim on government legislation introduced to Parliament last year, which allows aged pensioners to be put onto the cashless debit card in extremely narrow circumstances coupled with an assertion the government wants to go further.

That appears to based on previous comments from Senator Ruston that the government was looking at expanding the cashless debit card geographically (though not to aged pensioners) and transferring people from other income management programs to the card.

Marles’ leadership colleagues Anthony Albanese and Penny Wong have not joined in the social media campaign. Privately, some senior Labor figures are uncomfortable with the tactic.

Ian Yates, the executive director of COTA Australia, which advocates on social policy for all older persons in and Australia, says the campaign is increasingly scaring pensioners.

He said calls to the body are growing and people need to know “it’s just not true”.

“The minister recently wrote to me to reassure all pensioners that this will never occur,” he said.

“If you have heard or read this allegation – do not be alarmed, it’s not going to happen.”

In the October Senate estimates hearing Senator Ruston pointed to the three rare situations where seniors can be put on the cashless debit card to note “the federal government, in and of itself, has no power whatsoever to force any age pensioner on to the cashless debit card”.

The first is where an aged pensioner chooses to go onto the card. Second, in Cape York, the independent Family Responsibilities commission also has the power to put seniors on the cashless debit card.

“The only other circumstance in which an age pensioner can be required to go on to the card is under the state and territory vulnerability provisions, which, for instance, may be someone under a child protection order and the like,” Senator Ruston said.

Anne Ruston has engaged on some of Labor’s posts, but one expert warns it’s a losing battle.Credit:

All up, Senate estimates heard in October just 25 seniors were on the cashless debit card. Liz Hefren-Webb, a deputy secretary at the Department of Social Services, said those people were largely in Cape York where local leaders and the Family Responsibilities Commission requested continued access to the card. “The five elsewhere would be volunteers,” she said.

Senator Ruston has not just been fighting the fight in Parliament, where the cashless pension claims have not been a well-publicised issue, but online where she has been responding to Labor posts, describing it as a “shameful scare campaign” aimed at age pensioners based on “blatant lies”.

Scott Wright, a professor of political communication at Monash University, said there were no good options for a politician who is faced with a misinformation campaign.

“Politicians are stuck between a rock and hard place here – they can’t win – which is partly why such campaigns can be effective,” Professor Wright said. “They arguably do need to correct the record, but when they do, it just serves to boost the story.”

Even mainstream media stories debunking false claims can lead to niche scare campaigns being amplified to a much larger audience than the relatively small number of Australians who follow politicians directly on social media, Professor Wright said.

“This story, even if calling it out, will amplify it to a much wider audience and helps it to set the agenda,” he said. “Some readers will negatively link Labor to the campaign tactic, but many will also – even if unconsciously – be primed to associate the LNP with the false claim.”

Labor used a similar campaign, widely known as “Mediscare” to its advantage in the 2016 election, warning the Coalition planned to privatise the publicly funded universal health care insurance scheme.

It culminated in automated calls to senior Australians on the eve of the election, telling them their healthcare was under threat. A furious Malcolm Turnbull, who had lost 14 seats and barely hung on to power, dubbed it the “shameful episode in Australian political history”.

But in 2019, Labor was on the other side, facing a subterranean campaign that it was proposing to tax Australians “from the cradle to the grave”. The Coalition said neither the Morrison government nor the campaign had any knowledge or connection to the posts.

The message spread through social media over Easter and grew and grew. After furious calls and emails to the social media giant, Facebook later “demoted” thousands of posts to reduce the prominence of false warnings and in two instances blocked mass networks of groups and people who were misleading voters.

A review into the shock campaign loss found when Labor responded in the mainstream media to the death tax scare campaign it made matters worse, with its denial being used by the Coalition to intensify and expand the social media discussion of Labor’s non-existent death tax policy.

Facebook’s general attitude is that unless content is not just false but dangerous or illegal, such as vaccine misinformation, hate speech or child abuse material, it will stay online.

While a Facebook spokesman told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age during a post-mortem of the death tax saga that “we don’t have a policy that prevents individuals from sharing false information” its new line is more nuanced.

It now emphasises fact checking and the warning labels it puts on stories rated false, altered or partly false. Those stories are then showed to fewer people but politicians are exempt from the third-party fact checking program because of their role in public debate.

Josh Machin, head of public policy in Australia for the newly renamed company behind Facebook, Meta, said it had learned a lot from working on elections globally in recent years.

“Our approach includes finding and removing millions of fake accounts every day, reducing misinformation, disrupting bad actors and coordinated inauthentic behaviour, and bringing an unprecedented level of transparency to ads,” Mr Machin said.

Labor MP Julian Hill – one of the biggest sharers of the material – has drawn up his own private members legislation, titled “Protecting Pensioners from the Cashless Debit Card Bill 2021” and promoted it widely on social media to kick along the campaign. The bill has been slammed as another stunt by the government.

But he objects to the idea he is part of a scare campaign and says the government’s intentions are “clear”.

“My bill gives effect to Labor’s policy to scrap the Liberals’ privatised cashless debit card, liberating thousands of Australians and protecting all pensioners.

“The government can’t be trusted as Mr Morrison has lied before pretending the rollout was a ‘trial’, yet then introduced legislation to make the card permanent and allow all pensioners to be forced onto the card.”

It has raised the ire of Liberal MP Rowan Ramsey, who says Mr Hill’s bill was drawn up simply to establish a platform for a scare campaign.

“That the government will put aged pensioners on the cashless debit card is nothing but a despicable lie, and it needs to be called out. We never have, never will and have never intended to,” he said.

Lucinda Longcroft, Google’s director of government affairs and public policy in Australia and New Zealand said tech companies had an important responsibility to support the democratic process in Australia, and around the world.

She said that included taking action to curb the efforts of those who aim to propagate false information on our platforms.

“Our work on ensuring election integrity is focused on building products to help voters engage with authoritative information, protecting elections and campaigns from interference, and helping participants from all political backgrounds to manage their digital presence,” she said.

Professor Wright says the reality is the vast majority of citizens don’t follow politicians on Twitter or Facebook. But he said such campaigns could be effective to the extent that they reach beyond the usual political suspects to the wider community on and offline.

“Responding to a false story by your political opponents may give it greater legitimacy and encourage the media to cover it,” he said.

“This can also have an agenda-setting effect and also prime people to associate concerns about say their pension to a particular party. The most common effect is to reinforce people’s existing views though.”

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