The Art of Scare Campaigning: Past, Present and Future

Words by Felix Eldridge

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Photo from Twitter, Louise Milligan (here)

The effectiveness of scare campaigns as an invaluable electoral asset was one of many lessons learned by the major parties at the last federal election.

In the 2019 Federal Election, there were several scare campaigns that were successfully run. These campaigns were run locally, regionally and nationally.

An example of a regional scare campaign was the pro-Adani campaign run in Northern and Central Queensland. This campaign focused on Labor’s vacillation on the question of building, or not building the Adani coal mine. This issue bitterly divided the nation, with Victoria strongly against the construction of the mine and Queensland strongly in favour of it. Attempting to bridge the gap between inner city progressives in Melbourne and regional working class seats in Queensland, the Labor Party failed to come to a firm decision one way or another. This indecision was exploited by the Coalition, which stated that they were firmly in favour of it and that Labor was doing a deal with the Greens to prevent the mine, and the jobs, from eventuating. This clear explanation benefited the Coalition immensely, especially with working class families who believed Adani would help them.

An example of a national scare campaign run by the Coalition was ‘The Bill Australia Can’t Afford’ advertisement, targeting Bill Shorten’s perceived inability to manage the economy. This advertisement was particularly effective because it associated his name ‘Bill’ with that of an economic detriment, and this played unconsciously into people’s assumptions that Labor was going to increase taxation as per the claims made by the Coalition. In addition to a general perception of mistrust of Labor’s economic credentials, the Coalition exploited Labor’s complex economic policies regarding closing the franking credits loophole. This policy, whatever its merits, was an easy target because it was difficult to understand and therefore easy to misrepresent. Advertisements featuring ‘death taxes’ and ‘hitting retirees’ allowed the Coalition to tap into the fears and insecurities of those relying on franking credits and other tax benefits. This rhetoric was helped by Clive Palmer’s self funded campaign labelling the Labor Leader as ‘Shifty Shorten’.

The effectiveness of scare campaigning is by no means a new phenomenon, but a well-worn path by several victorious governments in the past, mainly, but not exclusively, by the Coalition.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s the Coalition hyped up fears about communism in their election campaigns. In 2001, the Coalition fought the election on the topics of immigration and national security. While not successful, the Labor Party ran a brutally effective campaign in 2016 focused on ‘saving Medicare’, infamously dubbed ‘mediscare’.

When you think about it, mild scare campaigns are the backbone of political battles. The ability to gloss over your faults as being less poor than your opponent’s is a mainstay, as is the issue of trustworthiness, which also featured in this election. In a way, the success of the Coalition scare campaign is less of an innovative campaign strategy and more akin to an annual celebration.

The most fundamental of all scare campaign tactics is simplicity. The best scare campaigns are centred on phrases between two and five words. The slogan “Stop the Boats” is a testament to this.

Scare campaigns work because they exploit fear. A good scare campaign channels pre-existing fears into one avenue like a party, leader or policy. But in essence, the tactics can be applied to almost anything. Psychologically, fear is a powerful driver. People can become incredibly motivated if they feel threatened or attacked, and this is why, despite the constant complaints about them, scare campaigns work and will continue to be used in the future.

If there is one lesson to take away from this election, it is that being the lesser of two evils means little, being the lesser of two fears means everything.

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Adelaide University student magazine since 1932. Edited by Nicholas Birchall, Felix Eldridge, Taylor Fernandez and Larisa Forgac. Email us at

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