Politics and propaganda

Damien Cahill, The University of Sydney

Greg Barns Selling the Australian Government: Politics and Propaganda From Whitlam to Howard Sydney, UNSW Press, 2005 (96 pp). ISBN 0-86840-802-6 (paperback) RRP $16.95.

In the lead up to the 2004 federal election, opposition leader, Mark Latham, alleged that the government had set up a secret ‘dirt unit’ to sully his reputation and damage his chances of victory (Yaxley 2004). Funded by public money, this dirt unit, claimed Latham, had been strategically feeding a stream of rumour, innuendo and misinformation about his past to the media. Although only a minor and probably widely forgotten episode in the election campaign, Latham’s allegation raised some disturbing but unanswered questions about the existence of shadowy tax-payer funded partisan groups beyond public scrutiny.

Greg Barns investigates such groups in Selling the Australian Government: Politics and Propaganda From Whitlam to Howard. As Barns reveals, publicly funded propaganda is not the preserve of the current government. Successive Australian federal governments have used public money to fund organisations whose brief is to manipulate the media to partisan advantage. Of course, propaganda has always been a central element of representative politics, but since the 1970s both Labor and Coalition governments have developed new ways of playing an old game. Beginning in the late Whitlam era with the Government Liaison Service, through Fraser’s Government Information Unit, to Hawke and Keating’s National Media Liaison Service (the so-called ‘aNiMaLS’) and culminating with the current Coalition’s Government Members Secretariat (GMS), these euphemistically titled and largely unaccountable units have pursued their brief with increasing sophistication.

While in opposition both Labor and Coalition promise to abolish such organisations—which they do, only to replace them with another of the same type, under a different name. Officially, these organisations perform such benign tasks as training government MPs, and liaising between the government of the day and the news media. Unofficially, however, they use a range of tricks to manage public opinion.

Barns brings insight gained from years working as a Liberal Party staffer.

Barns brings to his investigation insight gained from years working as a Liberal Party staffer. This enables him to paint an intimate portrait of the inner workings of the parliamentary processes and to make informed speculations about the machinations of successive governments’ propaganda units. Such a speculative approach is necessitated by the layers of secrecy which allow the propaganda apparatchiks to carry out their deceit.

Barns’ investigation of the Howard government’s ‘dirt unit’ is a case in point. Like Labor’s aNiMaLS before it, the Coalition’s GMS is housed within the chief government whip’s office. Because the whip’s office is beyond effective parliamentary oversight, such as Senate Estimates hearings, so too is the GMS. Not surprisingly, then, the media was unable to find any conclusive link between the GMS and the supposed ‘dirt unit’ which Mark Latham had accused of digging into his past. Barns, however, does a rather better job than the media. Noting the history of attacks upon the reputations of such dissenters as Andrew Wilkie (the former Office of National Assessments bureaucrat who spilled the beans on the government’s manipulation of intelligence to justify the invasion of Iraq) and Ronald Wilson (the Chair of the inquiry into the Stolen Generation), Barns rightfully concludes that: ‘The evidence clearly shows that trading in gossip and personal venom is part of the Howard government’s armoury’ (p. 53). Indeed, the Coalition has followed Graham Richardson’s maxim of ‘whatever it takes’ far more closely than Labor ever did. The questioning of Latham’s reputation conformed to the government’s preferred methods of dealing with its opponents. Based on this, Barns plots the activities and reputations of some of Howard’s key apparatchiks and argues that it would be foolish to believe that publicly funded advisers and units, such as the GMS, were not involved in the well orchestrated white-anting of the former Labor leader. While the secretive nature of the GMS means we may never know the full truth, this very secrecy suggests that underhanded activities are part of the organisation’s brief.

Barns' study confirms that political propaganda is not an aberration.

The strength of the book is not merely its account of the ways public funds have been channelled disingenuously into partisan political opinion forming. By exposing this deception, Barns opens the door to a consideration of political propaganda today.

Barns’ study confirms that political propaganda is not an aberration. Manipulation, deception, and lies are at the heart of the Australian democratic process. When the core business of government is mass murder, it must be made unthinkable, and unspeakable. As much was recognised by George Orwell nearly half a century ago. In his classic essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ Orwell (1962, p. 153) writes:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.

One could replace the specific references with the use of terror to prosecute a war on terror, the incarceration of the most wretched of humanity, or the destruction of civil liberties in the name of freedom and have a perfect description of contemporary democratic propaganda. Orwell’s words resonate today: ‘Political language … is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’ (Orwell 1962, p. 156).

Yet, to draw parallels between Orwell’s work and modern democracy is to be seen as alarmist. To accuse of propaganda is to be labelled ideological. But it was the authoritarian potential of capitalist democracies that so alarmed Orwell.

Propaganda is not simply telling a lie and forcing it upon an unwitting population.

Propaganda, however, is not simply a case of telling a lie and forcing it upon an unwitting population. It must be crafted, targeted, and in some way related to the deeply held hopes and fears of those it is trying to deceive. Perhaps this helps explain the contradiction that common sense understandings of politics seem to recognise the centrality of propaganda, manipulation, and deception—yet that people also still fall for the con. Why, if people recognise that ‘all politicians are liars’, does the manipulation continue?

Barns offers some clues to understand the mechanics of this process. Towards the end of his book he discusses the major parties’ use of electoral databases to track the political opinions of the citizenry. Bold and sophisticated techniques have been developed by both parties to use this information not only to monitor but to mould, direct and sway public opinion. Some of these techniques were outlined in The Victory, Pamela Williams’ (1997) excellent account of the machinations behind the 1996 federal election campaign. Williams explains how the Liberal Party, using surveys and focus groups, constructed profiles of typical swinging voters—their hopes, their fears, their base emotion—which formed the basis of targeted propaganda, such as claims that Keating’s Labor government was captured by ‘special interests’. Both major parties now employ teams of researchers whose purpose is to identify and monitor these emotions, and construct images, words, and messages that channel such feelings into particular political programs. A string of Coalition election victories suggests that the conservatives currently understand and manipulate these structures of feeling far better than does Labor.

Democracy becomes meaningless when truth and fiction are indistinguishable. This is why Barns is so concerned about the public funding of government propaganda. It undermines the existence of a public realm in which citizens are able to make informed decisions about political issues. Barns’ book follows in the wake of other important contributions such as Don Watson’s (2003) Death Sentence and Dark Victory by David Marr and Marian Wilkinson (2003). Selling the Australian Government deserves a wide audience. It is a timely contribution and should be commended for exposing some of the routine deceptions in Australian political life.


Marr, D. & Wilkinson, M. 2003, Dark Victory, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest.

Orwell, G. 1962, ‘Politics and the English language’ in Inside the Whale and Other Essays, G. Orwell, Penguin, Harmondsworth, pp. 143-157.

Watson, D. 2003, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Random House, Milsons Point.

Williams, P. 1997, The Victory: The Inside Story of the Takeover of Australia, Allen and Unwin, St Leonards.

Yaxley, L. 2004, ‘Latham calls press conference to confront rumours’, PM, ABC Radio, 5 July [Online], Available: http://www.abc.net.au/pm/content/2004/s1147257.htm [2005, Aug 7].

Damien Cahill is a lecturer in Political Economy at The University of Sydney and is a former researcher and adviser to Michael Organ MP.

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