In a sure sign we've reached the business end of the federal election campaign, the major parties have begun to "go negative". Earlier this week, the Liberal Party launched a television advertisement on the theme of "Same old Labor – Bill Shorten against tax cuts", and history suggests there'll be many more in the three weeks that remain until polling day. Labor's first negative campaign ad, "Malcolm Turnbull – seriously out of touch" has been airing since the start of the campaign.
The dirty tricks campaign began this week, too, with Eden-Monaro voters receiving a mobile phone text message purportedly from sitting member Peter Hendy apologising for letting them down, and imploring them to "vote different". Labor's candidate for Eden-Monaro denies it came from his camp, which is probably true as surely no self-respecting campaign operative would concoct such a juvenile and transparent ploy as this. Then again, there's no end of useful idiots prepared to further their chosen cause, either by playing the daring political jester or resorting to more heinous acts.
In a similar vein of inanity, someone has tweaked the katygallagher.com domain name to ensure visitors are immediately re-directed to ACT Liberal senator Zed Seselja's website. Since ACT Labor senator Katy Gallagher's official website is katygallagher.net, no great harm has resulted – and in an illustration of the universal appeal of election shenanigans, ACT Labor has coopted zedseselja.com, leaving Senator Seselja to make do with the domain name of zedseselja.com.au.
Politics is about the accumulation of power, authority and influence, and even the most sainted of candidates for elected office learns that sharpened elbows are necessary to attain those goals. All political campaigns, therefore, have an element of negativity. At its most virulent, it usually takes the form of slurs, character assassination, bogus claims and other propaganda – often dispensed by "dirt units" and preferably repeated at length by fellow travellers in the media.
Qualitative research derived from focus groups has lent negative campaigning a sophistication – and stealth – which would astonish the back room operators of yesteryear. Advances in printing and communication technology have aided the propagandists' cause too.
Dirty tricks can be something of a double-edged sword for their practitioners, however. They can be so blatant and partisan as to cause swinging voters (almost always the intended target) to switch off, or to consciously reject the party behind the skulduggery. The more egregious examples – the distribution of bogus pamphlets in the Sydney seat of Lindsay in 2007 by the husband (no less) of the sitting Liberal MP – can rebound badly on party or candidate, making them a laughing stock.
There's a school of thought that liberal democracy is a naturally rough-and-tumble business and that adult voters should be neither surprised nor affronted by political trickery. There's a sizeable portion of the electorate, however, that yearns for less partisanship and greater maturity in political campaigning, and which points to Barack Obama as a refreshing example of that approach.