Archaeologists scratching away at the ruins of Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius were surprised to unearth what is now considered to be one of the earliest examples of political sloganeering.
Scrawled on the side of a lava-encased building was a piece of graffiti talking up a candidate for election as local magistrate.
“I ask you to elect Gaius Julius Polybius,” it read. “He gets good bread.”
It’s not quite as snappy as “It’s Time”, but promising “good bread” in those days was apparently quite a lure.
Scholars in the classics tell us that the common loaf in the Pompeian marketplace had all the texture and taste of a house brick. Slogans have improved since then, although not as much as bread has.
John Howard employed one memorable slogan to great effect in the 2004 campaign, trying to convince people that voting for Mark Latham’s Labor would imperil their mortgages.
“Keeping interest rates low!” screamed the banners on every lectern he clutched and every podium he mounted. Howard promised that “interest rates would always be lower under a Coalition Government”.
He won the election, but lost the argument over the next three years as five successive interest rate rises put the lie to his slogan and helped propel Kevin Rudd to the landslide victory that removed Howard from government and his own seat.
Now, Scott Morrison has started to employ a variation on the Howard theme with his assurance that “the economy will always be stronger under the Coalition”.
And in doing so, he insists he is definitely, absolutely, irrefutably not saying that Labor would send the economy spiralling into recession.
For any prime minister to stoke so much economic fear would be reckless in the extreme.
However — nudge, nudge, wink, wink — if you were to think that Labor would tax and spend the entire Australian economic miracle into a fiery pit of recessive hell, then who is Scott Morrison to suggest otherwise?
In a speech to a business summit this week, Morrison noted that half the voters at the coming election would never have experienced a recession in their working lives. That’s because the last recession was in the early 90s, when Labor was in power.
Mind you, he wasn’t suggesting a return to Labor would lead to another recession. Of course, not.
Those voters, he said, would never have faced 18 per cent interest rates on their mortgages or battled to get a job during a recession, which again hasn’t happened since 1991 under Labor.
That, of course, was not to suggest that a vote for Labor would mean a return to soaring interest rates, massive job losses and wealth-destroying recession. Far from it.
And he was in no way suggesting that when he said this:
“I was one of those who entered the economy under Labor in the 1990s that went into recession. We can’t go back to that.”
By saying Labor led us into recession and we can’t go back there, he was, apparently, also not saying that.
And if you believe that, I’ve got a harbour bridge to sell you.
“I’m just being honest with the Australian people about what the impact would be,” Morrison said.
By saying Labor led us into recession and we can’t go back there, he was, apparently, also not saying that. And if you believe that, I’ve got a harbour bridge to sell you.
So, it was with great glee that Labor declared this week with a similar degree of deception that the disappointing GDP figures meant the economy was already in what it called “a per capita recession”.
And what is that exactly? It’s a phony metric that doesn’t mean very much of anything at all in an economic sense. But that’s not the point.
The main thing is that it’s a term that includes the word “recession”. And “recession” in the current political discussion is a word with the destructive half-life of plutonium.
Labor’s also arguing that it’s hard for the Government to mount a scare campaign on the prospects of going into recession when we’re already in one, if only in an obtuse, per capita sense.
Evidently, the ability to talk straight about the economy is the product of a recessive gene that has skipped this generation of politicians. It’s the sort of debate that reminds voters why politics at present is about as appetising as a loaf of Pompeian bread.
Which brings us back to Polybius the baker. He won the election but lost his life in the volcanic eruption. The lesson? Politicians, no matter how effective their slogans, usually end up toast.
Mark Riley is the Seven Network’s Political Editor. He is the 2018 Walkley Award winner for commentary writing.