The 2022 election reached rock bottom on Monday night when anti-trans rhetoric became a test for who should lead the country.

During the omnishambles of a leaders’ debate, a journalist asked the chief candidates for Prime Minister to define a woman.

“An adult female,” Anthony Albanese said.

“A member of the female sex,” Scott Morrison agreed.

The journo meant to trap the men in a debate about the existence and validity of trans women, one their media teams have trained them to evade. It was an artificial moment in an anaemic competition between two middle-aged men in near-identical suits.

After the debate, Katherine Deves backtracked on her apology for calling trans children “mutilated”. Morrison wrongly claimed that trans kids routinely undergo confirmation surgery, conceding seconds later that this isn’t true.

Never let facts get in the way of a good scare campaign.

Of course, this is hardly the first time minoritised people have played the boogeyman in Australian political discourse. Trans people are the latest in a long list of election-time scapegoats.

In 2001 the Howard Government lied about refugees throwing their children into the ocean, winning them the election. Then, in 2007, it used baseless rumours of “paedophile rings” to justify the abortive NT Intervention.

The Abbott Government again campaigned against refugees in 2013, leading them to victory. More recently, Turnbull Government ministers promoted lies about “African gangs” in a failed attempt to sway the 2018 Victorian election.

The cycle of moral panics reflects the codependent relationship between a media in decline and rulers with little to offer. Outlets are hungry for clicks and the ad revenue they provide, and politicians are eager to distract from how badly conditions have deteriorated.

Real wages have fallen as the cost of living has soared, which is no surprise given that ultra-low wage growth is government policy (yes, really). Meanwhile, official unemployment figures hide the millions of people in insecure work and underemployment.

Millions more scrape by under the poverty line while the major parties push tax cuts for people on $200,000 a year. And, years into a gruelling global pandemic, neither the ALP nor the LNP has agreed to adequately fund GPs, hospitals, dental care or mental health.

Exorbitant degrees have saddled young people with debt, to say nothing of our world-leading car and credit debt. The pandemic forced many to drain their super and some have resorted to predatory “buy now, pay later” schemes to survive.

The government proved it could end poverty overnight when it doubled the JobSeeker rate. Yet, both parties remain committed to starvation welfare levels. Wanna know how many rentals are affordable for singles on Jobseeker? Seven.

For that matter, only 1.6 per cent of rentals are affordable for anyone on the minimum wage. Both parties want to spend more on tax breaks for landlords than public schools, which you’d expect considering around 1 in 2 federal representatives own an investment property.

The Great Barrier Reef just suffered its sixth mass bleaching event and we’re on track to overshoot 1.5C warming. You won’t be surprised that the major parties support new coal mines and take donations from fossil fuel companies. No conflict of interest there.

People are exhausted, overworked and underpaid. The basic physical and institutional structures we need to stay healthy — let alone thrive — have disintegrated from neglect. It’s no wonder the government has welcomed the circus about some genital-obsessed weirdos.

What better way to distract from nine years of inaction on wages, the cost of living, poverty, employment security, inequality, the rental crisis, the climate crisis and so many corruption scandals that it’s impossible to keep track of?

In demonising trans people, the Coalition hopes to attract suburban and regional voters this election. And, plagued by misogyny and rape allegations (plural), Morrison can frame transphobia as feminism in an attempt to win back conservative women.

For its part, Labor erased LGBTQ people from its policy platform and has avoided talking about trans people as much as possible. The ALP is no stranger to sacrificing minorities either — ask anyone who’s survived their offshore prison camps.

It’s a race between a pack of voracious transphobes and some power-hungry invertebrates who will jettison human rights as soon as they are inconvenient. What’s more, neither of them cares to improve our situation. No matter who wins, most of us stand to lose.

Ultimately, the frenzy they’re whipping up benefits the powerful by distracting from the material issues we face. Will we be ruled by the fear of people different from us, or will we be motivated by a desire for a fairer society?

We’ll know soon enough.

Joshua Badge (they/them) is a writer and a scholar. They tweet at @joshuabadge.