The triple-pincers: showing their true colours

There is a line in the brilliant Anat Shenker-Osorio’s book Don’t Buy It which Labor should use as their mantra when developing policies and communicating them. Attributed to political advertising expert Ryan Clayton, Anat says:

‘a winning message is one that engages the base, persuades the middle, and provokes the opposition to reveal its true colors’.

Too often, Labor seems to be trying to appease voters by being all things to all people. But this usually results in beige policy, and bland messaging which doesn’t cut through, and doesn’t rouse support.

It’s obvious why Labor does this. It’s particularly obvious to me, who is half-way through a PhD researching the way media reports industrial relations disputes and Labor policy. Labor, understandably, are wary of the media’s reaction to their policy announcements. And they have every right to be.

The patterned response by the media is the same whenever Labor offers up a progressive policy. Let’s use the example of the mining tax (which incidentally was the topic of my honours thesis).

Step 1: Labor announces the policy.

Progressives take a look and are impressed, noting that it is tackling wealth inequality and the two-speed economy, sharing the wealth from the sale of minerals owned by the entire community with that community.

Step 2: The triple-pincer-movement of opposition to the mining tax erupts.

The Liberal Nationals, mining company owners and the mainstream media commence a campaign of hyperbole, threats, doom and gloom, telling voters the latest Labor Great Big Tax is going to ruin us all, jobs will be lost everywhere, food will be taken out of children’s mouths, and the economy will retaliate against the little guys who should get back in their box and stop expecting wealth to be shared.

At this point I should note that my research showed 75% of mining tax newspaper articles from the day the policy was released, to the day the campaign culminated in Rudd being ousted as PM, shared the same ‘economy will suffer from the mining tax’ narrative as the Liberals and mining executives. So maybe not every article, but a dominant majority.

Step 3: The triple-pincer-movement discreetly shifts the doom and gloom narrative from complaining about the mining tax, to claiming it is an electoral problem for Labor.

This is a very clever strategy that certain vested-interests in the media use, fed no doubt by media ‘liaison’ from fellow pincers, to generate public opposition against Labor policies.

Simply, the media reports there has been a ‘backlash’ against the policy, and that creates a backlash against the policy. In a subtle form of agenda setting, the media know the news audience takes more notice of an issue when it is costing Labor votes than they do when it’s just the mining executives complaining about having to pay tax.

Where else have I seen this strategy used recently? Oh yes – Labor’s dividend imputation changes. Of course with any taxation change, there will be ‘losers’. In this case, Labor announced on the same day as they launched the policy that 200,000 non-tax-paying shareholders would stop receiving dividend cash back from the government. Immediately, journalists raced to find evidence of ‘backlash’ against the policy by framing these 200,000 shareholders as victims of a Labor policy.

Immediately, Labor was framed as villainously engaged in a ‘$59b grab’ – you grab something you’re not entitled to – therefore Labor was in the wrong for grabbing money from poor shareholder victims. And these victims were given various soap-boxes to tell their sad tale of victimhood, as evidence of the backlash against villainous Labor.

Then the narrative quickly shifted, in time for elections on the weekend to ‘how dumb of Labor to release a policy which incurs backlash on the same week as a state election and a Federal by election’. Greens leader Richard Di Natale piled on, trying to ‘capitalise on the backlash Labor has received’ and it certainly didn’t end well for him. History will show Labor won the by election and lost the state election, albeit with a 1.5% swing towards. But I digress.

The point of the imaginary backlash, or the focus on a very small number of unhappy well-off-people in the great scheme of things, which is to be expected when inequality is finally being addressed, or the focus on just the downsides of the policy, and not the upsides, is that the media is bringing about a certain response to the policy, by manipulating their reporting in favour of that certain response to a policy.

Back to the mining tax. In fact, the policy was broadly popular. As this Essential poll shows, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, after the pincer-movement-sky-is-falling campaign against it, and by the time the Liberal Party got their wish of using the promise to axe the tax to win an election, was supported by 52% of the population. Not exactly a mandated backlash then.

But there’s something even more important in this poll, which takes me back to Anat: ‘a winning message is one that engages the base, persuades the middle, and provokes the opposition to reveal its true colors’.

Look at the mining tax poll figures broken down by parties:

Approve of mining tax:
Labor voters: 76%
Greens voters: 79%
Liberal voters: 33%

Disapprove of mining tax:
Labor voters: 12%
Greens voters: 12%
Liberal voters: 55%

The base is clearly engaged. The middle is being happily persuaded; 33% of Liberal voters approve of the policy and therefore it can safely be assumed some of them might vote accordingly. Remember, Labor only needs a very small margin of people to stop voting Liberal and vote Labor in order to blitz the next election. A 3% swing would give Labor 14 additional seats. And the last bit – making the opposition reveals its true colours?

This is where Labor needs to embrace the obvious, predictable and reliable scare campaign that is thrown at them every time they introduce a Labor-values policy. And that includes the media. What do I mean by this? In the initial policy release, Labor should state in no uncertain terms that they expect the triple-pincer-movement – the Liberals, big business (the very rich) and their cheer squad in the media – to be enraged by the policy. Shorten did this nicely on the Today show, saying ‘I’m going to choose the battler over the top end of town’.

When the triple-pincer movement strikes, this just shows how the policy is the right thing to do. Because they would say that, wouldn’t they? The pincers don’t want to do something about inequality (show their true colours), and Labor do. The pincers always stick up the top end of town, and never the little guy (show their true colours), and Labor do. The media don’t report Labor policies in a fair and balanced way – and Labor should make this point clear.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr says he is over the mainstream media, and I agree with him. There are thankfully growing opportunities for Labor to bypass the traditional news, to reach the voters directly, opportunities they are clearly embracing. But, while they still rely predominantly on the mainstream media to inform the public of new Labor policies, the best way to develop a winning message – to engage the base and persuade the middle, is to heap the mainstream media in with the other pincers, who show their true colours like clockwork every time.

Workers Pawns in a Game of Thrones

Peter Marshall, Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the UFU

In my study of the stories told by the media about industrial disputes, I’ve discovered workers are surprisingly absent from the plot. The reason this is surprising is because industrial disputes are all about workers. So how can it be that they are missing from the story? To explain what is going on here, and what could be going on instead, I will use a neat Games of Thrones analogy. If you’re not familiar with Game of Thrones, read on, as I’ll provide explainers. If you are familiar with the show, and haven’t finished watching the latest season, I won’t be including any spoilers, so you’re also safe to keep reading.

For those who haven’t been following along with my PhD research at home, the case study I am analysing is the industrial dispute over stalled EBA negotiations between paid firefighters in the CFA and the CFA bosses which played out in mid-2016 during the last Federal election campaign. You would think, since the EBA is at its essence an agreement between a group of workers and their employer, that this group of workers and their employer would be front and centre of the cast of characters in the media’s reporting of the dispute. You would think. But, what I am finding, overwhelmingly, is that the workers are almost invisible in stories about EBA negotiations.

Instead, the democratically elected worker representative is the key character who takes centre stage. Yes, I’m talking about the union leader; in this case, Peter Marshall, secretary of the United Firefighters Union. And sadly, but unsurprisingly I need to report that my research is finding Marshall framed in the vast majority of stories covering the dispute as the villain of the story. The employer, who doesn’t show up all that often either, in this case the CFA, is framed as the victim in the dispute. And oddly enough, a particular quirk of this case, the main hero and victim of the story about an EBA for paid firefighters, are volunteer firefighters, who are not covered in any way shape or form by the EBA.

There is obviously a lot more to be said about my findings, which are a work in progress, and eventually will contribute to an 80,000 word thesis containing more theoretical layers than this single blog post. But one last finding that is worth noting at this point is that anyone who takes the side of the villain is, like in any narrative plot, also framed as a villain. And you guessed it, in this case this side-kick villain in cahoots with the union leader, and beholden to this king-of-all-villains is the Victorian Labor government (represented by Dan Andrews) and the Federal Labor Opposition (represented by Bill Shorten). So, how does this representation of the big bad union boss, his co-conspirators in the Labor Party and the practically voiceless paid firefighters turn into a Game of Thrones analogy?

The Night King and his Army of the Dead

Peter Marshall is framed as the Night King. The Night King is the leader of the White Walkers, who represent the role of the paid firefighters in this story. The White Walkers are literally zombies and make up a massive Army of the Dead. They have no voice, except to snarl and gnash their teeth at their next victim. They don’t have much flesh, they are really just skin and bones, and like all good zombies, they blindly follow their leader with the goal of converting more humans to zombies, who then join their ranks, giving the Night King more power over his enemies. The Night King has special powers to turn huge numbers of innocent humans into zombies much more efficiently than individual White Walkers can, such as by shooting ice at them from his wand. Sort of like the way Marshall presumably is assumed to have more power to ‘unionise’ unsuspecting workers than individual union members do, turning them into pawns in his army.

At this point I want to bring in the key role that motive plays in the framing of any villain, whether it be in a fictional story, or in a political story. I am finding that the supposedly villainous Marshall is framed as behaving in evil ways due to his quest for more power. The EBA Marshall is negotiating on behalf of his zombie-voiceless-workers is not reported as a contract that seeks to improve the salaries and safety conditions for the CFA’s paid firefighters. No, the EBA is a weapon Marshall is apparently using, with the help of his beholden Labor co-conspirators, to help the United Firefighters Union take over the CFA.

Why would the union want to take over the CFA? So far I haven’t seen a journalist ask, or answer this question, but they still assume this to be the overriding motive of Marshall’s villainous actions. Similarly, in Game of Thrones, why is the Night King hell bent on increasing the size of his Army of the Dead and marching ominously towards confrontation with the humans south of the wall? Because his motive, unspoken, but obvious, is to take over, to seize more power, to grow his power base to help him get even more power. Remember the show is called Game of Thrones, and is based on a constant battle between different groups for ultimate power and control of the people.

If you don’t believe me that the industrial dispute story framed Marshall as villainously working torwards his ultimate goal of taking control of the CFA on his non-stop quest to take over the world, look at this quote by The Australian’s Rick Wallace on June 3, during the heart of the dispute:

‘Premier Daniel Andrews is facing an unprecedented revolt from 60,000 volunteer firefighters and growing internal alarm after refusing to back down over the push to unionise the Country Fire Authority’.

That’s right, those poor volunteer firefighters at the CFA are being threatened with unionisation – a fate worse than death!

As part of this plot to grab power, Marshall is accused of various wicked actions, such as including a clause in the EBA which required seven paid firefighters to be dispatched to structural fires. This was a safety clause, and in reality would have no impact on volunteer firefighters, but that didn’t stop the media framing the clause as evidence of Marshall’s evil intent in his power grab of the CFA. Here is a quote from Liberal Wendy Lovell in Victorian Parliament to give you a taste of how this accusation against Marshall, and in turn the Labor Party, played out:

‘In many of our country towns this would mean houses would burn to the ground while CFA volunteers would have to sit in a truck and watch them burning as they waited for career firefighters to attend… This is no doubt a desperate measure by the UFU to have an increase in the number of paid firefighters on the ground, which will mean more union dues will be paid back to the UFU so it can then direct that back to the Labor Party in contributions’.

That’s right. Marshall is willing to let houses burn down to help the Labor Party win power. It sounds ridiculous and over the top, but remember, every single journalist who reported that this clause was ‘contentious’ had to assume that this was Marshall’s motive in including it in the EBA. A grab for power. Nothing to do with the safety of firefighters battling structural fires. That was never discussed, even when Marshall implored journalists to better understand why the clause was there. Nothing to do with the safety of the people those seven firefighters bravely pull out of a burning building. The Night King is evil because he is evil, and he wants power because he wants to be powerful. And he’ll stop at nothing to get his way, working to grow his army of zombies to help him achieve his villainous goals.

There is actually an analogy from Game of Thrones which represents an alternative narrative frame the media could use to report an industrial dispute. They’re not going to, but it’s there if they ever change their mind. And, by the by, the union movement could consider this story when trying to convince workers to join their ranks. Peter Marshall, or maybe it works better in this case to say Sally McManus, could represent the democratically elected people’s hero: Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons.

Daenerys Stormborn and her army of freed slaves

Daenerys is fighting to take her rightful place on the Iron Throne, giving her control of the Seven Kingdoms, but is currently distracted from this goal by having to fight the Night King and the Army of the Dead. For those who don’t watch the show, that’s control over everyone. As well as having dragons as children, who are very useful in fighting battles, you’ll notice in Daenerys’s title that she is Breaker of Chains. This is because she has built her army by freeing slaves (workers who aren’t paid, and are treated poorly, such as having their genitals removed!). She became Queen of the Andals and the First Men by convincing groups of people to ‘bend their knee’ to her, which means to democratically elect her as leader. Workers acting as a collective army are far more effective in having a say in their working conditions than lone soldiers. Armies need a general, a hero like Daenerys. An army like the trade union movement, a hero like Sally McManus.

Daenerys’s main opponent in Game of Thrones is the not-democratically-elected-there-by-birth-right current Queen, who is as evil as evil gets, Cersei Lannister. The Lannister family is obsessed with gold, nepotistic and cruel. I see them as representing neoliberal leaders such as Malcolm Turnbull and his big-business-backers. The Lannisters are deeply threatened by the popular Daenerys. Bring on the battle, bring on the election!

Cersei Lannister

Game of Thrones might just be a fictional show, but think about the implications of the media framing the union leader as villain, and ignoring the plight of the workers in their storytelling of industrial disputes. I can tell you one thing. Zombies don’t live happily ever after. Their opponents always find a way to kill them and their leaders in the end.

Marriage Equality Campaign Battlegrounds

The marriage equality ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps are establishing their campaign narratives. If the ‘yes’ campaign is to win, it’s important that they understand what the ‘no’ camp is doing, and fight back against their strategy at every opportunity.

No political campaign can offer everything to everyone, so messaging must be targeted towards specific groups at the most relevant times. There are three groups that the ‘yes’ campaign need to be aware of. As per Essential Media’s latest poll, there are the ‘committed yes’ group, which make up 57% of the population. Then there are the ‘committed nos’ at 32%. And the ‘don’t knows’ at 11%.

The ‘yes’ camp has speedily mobilised an impressive grass roots campaign to get voters on the electoral roll. The narrative of this enrol campaign is spot on to encourage those in the ‘committed yes’ group who weren’t previously on the roll, or who needed to update their details, to make sure they can place the yes vote they are clearly committed to placing. Correctly, the narrative of this campaign is to invite the ‘committed yes’ voters to be part of something big, to stand up for equality, to do the right thing and to feel good about the part they have played in a big outcome. It is entirely appropriate that this narrative expand the question of marriage equality to the larger issue of standing up for human rights, and for valuing love above all else.

However, now that the enrolment deadline has passed, as much as it might go against the yes camp’s natural affinity with this enlarged ‘this is a big deal’ narrative, it’s time to turn attention away from the ‘committed yes’, and focus on the 11% of ‘don’t knows’. In order to target this group effectively, the yes narrative needs to reduce the issue of marriage equality to a smaller, less momentous decision, rather than make it the earth-changing story that the yes camp has been using in the enrolment period.

The yes camp should understand the game plan the ‘no’ camp are using, and why they’re using it. They are not targeting the ‘committed nos’, because they already have them in the bag. If people are voting no because of religious beliefs, or because of a range of ideological beliefs; everything from intolerance of diversity, to bigotry, homophobia, to conservative views of marriage, a fear of the ‘slippery slope’ outcome and unisex toilets, the no camp would be wasting their dollars preaching to the choir, and the yes camp would be wasting their effort trying to change their stuck-in-the-mud minds. The no camp, instead, have latched onto the understanding that human beings fear uncertainty. They are therefore trying to scare the ‘don’t knows’ over into the ‘committed nos’ group by expanding the question of marriage equality into an ever-growing list of scary, threatening, uncertain outcomes. That way, if people aren’t sure what the outcome of a ‘yes’ vote would be, they will be sucked into the ‘no’ narrative, believing that marriage equality will somehow threaten their mixed-gender marriages, threaten Australian values, threaten their family, threaten their right to religious freedom, to free speech, will threaten the children of gay parents, and will get its scary tentacles into a range of never-properly-explained-vague-threats to every aspect of the community. The more uncertain the no camp can make the outcome of marriage equality, the more likely the ‘I don’t knows’ will tend towards ticking ‘no’, out of a fear of not understanding what a ‘yes’ vote will mean.

This is why the yes camp need to avoid expanding the outcome of marriage equality into a bigger moment for the country than simply allowing LGBTI people to get married. I understand why some campaigners in the yes camp will find this a difficult suggestion; many of them have been fighting their whole lives to have the right to marry their beloved partner, and for them it is a huge outcome to finally be allowed to do that. For them it means acceptance, normalcy, the end of out-dated discrimination and it means being able to legally join in union with their partner. It’s an outcome as big as their whole world. But even so, the ‘don’t knows’ need to be convinced back from the ‘no’ dark side with the narrative of certainty. And this certainty needs to reduce the magnitude of the decision to its literal outcome: that everyone in the community, no matter their sexuality and gender orientation, is free to get married. A situation which will have zero impact on anyone but the people able to get married, and of course their loved ones who can celebrate with them. In fact, the more every-day, common-sense the yes camp can make this outcome, the better. So, perhaps an advertisement that shows a gay couple negotiating difficult pre-wedding plans, such as where to seat crazy aunt Linda and deciding who gets to choose which cars they arrive in. The narrative here is: we are just like you, and you are allowed to get married, so why shouldn’t we have the chance too?

This yes narrative can also be used to fight back against the tentacles-in-every-aspect-of-your-lives threat from the no camp through the simple statement of: ‘no, marriage equality is not going to change everything. It actually has a very certain outcome. All it means is that everyone can get married, just like you can’. This means not getting into debates with no campaigners about free speech, about freedom of religion, about the impact of gay marriage on the children of gay parents. It means being firm and repetitive with the promise that marriage equality impacts no one but those who currently can’t get married. Just like the mistake climate change activists have been making for years (including me) in trying to argue with deniers, by arguing with the garbage from the no campaign, you give their position legitimacy and imbed the idea that there are uncertain outcomes from marriage equality. Instead, keep it simple. Keep it small. Rinse and repeat. Celebrate when the yes vote wins. And then the battle begins to get the yes vote through parliament.

Labor is good for the economy, stupid.

Fair. As soon as Turnbull started peppering every statement about his 2017 Budget with the word fair, it was obvious he was responding to focus group results which said the main problem with the previous three Liberal budgets were that they were not fair. And, like an ideology that has sprung a leak, the Liberals were suddenly framed as ‘Labor-lite’, as if saying ‘we are fair’ and actually being fair were exactly the same thing. They aren’t.

I argue that the fact that the word ‘fair’ conjures a Labor frame is a bad thing for Labor and for this reason, Labor should stop using it. There are two reasons the word ‘fair’ needs to go. The first is that ‘fair’ means a completely different thing to each individual. Its subjectivity makes it a nice idea in theory, but a hopeless adjective in practice. The other reason is that the idea that a vote for Labor is a vote for fairness is actually working against Labor’s broader popularity by giving them a wishy-washy ‘vote for Labor because you’re a nice person’ vibe, when really, a vote for Labor is not just in the interests of being nice; it’s a good idea for self-interest too. Let me explain.

Back to the first reason; fair means different things to different people. We are taught as small children that to be ‘fair’, you must, usually begrudgingly, give up something you would have had otherwise. If you tell a four year old to ‘be fair and share that piece of cake with your sister’, the four year old automatically understands they’re giving something up in order to ‘do the right thing’ and ‘share’. The viewpoint that the four year old has on this situation (whether it be a resentment towards his sister eating her half of his cake, or a happy feeling inside that he gets to see his sister enjoy the cake he is also enjoying) is relative, dependent on circumstances, individual, cultural, value based, influenced by personality, ideological and all the messy things that are hard to measure about a person. Times this messiness by 22 million in the Australian electorate and then see why ‘fair’ is a stupid word because we all see ‘fair’ from a different angle.

I’m fairly sure that Turnbull, and most people rusted onto the Liberal Party, think any form of taxation is unfair. You hear them often talk about how much work the poor little souls have to do ‘for the tax man’. So, where you might see it as fair that a portion of a Liberal voter’s usually very substantial paycheque is sequestered each month in order to pay for government services which that voter may or may not benefit from directly themselves, the same person sees the same taxation contribution as theft – taking something they’ve earned from them and giving to someone undeserving. A ‘bludger’ who should be drug-tested at the Centrelink office, no less.

The whole idea of what is ‘fair’ is so complex, so misunderstood, so subjective, that any politician using the word who thinks they’re transferring a perfect meaning to everyone who hears it, is mad. I’m sure if you asked someone if they agree that ‘the budget should be fair’, they would, in the vast majority agree. But then when it comes to the nitty gritty of individual budget measures, that’s when their individual perspectives view the policy less so by the motherhood idea of what is fair, and more so by the human measure of ‘what’s in it for me’. Ask someone who is currently negatively gearing a property, or plans to in the future, if they think it’s a fair policy. Now ask someone who can’t afford to buy their own home. And this is just one obvious example. In summary, fair is great in theory, not so useful in practice.

The second reason is an even more compelling argument for Labor to give up using the word fair. As reported by Peter Lewis, no matter what Turnbull says in theory about his budget, or even what people think of the individual measures, there is an ongoing belief held by Australian voters that the Liberals represent the interests of the well off and businesses, and that Labor represents those less well off, including social, health, education and environmental policies.

Now, I’m in no way saying this is a bad thing for Labor, and obviously it’s why they do reinforce this frame constantly by reminding people that they’re for ‘fairness’ – such as not giving away $65 billion in a un-needed gift to big business when there are plenty of deserving people and projects in the community who need this government funding more. BUT, and that ‘but’ is in capitals for a reason: if Labor are going to appeal to a wider range of voters than those who already vote Labor, they need to, well, obviously, broaden their appeal.

If I were to simplistically generalise, I could venn-diagram categorise two groups of Labor voters: those whose self-interest align with Labor policies (because they are less well off, unemployed, young and needing education, sick etc) and/or are bleeding-hearts who were brought up to get a warm and fuzzy feeling from watching their sister eat half their cake and genuinely think it is government’s role to help those in need, and therefore Labor policies are the right thing to do, if you’re a good person who wants to see the world as a better place.

If Labor could just rely on these two groups to win elections, Labor would never have lost an election. In fact, if Labor are to broaden their appeal, it doesn’t do Labor any favours to frame their policies, particularly economic policies as ‘taking from the rich to give to the poor’. It doesn’t do any favours for Labor to frame themselves as ‘against the interests of business, and for the interests of the poor’ as there are lots of poor people who can’t see how being against business is good for their job prospects.

The truth is, Labor’s economic policies are good for the economy. As Wayne Swan points out, Hawke and Keating’s Laborism has been responsible for ‘26 years of uninterrupted economic growth’. The whole idea of Labor’s inclusive growth economic ideology (if you don’t know what I mean by this, read about it here), is that when more people are better off, we’re all better off. That is, when you share your cake with your sister, it’s not just because you’re a nice person, it’s because next time there is cake being shared around, you’re personally more likely to get a bigger slice from being smart about it last time. By sharing cake, there is more cake. You really can have your cake and eat it too. Ok. I’ll stop.

The point is, we all know that neoliberalism is dead, that trickle-down doesn’t work, that a tax cut doesn’t create jobs and that cutting wages is economic suicide. But, for some reason, the Liberals get away with doing all these things, whilst still holding onto the mantle of being ‘better economic managers than Labor’ – a paradox it is time Labor forcefully challenged. A big step in this direction will be resisting the argument that supporting ‘fairness’ is just about being a good person, and instead arguing that you should be a good person AND do the right thing for yourself at the same time. If Labor gets this message through, they can’t lose.

Passengers in a driverless car

driverless-car-cliff

So much of political debate comes down to the question of government intervention. Should the government manage the economy in a hands-off, neoliberal manner, following the Turnbull-free-market rulebook that says that the god-like economy will punish us for government intervention by slowing down and shedding livelihoods? Or, as per Anat Shenker Osorio’s suggestion, should the economy be viewed as a vehicle that we all use to get us where we want to go, but without a driver, that vehicle will inevitably crash?

Of course, the left versus right, hands-on versus hands-off ideologies are complicated by the obvious contradictions in some Liberal’s positions: negative gearing tax concessions, mining industry fuel tax credits and now the threat to use a clean energy fund to build coal-fired power stations, just to name a few winners-picked for the obvious benefit of the already-rich. But as a general rule, Liberals sit on the ‘let the economy rip’ side of the fence, advocating for the outdated economic theory which says a free market, with bare-minimum tax, solves all problems. Labor sits on the opposite side, where government intervention is seen not as a villain, but as a government’s central role in making sure the economy provides the best outcomes for as many people as possible.

These opposing views are obvious to the political engaged (like me!), but might not be so obvious to the general populace. That is why, when Labor wants to make an economic case for their policies which are viewed as ‘interventions’ in the economy (such as climate policy, job creation schemes, infrastructure stimulus, supporting industries such as the now-defunct car industry), Labor needs to stop using the word ‘intervention’. Why? Because the synonyms for ‘intervention’ include interference and intrusion, implying that when a government intervenes in the economy, they are doing the wrong thing. In the same way as framing expert George Lakoff suggests using the word ‘protections’ in the place of ‘regulations’, when you change the word, you change the frame. So instead of saying ‘government intervention’, Labor should be saying ‘government taking responsibility’, or even more simply: ‘government doing their job’.

Note that Turnbull recently said ‘it is not my job…’ when justifying why he wouldn’t comment on Trump’s Muslim ban. Turnbull also appears to think it is not his job to do anything about climate change. In fact, every day the Liberals show us they don’t think it’s their job to provide the public with quality healthcare and education, nor a social welfare system which protects people from falling into poverty. When opposing the mining tax, the Liberals said it was not their job to make sure future generations secured benefits from the mining boom. When orchestrating the Carbon Price scare campaign, they said it was not their job to reduce pollution and to care for the environment. When the GFC happened, the Liberals opposed Labor’s recession-dodging stimulus package. The entire legacy of the Liberal governments under Abbott and Turnbull, who have used the invention of a fake-budget-emergency to cut, slash and burn public services, in a nutshell, is the Liberals announcing ‘the business of government is not our job!’

In line with this Liberal ideological reliance on the so-called-unencumbered-free-market, their actions, when given the keys to control Australia’s economy, are akin to kicking the driver out of the moving vehicle and letting the car career towards a cliff. The public, who are the cliff-fearing passengers, have been told by vested interests for so long that a driverless economic vehicle goes much faster than one driven by a government, and that the driver just puts the breaks on this speed to the detriment of the passengers eager to get where they’re going, that the idea that the economy works better when the government isn’t in the driving seat, has become entrenched.

If the public saw the Liberal lean-government reality for what it is – a hands-off approach which could get us all killed, it becomes a scary proposition. Ironically, the Liberals have benefited from what has become an electoral conventional-wisdom that they are better economic managers than Labor, when in fact this ‘management’ they speak of is reckless endangerment by letting an out-of-control car damage the community. If Labor asked voters whether they were willing to be a passenger in an economy which has no way of navigating around corners, no way of planning its journey, no anticipation of bumps or objects on the road ahead, which would drive over a cliff if that cliff appeared in its path, they wouldn’t get into the car. Sure, they would want a driver who knew what they were doing. But the first step of competent driving is having a driver in the car. The Liberals say it’s ‘not their job’ to drive the car. So they’re the last person who should be responsible for getting the passengers safely to their destination.

When is the right time to think of an Elephant?

trumpelephant

My favourite framing expert, George Lakoff, of ‘Don’t think of an Elephant’ fame suggests in this Salon interview that this is exactly where the Clinton campaign went wrong: they told people to think of an Elephant. By Elephant, I mean Trump. Lakoff says ‘The Clinton campaign decided that the best way to defeat Trump was to use his own words against him. So they showed these clips of Trump saying outrageous things. Now what Trump was doing in those clips was saying out loud things that upset liberals, and that’s exactly what his followers liked about him. So of course they were showing what actually was helping Trump with his supporters’.

I wrote about this Clinton strategy at the time, saying it was clever. I suggested it was a good narrative because no one, surely, could see Trump’s words and the images of children watching them and think ‘yeah, this guy is just the type of guy we want our children looking up to as President of the United States’. But I was wrong. As were the Democrats and just about everyone else who underestimated the strength of Trump supporters’ hatred of Democrats. We all underestimated how grateful these people would be to have Trump saying offensive things, consistently plumbing the depths of new lows. We all thought they liked Trump despite his offense, misunderstanding they liked him because of it.

So what does this mean for Democrat communication strategy now that they are the Opposition to a Trump Republican Presidency? How do the Democrats pick themselves up, brush themselves off and rebuild their narrative to make sure they beat Trump in 2020?

As much as I admire Lakoff and his theories on framing, I don’t think now is the time for the Democrats to stop talking about the Trump elephant. I also don’t think now is the time for the Democrats to stop talking about their own policy ideas and outlining their alternative vision for America’s future. What I’m advocating is a ‘let’s walk and chew gum at the same time’ strategy where Democrats call Trump out for his catastrophic failings, and when the time is right, remind people of their positive message, the opposite of Trump’s American-carnage story. The trick is to get the balance right between the two; to weave both the negative message about Trump and the positive message about the Democrats into a consistent, memorable and emotionally appealing narrative.

So what does such a narrative look like? In this narrative, Trump is the villain and the Democrats are the hero who will save Americans, the victims, from Trump.  Keeping in mind Lakoff’s advice about Trump supporters appreciating Trump’s offensive nature, the framing of the Trump villain is particularly important. Rather than focusing on Trump’s liberal-offending-characteristics, his bald-face-lying, anti-immigration, pussy-grabbing, con-artist, tax-dodging, Russian-loving flaws, Democrats need to focus on the villainous ways in which Trump is letting down his own supporters. Describe how he’s not saving jobs nor bringing back coal mines. Focus on his promises about an anti-establishment government which is, in reality, full of corporate elite-billionaires. Give examples of how the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act is hurting families who no longer have health insurance. Only when Trump supporters see the impact of a Trump presidency on their lives, as not just stoking the outrage of liberals who they don’t like anyway, will they begin to consider voting differently next time around.

Talking About Wealth Inequality

keepcalmandbreathedeeply

One of the few positive outcomes from the car-crash of Brexit and Trump is that political leaders are finally realising that wealth inequality is not a democratically maintainable situation. Voters in most western democracies have started to resent the growing gap between their livelihoods and those of the richest few, and this resentment is causing mass disaffection with establishment politics.

The problem is that this resentment, so far, has been channelled into counter-productive outcomes such as Brexit and Trump, both of which will do nothing to solve wealth inequality, and quite likely will make it worse. In Australia, our neoliberal-merchant-banker-off-shore-tax-haven-Point-Piper PM has started throwing a few mentions of wealth inequality into his spin cycle. But this rhetoric is laughable when held next to the reality of Turnbull’s pet-policy of a $20 billion tax cut to big business which I can guarantee you will not trickle down and will instead grow the wealth of a few bonus-laden-executives at the expense of everyone else.

One of the reasons wealth inequality has managed to cause mass resentment amongst those losing out from rampant neoliberalism, yet hasn’t benefited the electoral fortunes of progressive political parties is because the language used to talk about wealth inequality has absolutely no relevance to people’s lives. Although there are vague notions of wealth inequality being a problem, progressives don’t have a common narrative, a story of why their policies will make a difference in anything other than a theoretical sense.

So, where the Democrats failed to make the case for universal healthcare and its benefits to reduce wealth inequality, Trump strode in with simplistic ‘I’ll make everything great’ slogans and stole the show. Where Labour UK failed to explain why another term of Conservative government would grow wealth inequality and push everyone-but-the-already-rich further behind, they left the door open for the Conservative deal-with-the-UKIP-devil which brought about Brexit through a back-lash against establishment politics; a backlash which should be electing a Labour platform. And even though Labor in Australia got within striking distance of Turnbull’s neoliberal second term, their primary vote is still being crunched by anti-establishment also-not-going-to-fix-wealth-inequality parties who benefit from wealth inequality resentment.

So what needs to happen? Progressives need to learn to talk about wealth inequality in a way that makes it real for people. The villain of wealth inequality needs a name and the wreckage this villain causes, the unsustainability of this situation, needs a relatable description.

The first thing we need to do is to stop using statistics to explain the problem of wealth inequality. Unless you’re a statistician talking to other statisticians, I promise the minute you start using percentages and ratios to describe a political problem, the audiences’ eyes glaze over. So stop it.

The next thing we should do is to use an analogy to replace any talk of money. The reason for this is that money is a loaded concept. People who don’t have much of it are usually blamed for their circumstances by people who have plenty of it. They’re framed as lazy or just unfortunate. People, conversely, who have a huge amount of money are revered in our culture, looked up to, and are aspirants. So when we talk about those at the top of the income percentiles doing much better out of economic growth than those in all the other income percentiles, peoples’ minds can’t help but avoid equating massive wealth with unhealthy greed, and instead think that wealth is deserved and earned, and therefore should be respected, not questioned.

I would suggest one simple strategy is to swap out money with the analogy of oxygen. Wealth inequality would then be described like this:

People need oxygen to survive. If they don’t have enough air, they will be desperate for every gulp and won’t be able to think very far into the future past their immediate need for the next breath. Only when they reach a certain level of oxygen comfort, can they settle into life and feel able to think long term about buying their family a house, settling into a community, finding a good job or starting a business and ensuring their whole family has enough oxygen to stay alive. As a society, it makes sense to ensure that everyone has enough oxygen to breathe comfortably so that they think long term rather than short term.

On the other hand, the way things are, there are too many people who have more oxygen than they really need and are hogging it all. These people are storing away their excess oxygen in places which benefit no one but themselves, and even sending it overseas where it leaks out and is lost forever. The problem is, these people who have far more oxygen than they could ever need, are also unfortunately the people who control the oxygen supply for people who don’t have very much.

When you go to work each day and the guy who decides how much oxygen you’ll receive for the skills and expertise you contribute is hogging it all, only sharing it out amongst the oxygen-rich-executives who already have more than they can possibly use, and you don’t have enough to keep your family in breathe-easy comfort, it’s no wonder you start to get upset. For one thing, how are you meant to keep turning up to work each day, helping him to earn more oxygen, if he keeps so much of it for himself that you’re too out of breath to keep working? And how can the people who store away all the excess oxygen not see that it’s problematic for their businesses if all their would-be-customers are struggling to breathe and certainly don’t have excess air in their lungs to go shopping?

This is just one example to show why, when you take percentages and the concept of ‘money’ out of the wealth inequality conversation, and use an analogy to show the flow-on effect of a widening gap, the situation is vivid, understandable, clearly unsustainable, and also an urgent problem that needs immediate action to solve. You’re welcome.

This post was originally posted on victoriarollison.com. Check out other posts about politics and the media, and if you’re in the mood for an open letter, there’s plenty of them there too.

How to be authentic

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We all know authenticity is important in political communication. Trump gets a huge wrap from his supporters for ‘saying it like it is’, even when the content of his message is revolting. Pauline Hanson gets similar kudos for saying outlandish and often racist things which are ‘politically incorrect’ and therefore, somehow more worthy because they’re without censorship and therefore fall loosely into the bucket of ‘authentic’, a bucket which sits in a bath-tup of ‘the right way to communicate’.

I know what you’re thinking because I’m thinking it too. Surely to be authentic we don’t have to be gross and say nasty things and be anti-fact and make headlines by being provocative for the sake of being provocative? Surely we’re all better than that?

Yes, we are better than that.

In fact, you are so much better than that, I truly would prefer to hear what you say rather than what the ‘populist’, ‘anti-political-correctness‘ crowd says. I would prefer you grabbed that headline! But the thing is, if you’re not authentic about how you say what you say, no one is going to hear you.

Have you heard of the sniff test? Humans can smell inauthenticity a mile off. What traditionalists might call ‘the party line’, or what you might think of as being ‘well prepared with media training and a list of dot points about why you’re right and everyone else is wrong’, often, I’m really sorry to say, this careful way of communicating, comes across very wooden on our TV screens, monotonal on the radio, flat in print and downright beige on social media.

The enemy of wooden is authenticity. The antidote to woodiness is emotion. We are truly ourselves when we are emotional. And when we’re trying to hide emotion, well, then we’re not just wooden, but we’re the wooden-boy himself – Pinocchio – the one whose nose grows when he’s lying. I know you’re not lying but when you come across all wooden, to be emotively honest, the audience is waiting for your nose to grow. When people say ‘I like Trump, he tells it how it is’, that’s code for ‘he’s being honest and I agree with him’. Of course, he is, unfortunately, lying, but that’s by the by. Perception is reality folks. The important part is that people are listening to, and reacting to, what he has to say.

Obviously I’m not advocating the type of emotion that would see you thrown out of a pub for brawling, or weeping openly with a stream of snot dripping onto your shirt. I’m talking more about that emotion that comes from a passion in your convictions. You are working to further a progressive cause because you’re passionate about it. So tell us: why are you suggesting this policy change? Is it because you’re angry about the way things are now? Show us you’re angry! Do you find something a journalist said to you so outlandish that you want to laugh? Then laugh. Laugh out loud! Do you have a dry sense of humour? Use it! Are you quick witted, always ready to say something cutting? Cut away! Do you do an awesome face palm or an epic eye roll? Give us all you’ve got! Play to your unique strengths!

The best way to elicit an emotional, authentic, and memorable reaction from your audience is to give them one. It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.

The Emotional Appeal of Donald Trump

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Since Trump’s victory, I’ve broken up with America, tried to understand why white women voted for him, and showed my displeasure at the media’s role in this clusterfuck. In this post, I’m trying to get my head around why masses of people voted for Trump against their best interests by trying to understand why such an on-paper inappropriate choice was chosen.

There is definitely an element of class warfare going on – a rejection of the elite city-dwelling establishment, a reaction to wealth inequality. (Trump is not the answer to wealth inequality by the way. But this problem might take many years for Trump’s voters to recognise, if they are ever willing to admit it. I’ll no doubt be writing about this many times in months and years to come as Trump enables his Republican colleagues to roll out neoliberal reforms that further smash the working class, the working poor, what remains of the middle class and the economy with it. I feel sorry for Americans that they’ve made such a bad choice, but I feel sorrier for the Clinton voters who didn’t).

Race and racism also made a large contribution, where white people voted to take back control of their country, or as Lakoff puts it, reassert their dominance in the moral hierarchy. And whether people will ever admit it or not, there is no doubt that gender played a part; that many Trump voters, both male and female, just can’t accept that a woman can be President.

So with all these factors playing a part, and for some voters, all three influencing their vote, you start to get a picture of how Trump benefited from this pincer-movement against Clinton and the Democrats.

Then, of course, there were Trump’s slogans. As we all no doubt noticed, there was little, if any, policy detail in Trump’s campaign. That’s not to say he didn’t say anything. He actually talked and talked and talked and tweeted and tweeted and ranted and raved (I’ll build a wall, it will be uuuugge, I’ll fix everything, great, it will be great, grunt, grunt, waffle, incomprehensible, Muslims get out). There were huge inconsistencies and contradiction in his statements, so there was a bit of something for everyone; he promised both to bomb ISIS, and to end America’s role as an international police force. He promised to cut taxes, but also spend up big on infrastructure projects (apart from the WALL) to create jobs (with what tax revenue?). Within Trump’s jumbled rhetoric, zig zag, a little from here, a little from there, neoliberalism mixed with protectionism, mixed with anti-globalisation, mixed with anti-elitist, mixed with a likely Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin, who spent 17 years at the heart of Wall-Street’s Goldman Sachs and represents everything Trump claimed to be promising to clean up, there was a clear narrative thread in Trump’s campaign. The narrative sounded something like this:

‘Everything is shit, everything is broken, you have every reason to hate Washington because everything Washington has done has made everything shit and broken. Vote for me and I’ll wave a magic wand and everything will be immediately fixed. I might not be perfect, but my imperfection is just like your imperfection. I am real, and only someone real can fix all your problems. Vote for me, and, whether you like me or not, your lives will be perfect again’.

It sounds ridiculous when you look at it like this, that people believed he really could fix everything. But I wonder if it’s the lack of detail, the obvious flaws, the selling of all this as politically-incorrect and therefore authentic that made it work. Therefore, did Clinton’s opposite image – the polished, policy-detailed, emphasis on experience, emphasis on Obama’s legacy and all the good the government had done – turn Clinton’s words into white-noise, words that didn’t even get a look in when the big, ugly, colourful (orange particularly), rude, obnoxious celebrity was yelling ‘lock her up!’.

And this brings me to emotion. One of my favourite political scientists, Drew Westen, who writes a lot about how the Democrats can improve the way they communicate to voters, has this to say about the importance of emotion and authenticity in political campaigns:

‘Republican strategists have recognized since the days of Richard Nixon that the road to victory is paved with emotional intentions. Richard Wirthlin, an economics professor who engineered Ronald Reagan’s successful campaigns of 1980 and 1984, realized that all the dispassionate economic assumptions he’d always believed about how people make decisions didn’t apply when people cast their ballots for Reagan. As he discovered, people were drawn to Reagan because they identified with him, liked his emphasis on values over policy, trusted him, and found him authentic in his beliefs. It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions’.

They identified with Trump? Yes, he was nothing like them, living in a New York gold-plated ivory tower, apparently representing everything they aren’t (rich). But they identified with his flaws, and identified with his message. Their lives felt shit. He said he could fix them. Simple. They liked his emphasis on values over policy? Apparently. No policy detail required, asked for, demanded, or even considered. They trusted him? After all the obvious lies, the obvious flip-flopping, the obvious inconsistencies, they still trusted him. Yes. It’s not rational. He told them Clinton couldn’t be trusted because she had caused all their problems. She’s fired! Lock her up! He promised everyone would pay less tax, which is a red-rag-to-the-bull for people who hate government, and don’t have much money. He promised to be the hero and save them. They had to trust him. He was their only hope. They found him authentic in his beliefs? See above. They emotionally needed to find him authentic, because the problems he talked about seemed authentic to their lives. It didn’t matter that they disagreed with most of his policy positions? Yep. It didn’t matter if they didn’t even really understand his policy positions, or how contradictory they were. An emotional reaction. Not a rational one.

It’s time to stop treating voters like rational decision makers when all of us, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Labor, Liberal, Greens, Hansons and people who don’t vote at all, all of us make emotional decisions when voting. We don’t quantify benefits and check off the list of policies against our lives to decide which candidate offers us the greatest utility of outcomes. We are emotional beings. We get a vibe. We feel it. We like it. We stick to it like glue and ignore anything that contradicts it. We make it part of our identity. We chant in unison. We will not be convinced otherwise.

Obama’s emotional message of hope triumphed twice in the last eight years, and now Trump’s message of hate, of resentment, of fear, loathing, and disgruntlement has triumphed. If the Democrats are building themselves from the ground up, they have hopefully learned the importance of emotion.

This post was originally published on my blog: victoriarollison.com. You should visit there too!

How Unions Got Framed

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In my research into union narratives, I have noticed a clever little strategy the Liberal National government uses to frame unions as ‘the problem’.

Here is an example. On RN Breakfast recently, Education Minister Simon Birmingham told Fran Kelly his plans to improve the education system by changing teacher standards through more focus on ‘preparation of teachers’, requiring ‘teachers meet minimum literacy and numeracy standards’, ‘more specialist teachers’, and to ‘ensure they’re proficient and that graduates are up to scratch’. Fran then jumped in and asked why, since everyone has been talking about ideas like this forever, the results in the classroom aren’t improving? And why hadn’t the Liberal National government done anything to change this situation in the past?

This is where my ears pricked up. What Fran basically asked Birmingham is: who is to blame for this situation? Or, in narrative-speak – who is the villain in this story, stopping our children from being taught by better teachers? At this point, Birmingham didn’t miss a beat. His response was:

‘Fran, I think because we haven’t had such a disciplined focus before, and I just hope that the states and territories actually back us on this and that they are willing to stand up, sometimes to resistance from teacher unions and other forces who want to keep things largely as are’.

There are two villains here: the state governments and the union. But it’s the union villain I’m most interested in. A small note here about framing. Framing is about exclusion and emphasis. Note first the emphasis. Teachers’ unions. Teachers’ unions are the stick in the mud, the ones who won’t let well-meaning Liberal National governments reform teaching practices, the ones who fight for the status-quo, hold teachers back, hurt children’s’ education and supposably do all this just because it’s a lark. And the exclusion? Simply: the teachers.

Let’s look at this strategy more closely. If Birmingham, at this point in the conversation, suggested that teachers weren’t keen on the education reforms, the audience would automatically think of a teacher they know. Maybe a relative, a friend, or even their child’s trusted and much loved teachers. The audience would wonder, why are the teachers, those kind, caring, honest folk, why are they against these policies? There must be something wrong with the government’s plans if teachers resist them?

Birmingham’s strategy kills two birds with one stone by bypassing the workers – in this case the teachers – and framing, instead, the teachers’ union as ‘the villain’. This strategy is clever because it frames unions as difficult and against-progress, and it also leap-frogs over the most important part of the very existence of unions; that they represent workers. Somehow by focussing on union behaviour, the Liberal Nationals are able to pretend, subtly, that the union doesn’t actually represent the concerns of workers.

If the teachers’ union is unhappy with the proposed education policy changes, there’s a reason for that. It’s because the teachers aren’t happy and their collective voice is being funnelled through their worker representatives; their union. Same thing goes for construction unions, who are particularly relevant right now since the ABCC legislation has just been passed (albeit in a watered down form). Construction workers often speak out about safety problems on building sites, which is a key part of their role representing the interest of workers; the interests of workers surviving their day’s work and going home to their families at knock-off. But, rather than accept the union’s voice as representing the workers’ interest, the Liberal National government, and an often compliant, or just un-thinking media, frame the construction unions as corrupt, as hurting productivity, as shutting down building sites just because they feel like it, just to flex their muscles.

So what do I suggest unions do about this clever little communication strategy, which, by the by, has helped to enable a generation of Liberal National union bashing which undermines’ union legitimacy, credibility, their importance to workers, and in turn, workers’ trust in unions, impacting union membership levels and threatening the continuation of the labour movement? This Liberal strategy also helps to make unions not just separate from working people, but also part of the establishment, the bureaucracy, the elites who play a part in the political process and leave the little guys behind, which, by the by, is why unions haven’t benefited from the backlash against the establishment which enabled Brexit and Trump, and have instead suffered along with progressive political parties the world over.

This might sound overly simple, but sometimes the best ideas are. What I suggest is that when unions want to speak on behalf of workers, which I accept is a key part of their role, they don’t actually speak. Instead, they organise and facilitate a worker speaking on behalf of workers – a teacher on behalf of teachers – a construction worker on behalf of all construction workers – in order to smash the frame that says ‘it’s just the meddling corrupt union getting in the way’ and not legitimate grievances of workers. The worker is the member of the community we’re all members of so their grievance is our grievance. By hearing them speak about it, we put ourselves in their shoes. We sit up and take notice.

It is time unions stopped being the voice of the workers and instead helped workers find their own voice. Their role goes unchanged in the every other respect. But let’s help workers remind their own communities of their rights, instead of allowing the Liberal Nationals to make it all about the big-bad-unions. Only then will we stop unions being framed as the villain, which hurts the interests of workers, union members or not.