The last time an Australian Labor leader came up with a phrase that was both memorable and of positive benefit to the Party was Ben Chifley's ‘Light on the Hill’. So good was it, in fact, that the media have deliberately tried to turn it into a joke phrase.
Oddly, the phrase is part of an otherwise forgettable piece of prose
I try to think of the Labor movement, not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody's pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective – the light on the hill – which we aim to reach by working the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labor movement would not be worth fighting for.
Indeed the memorable ‘light’ part bears no obvious relation to the rest of the worthy description, and that in turn, though it is worthy, is totally unclear. ‘Better standards of living’? ‘Greater happiness’? You see what he is trying to get at, but it is no ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’, is it?
Nevertheless, it is a hell of a lot better than to suggest that the programmatic specificity of the Party was to incrementally adjust the economic indicators of the lower socio-economic groups in order to improve their wellness parameters.
The ‘Light on the Hill’ phrase is a ‘frame’. It is not a factual description of anything, but an image, a metaphor, which each person reading or hearing interprets according to their own ideas and experience, and as such is much more powerful than a long lecture or a text book. ‘Frame’ is a term coined by George Lakoff in a book whose title – Don't Think of an Elephant
– makes clear the meaning. (The word ‘elephant’ carries such strong images that if you tell someone not to think of one they will be unable not to.)
For example, the ‘Light’ in Chifley's frame is usually considered to be a lighthouse, perhaps a beacon, showing the way. I read it rather as a farmhouse on a hill, with one light showing on the porch, guiding the way home for the weary traveller. With a Labor government in power eventually we will all find our way home to warmth and succour and rest – a very powerful image.
From that time onwards it has all been, so to speak, downhill for the Labor Party. The next memorable framing is Whitlam's ‘It's Time’, and this is another (two-word!) slogan often praised for its effectiveness. But in 1972 any old drover's dog's breakfast of a slogan would have beaten McMahon. And it's worth looking at this slogan with fresh eyes. All it was really saying was that, after 23 years, surely it was Labor's turn: what about us, it isn't fair, we don't get enough, now we want our share. Not exactly aux armes citoyens
But, a trifle unfair, it also carried the connotation of ‘It's time we joined the twentieth century’ and ‘It's time we did all the things that have been neglected since Menzies became PM’ and ‘It's time to dump McMahon into the dustbin of history’. And these readings, this framing of the election choice, was emphasised emphatically after the Labor win as the Duumvirs Whitlam and Barnard – no time (!) to muck around waiting for caucus to elect a ministry – got stuck into a mountain of policy implementation in the most astonishing short period of government in Australian history.
So, benefit of the doubt, a deliberate and successful framing. But what else of Whitlam's words sticks in your mind? Ah yes, from the day the lights on the hill were turned off and the dream ended: ‘Well may we say “god save the queen” because nothing will save the governor-general’.
Now if you know nothing else about Whitlam you will know that phrase. Must have been replayed a million times in the next four decades. But, um, what does it actually mean? Who was saying ‘god save the queen’ exactly? And what is the meaning of the words ‘well may’ and ‘because’ in the sentence? And from what was the GG not being ‘saved’ and when? No, the whole thing is nonsense, words that individually have meaning but collectively are gobbledygook.
Those assembled cheered of course, would have cheered whatever he said, but I wonder if afterwards they were puzzled about why they cheered? If this was Whitlam's attempt to frame the events of Remembrance Day 1975 it was an abysmal failure. Apart from anything else, Kerr was merely a tool of Fraser (and Murdoch). The framing that was needed was to explain to the people precisely what was happening and why. But he failed to do that, and so the Fraser/Murdoch framing (Loans Affair, bad government) is what people remembered and proceeded to vote on a month later.
Then we come to Hawke. Someone I had remembered as, along with Keating, being good at framing. But what do we remember of the millions of words he spoke as PM? Just two phrases – ‘any boss who sacks a worker for being late this morning is a bum’ and ‘by 1990 no Australian child will be living in poverty’. Oh dear. Clearly a drover's dog could do a better job of framing than Hawkey.
‘Bosses’, ‘sack’, ‘bums’, all said with a mad cackle and a stupid smile while wearing a clown's jacket? Were the Lib minders organising the show? How about ‘under Labor Australians are encouraged to be world beaters by combining mateship with technology and skill’ or ‘boats will always sail faster under a Labor government’.
And the other one on children and poverty? Talk about providing hostages to fortune and the Opposition! What did such a boast mean? How would you measure it? How could you possibly achieve whatever ‘it’ was in such a short space of time? As a result it went down in history not as Hawke's ‘Light on the Hill’, which it was obviously meant to be, but a hollow boast signifying nothing. Why not ‘Labor believes all children are created equal’? What about ‘Labor always strives to give children a helping hand through the obstacle course of poverty’? Anything really except what he did say.
Then it was Keating's turn. Yes, yes, I know, pithy phrases, rotten carcasses swinging in the wind being done slowly and all that. But the one the public remembers, the one indelibly branded on Paul's forehead like the tattoo of a French clock? ‘This is the Recession we had to have’! I mean, if you wanted to save the Lib's faceless men time by thinking up negative framing for Labor that's the kind of phrase you might come up with. Alternatives? Well, I don't know, but perhaps ‘Labor has brought boom times for all Australians, but now we need to take a smoko for a moment while the economy readjusts’? Or something of the kind?
No good Paul, no good at all, and I doubt that he ever, in spite of perceptions, ever understood framing. Or perhaps he did mean to suggest to the voters who thought this the greatest country on the planet that Australia was instead the ‘arsehole of the world’. Is that a vote-catching frame or what?
So, goodbye true believers, hullo straighteners and levellers: John Howard, soufflé having risen for the third time, Lazarus having had his bypass, was in power. And immediately began talking as if he had learnt to speak Frame in the cot. Every sentence would have made George Lakoff proud, not a word wasted in driving home the message ‘Liberal good, Labor bad’.
You remember (and that is the point) ‘interest rates always lower’, ‘we will decide who comes here’, ‘lacks ticker’, ‘black armband’ and so on. Perfect framing every time. So perfect that he easily threw off every Labor challenge, all of them frame-free and totally forgettable as you walked into a polling booth. But then Howard's faceless men over-reached. Creating for their corporate masters a system of industrial relations which destroyed unions and took Australian workers back to Dickensian satanic mills, the likely lads of Menzies House called it, in an attempt to create the most improbable frame of all time. ‘Work Choices’.
The men and women of Australia, ultimately demonstrating that you can frame some of the issues all of the time, and all of the issues some of the time, but you can't frame all of the issues all of the time, saw through Work Choices as Hobson's Choice, and dumped Howard into the dustbin of history. Replaced by Kevin07, a slick marketing frame with not much behind it. Immediately confirmed by Mr 07 holding a 2020 Summit at which he sat taking notes at the feet of Australia's Best and Brightest for three days, and then, when the TV cameras stopped focussing on the bold and the beautiful of Australia's A-List, Kevin firmly established as one of them, dumped the notes into the dustbin of Parliament House and promptly forgot about them.
It was a kind of grand visual framing of how he saw his prime-ministership unfolding in the Versailles of the Southern Hemisphere, but it ended there. No one can remember anything Rudd said – backward ran sentences until reeled the mind – except for a few flourishes which became jokes: ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’, ‘gotta zip’, ‘programmatic specificity’.
And Julia Gillard was if anything worse. Given a clever program of reducing CO₂ pollution by putting a price on carbon for the big polluters while subsidising the public to compensate, she called it a ‘carbon tax’. Not only was this a gift in itself to the Likely Liberal Lakoff Lads, instantly referring to a ‘great big new tax’ when they weren't referring to a ‘toxic tax’, but she had apparently made herself seem to be a liar, having said that she would not introduce a ‘carbon tax’ (but would, in a second part of sentence never shown to the public, put a price on carbon) before the election. I'm thinking the frame writers in Abbott's office must have been pinching themselves in disbelief each morning after making an offering to Hanesha, the Elephant God in the room.
Having produced a negative frame for yourself and seen it used to enormous effect by the Opposition, Gillard (or her advisers) seem to have decided that frames were a Very Bad Thing and they would never use one again in case it turned out to be negative and they shot themselves in the foot once more. They ran so far in the opposite direction in fact that they produced a kind of anti-framing (on the principle of anti-matter) – political nomenclature that was so bland that not only did people not listen to it, they couldn't listen to it.
Thus a wonderful proposal to reverse the Liberal emphasis on rich private schools and begin funding on the basis of the needs of poor public schools was not framed in terms of benefit to students, or educational opportunity, or social justice, but was referred to solely as ‘Gonski’, the name of the man who produced the report on which the proposal was based. The use of such a meaningless anti-frame seemed so pleasing to Labor that they expanded on it with the even more meaningless slogan: ‘we give a Gonski’. Needless, perhaps, to say, the proposal was not understood by the public, not supported, and was attacked by the Liberals with that wonderfully cynical frame of ‘class warfare’.
Also popular were mind-numbing acronyms, beloved of bureaucrats and now it seemed of the determinedly non-framing Labor Party. A much needed scheme to improve funding for disabled people, so long casualties of the free market excesses of neo-conservatism, was referred to constantly simply as NDIS (National Disability Insurance Scheme), thus ensuring again that no member of the public would ever hear of it. A similar example was the NBN (National Broadband Network) with its related acronym FTTH (fibre to the home). The constant use of these acronyms left the public in the dark about the benefits of this extraordinary nation-building effort, and left it open for the opposition to obfuscate about its alternative, inferior proposal with its own acronyms like FTTN (fibre to the node).
As a kind of unconscious symbolism of the underlying problem, Leader of the House Anthony Albanese kept crowing about the 500+ ‘pieces of legislation’ they had passed through a hung parliament, as if the number of these, not their objectives, was the whole aim of the exercise of governing. Five hundred pieces of legislation is a substantial body of work that could be used to explain to voters what you were on about, how you were aiming to reach the light on the hill, and how you differed from the Opposition (who were determined, and immediately on election set about, to erase all 500 from the statute books).
A good frame for a political policy does two things: it makes the policy memorable and it provides a succinct statement about its purpose. By avoiding frames Labor abandoned all hope of doing either thing. Indeed they often, as in the case of the carbon tax, sorry, price on carbon, seemed to be clueless themselves about the purpose, blathering away about the technicalities of the scheme while rarely if ever mentioning climate change.
So while the Labor ants were busy busy busy working industriously away in the bowels of Parliament House, making provision for the winter, the Lib grasshoppers strutted around in the sunshine attracting attention with stunts and slogans. The slogans were the frames; the stunts were a way of hammering home those frames night after night: ‘Axe the tax’, ‘Stop the boats’, ‘End the waste’, ‘Balance the budget’, ‘Bad government’, ‘Ditch the witch’ and so on. The Liberal faceless woman had decided that any frame could be represented by a three-word slogan, a dressing-up outfit, and a Lib-voting shopkeeper. Enormously effective in both getting the message to the public and in forcing the government to play on your preferred turf, completely negating the home ground advantage an incumbent government normally enjoys.
Meanwhile, Labor ministers kept wandering around, convinced it seemed that good deeds were their own reward, and turning up with folders of facts and figures to counter three-word slogans. Never take a fact knife to a frame gunfight, I could have told them.
It's Time - time the Labor Party began to employ some Lakoff students to not only run campaigns but to do so while understanding that these days the next campaign starts the day after the election. You need to frame your win or loss and take it from there.
The early days of Bill Shorten, including his continued referral to ‘carbon tax’ and mutterings about whether they will vote for its removal, and his complete lack of ability so far to frame responses to any of the Liberal omni-shambles of their first month in office (secrecy, asylum seekers, dumping clean energy finance, dropping funding and standards for preschool and aged care, money borrowing, expenses rorts, handing the environment to states to wreck, and so on) makes it look as if this Dream Team thinks it can win the next election without a good dose of the Lakoffs. The Light has gone out on the Hill.
How many Labor members will it take to fit a new bulb?