Framing the political debate - the key to winning



Why did Tony Abbott thrive as Leader of the Opposition, but turn out to be such a dud as Prime Minister?

What was it about his period in opposition that was so different from his period as the nation’s leader?

There are many possible answers to these questions.

This piece asserts that the most plausible reason for the difference is that in opposition he had the uncanny ability to frame the political debate in his favour, but in government that ability deserted him.

Let’s begin by defining what framing means. In common parlance, to frame something is to provide it with a surrounding; objects of art are commonly framed. A suitable frame contributes to the appeal of the object. An attractive object can be diminished, made unattractive or even repulsive if placed in a discordant frame.

In the political arena, suitable framing is crucial. It has been around in politics since time immemorial, but perhaps not well known by that name. Concepts that have a name are more easily understood simply because they are named. The name ‘framing’ makes it easier to understand what the concept means. Framing creates a perspective, an orientation, a way of viewing. Suitable framing is a winner, unsuitable a loser. Cynics diminish the concept of framing when they label it simply as ‘spin’. Framing is much more than spin. Spin conflates with misinformation.

By way of illustration, let’s begin with a classic example of framing in our own federal political arena. During the global financial crisis, Labor framed the stimulus package as saving jobs, spurring economic growth and supporting communities. After the first tranche, the Coalition strongly opposed the package, framing it as needlessly running up unmanageable debt and budget deficits. The same divergent framing occurred in the United States, as the image above portrays.

George Lakoff devotes a chapter in his book The Political Mind to the subject of framing.



He asserts that: …”we think in terms of frames and metaphors that fit our worldviews, and language can be chosen to activate frames, metaphors and worldviews.” He goes onto say: “Framing is not just a matter of slogans. It is a mode of thought, a mode of action, a sign of character. It is not just words, though words do have to be said over and over again.” He warns that if you accept the opponent’s frame, you are trapped.



Lakoff illustrates framing with examples drawn from the Iraq War and President George Bush’s representation of it. He describes the way he cleverly framed the debate to his advantage, and at the same time to his opponents’ disadvantage. Here is an excerpt from Lakoff’s book:
”…the framers of the Constitution framed Congress as ‘Decider’ on any overall military strategic mission, including troop levels, general deployments, and so on. The president is the executive who has the duty to execute that overall strategic mission. “…the president claimed that he, as commander in chief, had such powers. The president framed Congress as merely a bursar of funds for his military actions. He was reframing the Constitution.”
President Bush used memories of 9/11 to insist that Americans were subject to an ever-present terror threat. Any contrary view was framed as ‘soft on terror’. Terrified of this label, the Democrats accepted his framing and were thereby trapped.

Bush wanted to invade Iraq and so invented ‘weapons of mass destruction’, and framed the war as the pursuit of them. He deceived the Congress and the people about the evidence for their existence. The Democrats went along with his frame. When weapons of mass destruction failed to eventuate, Bush re-framed the war as a ‘rescue mission’, to rescue the Iraqi people from the tyrant Saddam Hussein.

He eventually declared the war was over; his army had defeated Hussein’s army. But he continued to frame himself as a ‘war president’ to keep the war frame alive. The Democrats continued to accept Bush’s war frame. He continued to frame himself as the sole ‘decider’ on military action and Congress as merely the funder of the actions he ordained.

After Bush declared the war was over, the US military personnel in Iraq then became an occupying force. Like its predecessor, it required continuing funding by Congress. Any attempt by the Democrats to limit Bush’s military options, or to shorten the war by tying funding to the steady withdrawal of troops, was framed by him as ‘putting our troops in harm’s way’ through inadequate funding, or as abandoning US troops in a faraway place.

Whichever way Bush framed the Iraq situation, the Democrats remained trapped in his framing. They were seemingly incapable of re-framing the debate. They could have framed Bush as usurping the Constitution and the power and responsibility it gave to Congress; they could have framed themselves as defenders of the Constitution and Bush as a traitor trying to overthrow the Constitution. But they were afraid, fearful that any failure in Iraq would be pinned on them. They lost the opportunity to reframe the situation in a way that favoured them. It takes courage to reframe when your opponent has the upper hand in framing.

Tony Abbott’s framing began almost on the day he became Leader of the Opposition.

Abbott, or was it Peta Credlin, believed that if the emissions trading scheme proposed by Kevin Rudd, (which Malcolm Turnbull was inclined to accept until his party voted him out of leadership in favour of Tony Abbott), was framed as a ‘Carbon Tax’, a ‘Great Big New Tax on Everything’, it would resonate stridently with the electorate, which is never disposed to accept gladly any new tax. Framing the ETS as ‘a carbon tax’ was an immediate success. It was embellished as Coalition members pointed out that the ‘carbon tax’ would increase the cost of everything: opening the fridge, using the iron, vacuuming, watching TV. Barnaby Joyce extravagantly predicted that the cost of a lamb roast would rise to $100 because of the carbon tax. And of course this evil tax would wipe Whyalla off the map!

Eventually Julia Gillard tacitly accepted that the ETS was a ‘tax’, and having told the electorate: ‘There will no carbon tax under a government I lead…’, she lost credibility and authority. Polls showed that the electorate did not want a new tax, and when Abbott promised that its abolition would be his first act after election, the people embraced his framing and accepted his solution.

When the ‘carbon tax’ was cleverly linked to another, ‘the mining tax’, the strength of the framing was increased. ‘Axe the tax’ became an appealing slogan that applied to both. Soon others were echoing it; even Gina Rinehart and Twiggy Forrest took to the hustings to rail against the mining tax, which they hinted would kill off their mining ventures. The framing worked a treat.

Abbott successfully framed another contentious issue – the arrival of asylum seekers by boat from Indonesia and beyond. He accentuated John Howard’s line: ”We will decide who comes to this country and the manner of their arrival”. He gave asylum seekers a pejorative label: ‘illegals’, although they were not. He represented them as illegally thrusting themselves into our country, and it wasn’t long before they were viewed as taking Australian jobs and living on our social welfare. Some in the media even accused the Gillard government of putting them up in flash hotels. Resentment was fostered. For voters of a more humanitarian inclination, the harsh approach to these asylum seekers was softened by another framing strategy, namely that the government wanted this illegal trade in people smuggling stopped to avoid drownings at sea. It was a pseudo-humanitarian framing, but it worked. Coupled with ‘We will stop the boats’, it had great appeal with much of the electorate, especially in the marginal seats in Western Sydney. ‘Stop the boats’ became one of Abbott’s most powerful three word slogans.

Over time the framing morphed into one of ‘border protection’ and in government Abbott created the ‘sovereign borders’ frame, likening the asylum seeker-carrying boats to an invasion force to be repelled by the re-badged and well-funded Operation Sovereign Borders, which operated with military precision and all the secrecy of a military operation in a theatre of war. Every step reinforced the framing of asylum seekers as ‘the enemy’ to be repulsed, rather than desperate displaced people seeking asylum from persecution. Labor was framed as supporting the arrival of the boats. Scott Morrison repeated endlessly that Labor wanted to ‘put sugar on the table’, an apparently irresistible invitation to people smugglers and their cargo. For its part Labor, scared witless of being tagged ‘soft on border protection’, went along with Abbott’s framing, seemingly unable to counter it without being seen as soft and unable to ‘protect’ Australia from this invading force.

Abbott’s framing went far beyond the political issues of the day; he fashioned his framing so that it became a deeply personal attack on his opponent, Julia Gillard, one that questioned her integrity as well as her competence. Remember: 'Juliar', 'Bob Brown's bitch' and ‘Ditch the witch’. His discrediting of her as untrustworthy reached a crescendo with: ‘Her father died of shame’; in other words, even her father disowned her. Despite her famous riposte, her misogyny speech that framed Abbott as a mean and nasty misogynist, which resonated so strongly with female but not male voters, Abbott’s framing of Gillard built up resentment towards her among the voters, and eventually dislike. It succeeded so well that her poll status fell to the point that even her colleagues concluded she could not win the upcoming election, and replaced her with Kevin Rudd.

This brings to an end the first part in this short series on political framing. I trust that I have explained the concept of framing, and that the illustrations drawn from the American context at the time of the Iraq conflict, and the local illustrations drawn mainly from previous periods in the Australian electoral cycle have exemplified the concept of framing.

In the next piece, I will use more recent illustrations from our federal scene. Believe me, political framing is alive and well. Conservatives seem to have an aptitude that progressives have been unable to match. There are reasons for this. Until and unless Labor can match the Coalition’s framing, unless Labor can construct its own powerful frames, unless Labor can at least avoid becoming trapped in the Coalition’s frames, it will struggle to gain support in the electorate, especially now that the highly unpopular Abbott has been replaced by the silver-tongued, urbane and persuasive Malcolm Turnbull.

What do you think?
Ad astra invites us to view the utterances of politicians through the prism of ‘framing’. What are they trying to say? What impressions are they trying to create? In what way do they seek to change our opinions? He uses examples from here and overseas to illustrate political framing.

In part 2 he will use examples from a previous electoral cycle. You will immediately recognize them.

A musical interlude for the holidays


[Woody Guthrie]

In my piece ‘Are you sure you’re not a radical?’ I wrote: ‘Over the centuries folk music has been important in supporting the oppressed and Ireland and many countries in South America have a long tradition of revolutionary music.’ So I have chosen in this ‘summer recess’ to present some of that ‘revolutionary’ music to make the point that such music has influenced, and continues to reflect and influence, social and political movements. There are over 40 songs linked here, so it is not intended that you listen to every track in one sitting. Take your time over the next ten days, come back a few times, and check out as many as you wish. I hope you find some that you like. [Please note that these are not always what I consider the ‘best’ songs but I have been limited to some extent by what is available to link to.]

In the 1840s Thomas Osborne Davis in Ireland wrote ‘A Nation Once Again’ which set the tone for the Irish fight for independence for the next 80 years. Davis recognised the power of song and wrote:
“… a song is worth a thousand harangues". He felt that music could have a particularly strong influence on Irish people at that time. He wrote: "Music is the first faculty of the Irish... we will endeavour to teach the people to sing the songs of their country that they may keep alive in their minds the love of the fatherland.”
Many songs were written about the 1916 uprising but one I particularly like is ‘The Foggy Dew’ — this version by The Wolfe Tones.


Davis’s words were prophetic and ‘rebel songs’ have continued into the modern era in Ireland with songs written about The Troubles in northern Ireland: ‘Man Behind the Wire’, and ‘My Little Armalite’. Very late one night in the Canberra Irish Club I heard a similar song when a young man, not long arrived from northern Ireland, sang a song that included reference to an AK47. It was the first time I realised how the Irish tradition of rebel songs continued to this day.

It is not only in folk music that the influence is felt — U2 performed this song about ‘Bloody Sunday’.

An Australian folk-rock group, Rough Red (which spends much of its time touring Europe), gives a slightly different twist to The Troubles in ‘Innocent Victim’ which captures in simple verses the ‘para’ who had fought in the Falklands and the ‘slum bred Irish boy’ who meet on the streets of Belfast.


Its chorus:
Hail the innocent victim
Hail the hapless pawn
They’ll bury you with honours
It’s the reason you were born
That continues a long tradition of folk songs that question the futility of war and why working people are the ones who go off to fight the rich men’s wars.

Eric Bogle’s ‘The Green Fields of France’ captures a similar sentiment in its last verse:
I can’t help but wonder now Willy McBride
Do all those who lie here know why died
Did you really believe them when they told you the cause
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
The suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame,
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain
For Willy McBride it’s all happened again
And again and again and again and again
Song has been, and still is, used in support of unions, supporting the need for working people to unite. In Australia some Trades Hall union councils have, over the years, employed singers and song writers to record the workers’ struggles. One of the earliest that I am personally aware of was the late Don Henderson who wrote songs about the Mount Isa strikes in the 1960s. In more recent times a group calling itself The Travelling Agitators was used by the CFMEU.

An ‘oldie but a goody’ written in the 1930s, and popularised by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, was ‘Which side are you on?’ It has been performed by many singers but here is a Pete Seeger version. And there was a version by Scottish folk singer Dick Gaughan rewritten to reflect the Thatcher years in Britain and the war on the National Union of Miners (NUM) — an example of how, in the folk genre, songs and tunes can be used and used again and reworked to reflect the times. A number of early Bob Dylan songs used this approach: for example ‘With god on our side’ (here performed by Joan Baez as she is easier on the ear) used the tune and structure of the Irish song, ‘The patriot game’ (here presented by The Dubliners).

Another old union song is ‘Joe Hill’ and it continues to resonate to this day. Here is a 2014 version by Bruce Springsteen — not now a folk singer but an example of how some folk songs can continue in importance through the years and also cross over to other music genres.

Modern folk singer-songwriters and modern bands continue the tradition writing new songs supporting the workers and their unions. For example ‘There is power in a union’ by Billy Bragg. ‘Ordinary Man’, by Christy Moore, captures the plight of the worker who, even though he has not actively fought against the bosses, still suffers when factories close — while the bosses continue smoking their cigars and driving their brand new cars.

For something different, the ‘Workers’ Song’, written by Ed Pickford and performed here by the Dropkick Murphys, a Celtic punk group from Massachusetts, USA. (The previous link gives you the lyrics but there is a live version here in case anyone wants to see a Celtic punk band in the flesh, noting that Celtic punk can be considered a blending of folk and punk following The Pogues.) The song also harkens to the workers’ role in war in the verse:
And when the sky darkens
And the prospect is war
Who’s given a gun
And then pushed to the fore
And expected to die
For the land of our birth
Though we’ve never owned
One lousy handful of earth
Of course, there are many songs about continuing the struggle. Here are two performed by Roy Bailey, an English folk singer now in his 70s who, unlike many modern folk singers, does not write his own material:
  • Bread and Roses
  • Look up the sky is burning
    With blood the workers shed
    We’ll carry on the battle
    For roses and bread
  • Winter turns to Spring
  • You have to know the difference
    Between the round-abouts and swings
    No matter what the distance
    Winter turns to spring
    From Prague to Santiago
    From Belfast to Beijing
    Underground but undefeated
    Winter turns to spring
(‘Winter turns to spring’ was written by Robb Johnson and I will come back to some of his songs.)

There is another song also called ‘Bread and Roses’ because that phrase dates back to the early 1900s, was used in a strike by female textile workers in Massachusetts in 1912, and signifies the need for both fair wages and dignity and respect.

Continuing with Roy Bailey, ‘I ain’t afraid’ is an example of the folk songs that question religion — not religion per se but what it leads to.
I ain’t afraid of your Yahweh
I ain’t afraid of your Allah
I ain’t afraid of your Jesus
I’m afraid of what you do in the name of your god
On a different tangent, ‘Origin of species’ by Chris Smither, takes a lighter-hearted look at ‘intelligent design’:
God said: "I'll make some DNA
They can use it any way they want
From paramecium right up to man.
They'll have sex
And mix up sections of their code.
They'll have mutations.
The whole thing works like clockwork over time.
I'll just sit back in the shade
While everyone gets laid.
That's what I call intelligent design."
The banks have been a target of many songs including this one from the 1950s: ‘Banks of Marble’ here performed by Pete Seeger.
But the banks are made of marble
With a guard at every door
And the vaults are stuffed with silver
That the miners sweated for
The GFC inspired many modern singer-songwriters in the folk genre to pen their own songs about the banks and associated issues. ‘House of Cards’ by Canadian singer-songwriter James Keelaghan:
We bought that dream and we sold it on
But it ain’t worth nothin’ now the money’s gone
And the only shelter that credit buys
Is a house of cards and a pack of lies
Or ‘Surprise Surprise’ by Chris Smither;
They told you they would fill your cup
Work hard, they said, you’ll never sink too low
The trickle down will float you up
Surprise, surprise, it ain’t so
And from the Irish side, ‘Bankers’ by Kieran Halpin;
The bankers have all got their mansions in place
Apartments in New York and Rome
The ‘I’m all right’ culture is leading the race
And the bankers are taking your home
Writing stories about and commenting on current issues has been standard folk fare for generations and the modern songwriters continue that tradition. It is often that which makes a ‘folk’ song, not simply that they are acoustic — because there are now folk-rock bands and even Celtic punk as shown earlier. Telling stories often differentiates folk music from popular music with its emphasis on romance and relationships, or expressing personal feelings.

The Scot we claim as our own (he is now naturalised), Eric Bogle, wrote this song about the death of an African man fighting for freedom: ‘Singing the spirit Home’ (or a concert version here). It powerfully captures the ‘brothers’ united at the death of their comrade. The song ‘If they come in the morning’ by Jack Warshaw (here performed by Christy Moore) captures the fear and uncertainty of the early morning knock on the door to whisk people away to internment or imprisonment or simply to ‘vanish’. Both are written with detail, not just expressions of sentiment, and that helps creates the sentiment in the listener.

The refugee crisis in Europe is now focused on those coming from Iraq and Syria but a few years ago the main source of refugees was those crossing the Mediterranean from north Africa. English folk singer, Pete Moreton wrote ‘Shores of Italy’ about those refugees:
So many dreams lost on the lonesome sea
So many dreams lost beside the shores of Italy
Pete Moreton also presents an interesting take on the Israel-Palestine conflict, using the analogy of children fighting — simplifying it to that level makes it more poignant: ‘The Two Brothers’.
Israel give him his ball back
And stop pulling his hair
Both of you, my sons, I know it isn’t fair.
I don‘t care who started it
Just stop all the noise
I can see you’re two very over-tired little boys.
Palestine, I saw you kick him
Israel sit still
Let us get some peace now, if you will.
I mentioned Robb Johnson earlier. He is an English singer-songwriter from the Left, not as well-known as many, but his songs have been performed by many as he writes very political songs and has done so for some time. Early on there were songs like ‘Rosa’s lovely daughters’ (the women of the Left, or the inheritors of the legacy of Rosa Luxemburg) and ‘Send me back to Georgia’ about the US ‘war’ in El Salvador. He has written about the Iraq and Afghan wars, including ‘North west frontier’ and ‘I am not at war’.

In 2011 he responded to the riots in London with ‘When Tottenham burned’ emphasising the role poverty had played in what happened:


Well you try living on a minimum wage
See how little you’re worth, how little you earn.
Faces of the poor finally made the front page
When Tottenham burned, when Tottenham burned.
Some songs will stand alone for the intensity of their lyrics or tune but others will have tunes and choruses that people find easy to follow, join in and repeat. While the former present important messages and raise awareness, it is perhaps the latter that become true songs of the people, true ‘folk’ songs.

I mentioned that South America also has a tradition of revolutionary songs. A prime example was Victor Jara, a Chilean who sang against oppression, supported Allende, and was subsequently murdered by the Pinochet regime. That in itself emphasises the power of song: that an oppressive regime had to silence a singer-songwriter — someone fighting them not with a gun but only with words and music.

One example of his songs is ‘Zamba del Che’ written after Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia. In English:
They exploit the farmer,
the miner and the worker,
how painful is their destiny,
hunger, misery, and sorrow.
Bolívar gave him the path
and Guevara followed it:
to liberate our people
from exploitative control.
(A full English translation is here.)

The last song he wrote before his death was his own musical ‘Manifiesto’ which I quote in English in full because it expresses the use of music to support the oppressed:
I don’t sing for love of singing
or to show off my voice
but for the statements
made by my honest guitar
for its heart is of the earth
and like the dove it goes flying
endlessly as holy water
blessing the brave and the dying
so my song has found a purpose
as Violet Parra would say.

Yes, my guitar is a worker
shining and smelling of spring
my guitar is not for killers
greedy for money and power
but for the people who labour
so that the future may flower.
For a song takes on a meaning
when its own heart beat is strong
sung by a man who will die singing,
truthfully singing his song.

I don’t care for adulation
or so that strangers may weep.
I sing for a far strip of country
narrow but endlessly deep.
(In that regard, take note of the picture at the start of this piece and the sticker Woody Guthrie has on his guitar.)

The British pacifist poet Adrian Mitchell wrote a poem about Victor Jara after his death and it was subsequently set to music by Arlo Guthrie: here performed by Christy Moore.
When Pinochet took Chile
They arrested Victor then
They caged him in a stadium
With five-thousand frightened men
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong

Victor stood in the stadium
His voice was brave and strong
And he sang for his fellow prisoners
Till the guards cut short his song
His hands were gentle, his hands were strong
This song is about Irish involvement in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s: I have posted it before but I post it again, especially for Talk Turkey — Viva La Quinte Brigada performed live by Christy Moore at Barrowland in Glasgow. The Christy Moore version was rewritten to reflect the Irish experience but an original Spanish version is performed here by Pete Seeger.

Although the tradition of rebel songs is not as strong in Australia, we do not miss out completely. We have songs like ‘The Ballad of 1891’ about the shearers’ strike that ends with the words ‘If they gaol a man for striking, it’s a rich man’s country yet’. The poem ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’ by Henry Lawson was also written at the time of the shearers’ strike and later set to music and performed by many groups and singers including this version by The Bushwackers.
So we must fly a rebel flag,
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
Of those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours,
If blood should stain the wattle.
In 1962, Dorothy Hewett wrote ‘The Ballad of Norman Brown’ about a man killed during the mining strikes of 1929 in the Newcastle area (there is an audio link to the song on this site and, for those interested in this story, parts of the song in this 30 minute video interviewing miners who were present). Its chorus:
Oh Norman Brown, oh Norman Brown
The murderin' coppers they shot him down,
They shot him down in Rothbury town,
A working man called Norman Brown.
And in 1964 after the Voyager disaster this song was written and also expresses an anti-war sentiment in its last lines:
Will your age-old answers now make you realise
That ships must sail the seas for peace before another dies
We continue to write songs about the futility and suffering of war. I include ‘I was only 19’ by Redgum in this selection of ‘folk’ songs because, although it was a popular hit, it was closer to the folk genre. More recently, Fred Smith has written songs about the Australian experience in Afghanistan: ‘Dust of Uruzgan’ (this version performed in Afghanistan in front of Dutch soldiers and using Afghani musicians).

Modern Australians may not be oppressed but there is still plenty for the singer-songwriters to write about. An Irishman living in Melbourne, Enda Kenny (not to be confused with the Irish Taoiseach), wrote ‘Sorry little man’ about Howard refusing to make the apology to the Stolen Generation. More recently he wrote about coal mining using the story of Jonathon Moylan, the activist who put out the fake press release in 2013 that the ANZ bank was withdrawing funding from the Whitehaven coal mine.

There have also been songs about saving the Tasmanian wilderness and wider issues like saving the ‘Amazon’, the latter written by Bruce Watson:
In the time it takes to sing this song
There’ll be four acres cleared in the Amazon
Bruce Watson is also known (at least in folk circles) for his humorous songs: one example is this parody of ‘Bad Habits’: ‘Bad Abbott’.

For those who love music, particularly the power of lyrics with a good tune, then this music can shape and support social movements for the betterment of society. It can raise awareness of issues or present new perspectives and retell the historical struggles that still mould society and modern movements. With humour, it can ridicule existing ideologies, the powerful and politicians. Radical ideas and social and political commentary have been reflected in the music of the people for centuries. Long may it continue to be so.

What do you think?
Apologies to our readers who took note of the previously announced timing of pieces during January. That has now changed as you can see from this post.

We hope you enjoy this musical interlude and find something you like. Is Ken right in suggesting that music can play an important role in social and political movements? Please feel free to add links in your comments to your favourite ‘political’ songs, no matter which musical genre.

This thread will remain open until Wednesday 20 January when our first political piece for the year will be posted. On that date Ad Astra returns with the first of a three-part article on ‘Framing the political debate — the key to winning’. Part 2 of that piece will appear on Tuesday 26 January and the conclusion on Sunday 31 January.


… and suddenly it’s 2016


Welcome to 2016 from The Political Sword and we behind the keyboards hope that the forthcoming year is everything you wish for.

In what seems to be a tradition, we start 2016 with a different prime minister, promises of better government and the reality of more spin, marketing and political games. The tradition for our New Year article is for something looking at 2015 in review and what might happen in the new year. Usually it isn’t all that serious as most of us would rather be watching the cricket. Well, Buzzfeed did Australian politics 2015 in pictures (language warning but well worth a look); the first cricket test was over in three days and the second in four and the Brisbane International Tennis only goes for seven days.

The ‘festive season’ allows us all to take a break from the usual routine, and the other day I was reliving my daughter’s recent dance concert via the (optional for $57.50) DVD ‘available for purchase on the night’ or later on-line — not forgetting the the ‘high quality photos’ that are also available on-line! No this isn’t a sales pitch for an obscure DVD; but while I was telling my daughter that she looked beautiful and danced excellently (and my son was complaining he wanted to watch YouTube clips about The Good Dinosaur instead), there are comparisons between the thousands of dance-school concerts, amateur football competitions and so on that occur each year and the current state of Australian politics.

My teenage daughter, like thousands of others across the country, loves dance and participates in weekly lessons. I like thousands of other parents dutifully attended the annual dance concert in the weeks before Christmas, bought the DVD, and praised the young performers on the depth of sheer talent they displayed on stage. It really doesn’t matter that the under 6 dancers were stage struck and forgot their dance (in spite of the ‘on stage’ helper and the dance teacher in the aisle mirroring the moves); that half the under 10 dancers went left instead of right; or the young acrobatics performer slipped after doing a cartwheel on stage. At the end of the day, all the performers — some as young as 4 — realise that they are a part of something bigger than their individual effort and they have to perform certain actions in unity with the other dancers. We all see our dancers gain a love of their involvement in the arts, confidence that they can perform the routines that they practice for so long, and hopefully some insight into how their actions affect others.

At the same time young dancers are learning the dance steps and music, they are also learning about teamwork, strength, fitness and understanding the concept that the sum of a group effort is greater than the individual effort. For the concert to appear seamless, there are weeks of practice, volunteers that make costumes, those that organise the performers, the staff at the theatre, the parents and relatives of the performers who are willing participants in a number of dances (of varying quality) performed by unrelated people and encouraging our children on their journey through applause and encouragement. Everyone realises they have a part in the proceedings and, for the greater good, all the participants play their parts with enthusiasm and grace. It is the same for footballers, cricketers and in fact most members of society.

The dying days of 2015 saw an agreement in Paris that in theory will reduce the level of global warming into the future. Prime Minister Turnbull attended the meeting (his predecessor apparently wasn’t going to), and Australia was also represented by Environment Minister Hunt and Foreign Minister Bishop. In amongst the general celebration — after all something is better than nothing — the Turnbull government seems to have a problem. As Lenore Taylor from The Guardian was there and we weren’t, how about we defer to her ‘take’ on the agreement and what it means to Australia. In short, Australia should no longer ‘fudge it’ and claim that overshooting the Kyoto Agreement means we can count those ‘savings’ against this new target. You might remember one of Rudd’s first actions was to sign that agreement even with the howling of various groups around the country of ‘we’ll all be rooned!’. In addition, there is nothing in the agreement that allows countries to decrease their emissions savings — only increase them. Nicole Hasham, writing for Fairfax publications had a similar view.

While it is possible to move the demand for energy from fossil fuel to renewables in a short space of time, there has to be the political will to do it, as is the case in Uruguay. It would be fair to suggest that Australia — the only country to scrap an emissions trading scheme — doesn’t have that will. While there is a self-destroying battle going on between the luddites, sorry Abbottites, in the Coalition government and the seemingly somewhat more progressive Turnbull faction, those that are supposed to be governing for all Australians won’t be game enough to do anything except ‘fiddle while Rome burns’ to avoid reducing support for their own faction of the political party they represent.

Not that climate change is Turnbull’s only problem. As soon as Turnbull left the country to go to France, his predecessor was hitting the airwaves with ‘his mate’ Alan Jones and writing in The Australian (paywalled) in an exercise that is probably politely called protecting his legacy and ‘amping up’ the fear of terrorism. The Political Sword isn’t the first to suggest that Abbott is ‘doing a Rudd’, (and this article points out how well that worked) and dare I suggest we won’t be the last. According to The Guardian, Abbott is likely to offer himself for re-election in spite of an opinion poll funded by The Australia Institute where the electors in Abbott’s seat of Warringah are telling him to go.

In the words of those annoying commercials on the digital TV shopping channels — ‘but wait, there’s more’. Three of Turnbull’s hand-picked ministers, Mal Brough, Christopher Pyne and Wyatt Roy seem to have questions to answer regarding the alleged campaign to replace Peter Slipper as the Member for Fisher with Mal Brough. You may remember in the last week of parliament for 2015, Brough seemed to contradict a statement he made on Channel 9’s 60 Minutes program, offered an explanation for the apparent contradiction, and then when the contradiction was spelt out to him:
Brough returned to the house on Wednesday morning to apologise “if my statement yesterday unwittingly added to the confusion rather than clarifying the matter”.

Labor repeatedly asked Brough to justify his claim that he had “answered the question without clarifying precisely what part of the question I was responding to”. Dreyfus said it was obvious from the tapes that there was only one question Brough could have been answering
While Brough has now stood aside pending completion of the investigation by the AFP, Pyne and Roy are still there.

Turnbull has still more to deal with. Instead of the ‘free steak knives’ that used to be promised by firms such as Demtel, scorned ex-Minister Ian Macfarlane decided to take his bat and ball from the Liberal side of the coalition to the Nationals. While Macfarlane is a member of Queensland’s LNP and theoretically a member of both the Liberal and National caucus in Canberra, the action (which could be described as a ‘dummy spit’ because Turnbull removed him from the ministry) alters the numbers of parliamentarians in each of the coalition partners in Canberra — potentially causing a ministry to be passed from the Liberals to the Nationals and destabilising Turnbull’s government. The Queensland LNP subsequently blocked the move; so Macfarlane returned serve with:
He said he would not make an immediate decision about his future in the federal parliament. “I’ll be taking some time over Christmas and making an announcement in the new year,” he said.
I, like millions of other parents sit through dance concerts, sporting events and a multitude of other events that involve our kids, to teach them about co-operation, sharing, learning new skills, confidence and that sometimes they have to sacrifice the top billing for the greater good. While (in my opinion) my daughter’s dancing was excellent, she wasn’t always at the front and centre of the stage. There could be a lot of reasons for this but I certainly didn’t go to the dance teacher after the concert and suggest discrimination because my daughter didn’t get the position I thought she deserved. I also didn’t complain because I sat through the entire first act without sight of my daughter on stage — and to my knowledge no one else complained about the staging or sequencing either.

So what makes those in politics think differently? Sometimes the greater good means that we have to do what is morally right, not what is self-serving. Australia has just signed up to a commitment to actually reduce carbon emissions into the future. Unlike others in a similar position, Australia is planning to use the ’credits’ earned by exceeding previous targets to reduce the actual reductions that will be required by polluters in this country.

The conservative rump of the Liberal Party has decided that the removal of ‘their leader’ (and both sides of politics ‘have form’ in regard to removal of sitting prime ministers) was in error, so they are actively destabilising the government’s agenda. Surely the greater good if you are an LNP supporter is a Coalition government in Canberra, rather than handing government to the ‘other side’ because you don’t have the leader you want. The same strategy worked well for the ALP too!

Ian Macfarlane has been the recipient of a number of cabinet posts in his term in the federal parliament. When a new prime minister makes a decision to bring in some new (and younger) blood, Macfarlane effectively has two options. He could sit on the backbench with others in the same position, such as Phillip Ruddock, and act in the greater good as a mentor to those coming through the system — or he could ‘spit the dummy’. His choice is obvious.

Not that Australian politicians are anything special in looking after their own self interests. The US Republican Presidential hopefuls are demonstrating their maturity by name calling:
Bush, speaking at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, railed against Trump’s habit of offending demographic groups ranging from Muslims to women. Then he said: “Just one other thing – I gotta get this off my chest – Donald Trump is a jerk.”

The crowd in Contoocook broke into laughter and applause.

On Friday, on Twitter, Trump called Bush “dumb as a rock”.
The end of 2015 also brought signs of some politicians being willing to have genuine conversations with their electors, leading to better decisions that will achieve the greater good. Hopefully others will learn to manage the need to promote their own self-interest to the elimination of everything else, and that their efforts match what we teach our kids through organised activity and movies such as The Good Dinosaur.

Welcome to 2016; buckle up; it could be a wild ride.

What do you think?
This thread will remain open until 17 January when a piece with many musical links will be posted for your holiday entertainment.


Farewell 2015 — you could have been worse


It is common at this time of the year to reflect on what was, what could have been and how it all manages to fit into the ‘scheme of things’. This article is the 50th piece posted to The Political Sword in 2015 — and, if we didn’t have enough to do, late in January we changed the look and feel of our website as well as commencing a second site TPS Extra, where the concept is for shorter ad-hoc articles on issues of the day. Given that each Political Sword article runs for somewhere between 1500 and 2500 words, somewhere around 100,000 words have been written, coded and presented for you to think about. At the time of writing 45 articles have appeared on the Extra site — of varying lengths to address a current issue.

At the end of 2014, we started our annual reflection with the following:
It was a year in which we saw Abbott and his cronies trying to destroy the country and make us a paradise for the neo-liberals, the neo-cons and the economists that support them — and, of course, big business. We saw the worst budget in living memory and have, so far, only been saved from its full ramifications by the senate. We saw Clive Palmer appear with Al Gore to talk about the importance of climate change but, at the same time, cave in to support the repeal of the carbon price. We have seen Abbott, more through luck than design, deflect the budget issue and ‘bask’ in the glory of the world stage, taking on the Russian bear and alienating our closest Asian neighbour. He has ‘stopped the boats’ but also stopped government transparency in the process. He is undertaking more privatisation of government services and encouraging the states to do the same. Without openly saying so, he is pursuing a neo-liberal and economic rationalist agenda backed to the hilt by the IPA (and, as others have noted, he is, to a significant extent, following its ‘hit list’).
The criticism of Abbott started early this year on The Political Sword. By the time January was over we had looked back at 2012 where our esteemed blog master Ad Astra had correctly deduced Abbott’s character; and Ken offered to refund his assisted passage to Australia
He arrived here as a £10 pom and I will willingly refund his £10 (or $20 in real Australian money) if he takes the next boat home — perhaps we can spare him an orange life boat for the journey.
— as well as looking at his negativity, questioning if it was the right ‘sales pitch’ for someone who was supposed to be demonstrating that his government was a safe pair of hands.

During February, Abbott faced a leadership spill (as no one actually challenged him). The reality is that close to 40% of the members of his political caucus effectively ticked the ‘anyone but Abbott’ box by voting for a spill. Ken soon after assembled a catalogue of (lets be nice here — it is Christmas) exaggerations over the deficit that Abbott and Hockey claim they inherited from the Rudd/Gillard years, followed by 2353 looking at tax reform here and here.

During March, Ken looked at the reality of the ‘Presidential style’ of Australian leadership and suggested the ‘people voted for me’ claim that Abbott (as well as Rudd a few years earlier) was making was in fact bollocks. Jan Mahyuddin pondered why a number of political reporters were then publicly discussing Abbott’s character flaws, rather than before the election when the Australian people could have done something about it.

During March, the government released the fourth Intergenerational Report — which is a document that is supposed to look a few decades into the future, scan the risks and determine what plans we as a society need to have in place now to manage the transition. The Hockey intergenerational report was a complete farce, which you may remember Dr Karl Kruszelnicki later publically suggested he should have read prior to agreeing to advertise the document.

As the year went on we looked at the second Abbott/Hockey budget and determined that while it was somewhat softer than the 2014 version, the ideology behind it was the same. 2353 looked at the discussion on marriage equity in June, discussing the manoeuvres that Abbott was making to defer the process: followed a week later by Ken discussing the reality behind the ‘national security/terrorism’ concerns that Abbott frequently identified as his prime concern and found that Abbott was the one behaving like a terrorist by deliberately generating fear.

During August, we discussed the ‘concept’ of an increase in the GST rate, as floated by Mike Baird (NSW Premier) at the COAG Meeting, while suggesting that ‘we told you so’ (again) back in April when we published ‘Beware, there is a plan’. The government’s lack of ‘love’ for effective action to address climate change or progressive taxation (where everyone pays a fair percentage of their income) rounded out the month.

A traditional operating method for conservative governments is to hide their actions behind a cloak of secrecy or layer the whole process in quantities of red tape. Early in September, 2353 asked why is this so and determined that it was something to do with the conservative mindset. We also looked at how various governments had failed Aboriginal/Torres Strait Islander Australians and how Abbott was never going to rectify the damage; as well as the increasing trend for people such as Abbott (a Catholic) to reduce the distance between state and religion, solely to push their own agendas. September was also the month that Abbott was defeated in a leadership challenge. Given that Menzies was overthrown in a leadership challenge in 1941 and Gorton voted himself out of office in the early 1970’s, you would think that there would be considerable ‘corporate experience’ in the Liberal Party for how the vanquished should act and behave. After giving Abbott around a month to demonstrate he meant the ‘right things’ he said; and finding he didn’t, The Political Sword discussed (here, here as well as here) the problems newly minted Prime Minister Turnbull would have in stamping his authority on the position while appeasing the ultra-conservatives who were being attracted to the lightning rod of Abbott, then sitting on the back bench. Turnbull is still attempting to find a path through the forest of competing claims and ideologies.

A lot can change in twelve months. Abbott’s removal as prime minister in late 2015 was bookended by Queenslanders taking back ultra-conservative Premier Newman’s large majority in January and Canadians removing ultra-conservative Stephen Harper from their prime ministership in October. The replacement leader in Queensland, Annastacia Palaszczuk, and in Canada, Justin Trudeau, were both considered to be write-offs only months prior to the election results and both seem to have chosen methods miles apart from the ‘traditional’ loud, nasty politics to gain and retain leadership. While the Conservative’s David Cameron was re-elected in the UK election, subsequently the UK Labour Party (in a democratic process) chose a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is (in the words of Yes Minister) ‘courageous’ and has stated he wants to take the UK Labour Party back to the days of a kinder and gentler society.

Palaszczuk, Turnbull, Corbyn and Trudeau seem to demonstrate a need for a ‘kinder and gentler’ politics and as a result there is certainly less intensity in the political discussion. Maybe we all do get sick of ‘he said/she said’ and those with the loudest or most outrageous voices winning. As a US General Election and an Australian Federal Election are both due in 2016, it could be interesting to see how the ‘kinder and gentler’ pans out.

Life does not revolve completely around politics and during the year The Political Sword took a look at some issues that at times begged the question why won’t our politicians do this as well and at other times had little to do with current politics at all.

2353 went ethical early in February (a recurring affliction for which we are assured he is getting help), looking at some of the research into why people treat those with differences as physical and intellectual inferiors. In March, he was questioning if social media influences politics and by April was discussing the fallacy of the ‘trickle-down effect’ as popularised by US President Reagan, British Prime Minister Thatcher and of course Australian Prime Minister Abbott.

Ken discussed the change in perception within Australia from helping those less fortunate to economic rationalism, asked if the budget papers are just a waste of paper and tried to justify claiming the term ‘budget trickery’ from Bill Shorten after the federal budget.

Around the same time as the Australian Budget was handed down (giving little to those that need a hand), 2353 looked at the experience in Utah where a Republican (conservative) governor authorised a long term plan to help banish poverty from his state; including literally giving the homeless a home. The social benefits have been overwhelming, as those who have a fixed address find it is easier to interact with government departments, employers and other aid groups, they feel part of a community and sooner or later, most of them are (to use Joe Hockey’s misadvised words) lifters, not leaners on society.

2353’s ethical meme surfaced again when he discussed why our immigration policies over the past couple of centuries seemed to reflect our prosperity as a nation as well as discussing the ethics of profit over human suffering, and why successive Australian governments have supported the apparent inhumanity experienced by those who are transported to Christmas Island, Manus Island and Nauru.

At the same time, Ken gave us a few valuable history lessons with his mini- series on the Westminster System (Part 1 and Part 2), health funding (Part 1 and Part 2), neo-liberalism and discussing the politics of water availability in Australia.

So 2015 really wasn’t that bad. This time last year we were hoping that Abbott didn’t ‘destroy the joint’ before he was evicted kicking and screaming from Kirribilli House; some other ultra-conservatives have been voted out; and we now have some optimism that kinder and gentler politics is possible across the world with a recognition that the environment and society is important.

In the spirit of optimism that seems to have broken out across the UK, Canada and Australia, please enjoy this (non-festive season) music clip as a final comment on 2015



What do you think?
Our publication schedule over the break is an article scheduled for New Year's Day and potentially one in mid-January. The site will remain open and moderated throughout the period. Apart from that, the people behind The Political Sword hope you enjoy your ‘Christmas break’ in the way in which you feel comfortable. Have a safe and happy holiday period, look after yourself, your families and those around you.