More on framing the political debate - the key to winning



In the first of this short series on framing: Framing the political debate – the key to winning, I described the concept of political framing as developed by cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff, which he described in his book The Political Mind. I illustrated it with examples drawn from the Iraq war and from our federal political scene. This piece draws on more recent examples of how framing has been used successfully, principally by the Coalition government. Conservatives have an aptitude in selecting frames for the policies and plans they wish to introduce. Often they are winners; occasionally though their frames turn out to be losers.

Leading up to the 2013 election Tony Abbott embraced three memorable slogans: He promised he would “Abolish the carbon tax’, ‘Stop the Boats’, and ‘Repay the Debt’. He embellished these with more negatives: ‘This toxic tax’, ‘The World’s Biggest Carbon Tax’, ‘Axe the Tax’, ‘Stop the waste’, and a positive: ‘Hope, Reward, Opportunity’. Someone must have persuaded him that three words slogans would stick in voters’ minds. And they did. All of these were frames. They framed Labor as a high taxing party, wasteful of taxpayers’ money, running up intolerable debt and huge budget deficits, and unable to protect our borders, all negatives. The Coalition framed itself as the party that would fix Labor’s mess, and it also offered hope, reward and opportunity, all positives. Very simple, yet successful!



When Joe Hockey entered the framing arena, he thought he was on a winner when he coined the slogan: “The age of entitlement is over”. He still boasts of the address he delivered in London on that theme. He framed those whom he deemed dependent on welfare entitlements as ‘leaners’, a pejorative tag that he used to contrast them with the ‘lifters’, the good guys who pulled their weight, and whose taxes supported the lazy leaners. This framing appealed particularly to conservatives, many of whom believe that those who earn a lot deserve it, and are entitled to keep it; those with little deserve to be poor. Hockey reinforced his framing by publicising how many dollars from their salaries various hardworking lifters contributed to supporting the leaners.



Although progressives disliked his framing, his supporters applauded. But when Hockey framed his 2014 budget along those lines he came unstuck. It penalized his designated ‘leaners’, those on the aged pension and on welfare, by extracting from them the savings he insisted he must make to balance the budget, while scarcely touching those on higher incomes. The electorate erupted with disgust. Voters, even Coalition supporters, saw the budget as grossly unfair, penalising as it did those least able to afford it.

Hockey’s framing, and we know it was Abbott’s too, backfired badly. Faulty framing is as damaging as excellent framing is beneficial. Soon Hockey, Abbott and Cormann were forced into retreat. So damaging was this framing that they reversed it in the 2015 budget.

Another striking example of implausible framing was the representation of Labor as incompetent money managers and profligate spenders, running up appalling debts that our grandchildren will still be repaying. So determined was Abbott to frame Labor as bungling spendthrifts, that he deliberately inflated the debt levels, painted a picture of never ceasing debt spiralling out of control, and budget deficits stretching out ‘as far as the eye can see’. He boasted that the adults in the Coalition would soon pay off the debt, and get the budget back to surplus. He framed the situation as being a ‘debt and deficit disaster’ and an ominous ‘budget emergency’. Initially, the electorate believed his inflated rhetoric until it became obvious, even to his supporters, that the debt and deficit was steadily worsening under his own government’s stewardship. By the 2015 budget, although the fiscal situation had deteriorated further, voters noticed that the ‘crisis’, the ‘disaster’ and the ‘emergency’ had magically disappeared.

Abbott’s stocks had been poor almost since his election, and continued to fall with the first leadership spill. It was then that he tried to reframe his government’s performance with his astonishing: “Good government starts today”! Even as his position continued to deteriorate until he was finally removed, he kept on with the fictitious framing of a government doing well and achieving a lot since being elected, despite his inability to get a raft of his crucial bills through the Senate. His framing was out of touch with the stark reality of a floundering, incompetent government that did not know where it was going. For framing to work it has at least to be vaguely consistent with the observable facts.

Abbott and Hockey, still smarting from the reaction of the electorate to the 2014 budget, thought they had better frame the 2015 budget differently. So they framed it as a ‘have a go’ budget: "So now is the time for all Australians to get out there and have a go." After castigating those on welfare in 2014, they were now jollying us all to ‘have a go’. The electorate could not fail to notice the complete turn around in rhetoric. How many realized that this about turn was simply a reframing? They dropped the pejorative ‘emergency’ frame and installed the benign ‘have a go’ frame. No doubt they hoped nobody would notice their back flip, but of course both the commentators and the voters did.

Once Malcolm Turnbull became prime minister we saw entirely new framing, although his policies look strikingly similar to Abbott’s. His framing was upbeat: ”There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian…We have to recognise that the disruption that we see driven by technology, the change is our friend if we are agile and smart enough to take advantage of it. There has never been a more exciting time to be alive than today …”

This optimistic framing appealed to the electorate after years of negative framing by Abbott, who was always telling us of the threats we faced, from terrorists, from asylum seekers, from budget crises, from the leaners who were draining the coffers dry. Turnbull’s ratings, and those of the Coalition, soared, so relieved was the electorate to see Abbott’s negative framing replaced by Turnbull’s positive, buoyant framing. Whether Turnbull can deliver remains to be seen, but what is obvious is that voters prefer upbeat rather than downbeat framing, and are prepared to give the optimist a go.

Let’s look now at how Labor responded to the Abbott/Hockey framing. Lakoff believes that progressives the world over are less skilful at framing appealing messages because of their parental upbringing, as detailed in Understanding the conservative mind. His concepts are summarised below.

Lakoff attributes progressives’ lack of skill in framing to their embrace of what he terms: ‘Old Enlightenment thinking’, which posits that the facts should speak for themselves and that they can win elections by citing facts and offering programs that serve voters’ interests. Progressives believe: ‘Give the voters the facts, explain what they mean with persuasive reasoning, propose policies that serve their interests, and all will be well. The people will understand once policies are explained to them.’

It is curious that progressives have been so slow to work out that this is not so. Facts and logic are insufficient. Emotional intelligence has to be integrated into the frame to convince the voter. Abbott appealed to the emotions with his use of negative words. They brought about the desired adverse emotional reaction. Words such as tax, debt, deficit, crisis, emergency, terrorism, and phrases such as being overrun with ‘invaders’, evoke fear reactions. Having created fear, Abbott promised to soothe those fears, protect the people and our borders, and fix the fiscal mess left by Labor.

In contrast, positive words: ‘exciting times’, ‘opportunity’, or even ‘have a go’, result in a positive emotional response from voters. Yet Labor was never able to come up with positive frames that negated Abbott’s negative ones. Since the debt and the deficit were hardly trivial, it proved impossible for Labor to pass them off as a temporary aberration that would correct itself in the fullness of time, although several sound economists were sanguine about the deficit and its eventual correction. Abbott framed debt and deficit as a disaster, and it stayed that way in voters’ minds.

Neither was Labor able to counter effectively Abbott’s rhetoric about asylum seekers and boat people. Any semblance of a more humane attitude was negated by: ‘Labor is soft on terror’. Note that ‘terror’ and ‘asylum seekers’ were conflated in this framing, although there is no credible evidence that boat people seeking asylum are, or would become terrorists. Moreover, Morrison accused Labor of virtually inviting people smugglers to bring more asylum seekers by ‘putting sugar on the table’. The Coalition’s framing always outmaneuvered Labor’s.

The best Labor was able to come up with were what some journalists mockingly tagged ‘Bill Shorten’s zingers’.

Lakoff writes extensively about ‘fear of framing’, which he defines as “…a fear of how the other side will frame your vote, and a fear of framing the truth on your own.” He went onto say:
Framing the truth so that it can be understood is not just central to honest, effective politics. It is central to every aspect of human life. It takes knowledge and honesty, skill and courage. It is part of being a full human being. It is not just the province of political leaders; it is the duty of a citizen.

Fear of framing is debilitating, not just to you, but to everyone who depends on you.
Labor ought to read what Lakoff says and lift its game.

He goes onto discuss the difficult process of what he describes as ‘getting unframed’. Here is a striking example of how Barack Obama unframed a question posed by TV journalist Wolf Spitzer in a Democratic presidential debate on CNN in 2007. Lakoff describes Spitzer’s behaviour in this debate as “…a wolf in sheep’s clothing – a conservative who poses as a neutral journalist. All through the debate he used conservatives frames. Some candidates managed to shift the frame to their ground, but all too often they tried to answer and were trapped in a conservative frame. This led up to one of the greatest political moments in recent political television”. The context included the contentious argument about what language US citizens should speak. Many immigrants do not speak English.



Spitzer: I want you to raise your hand if you believe English should be the official language of the United States.

Barack Obama refused to take it anymore. He got up, stepped forward, and said:

Obama: This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us. You know, you’re right. Everybody is going to learn to speak English if they live in this country. The issue is not whether or not future generations of immigrants are going to learn English. The question is: how can we come up with both a legal and sensible immigration policy? And when we are distracted by these kinds of questions, I think we do a disservice to the American people.


Lakoff relates how he cheered Obama’s response. He goes onto say: “The first lesson about the use of framing in politics is not to accept the other side’s framing. One part of that is politely shifting the frame, as Obama did. “You know, you’re right…” But there are situations like presidential debates where the host should not be allowed to get away with conservative bias via framing. Obama did it just right, challenging the question itself. His response could be taken as a mantra: “This is the kind of question that is designed precisely to divide us.”

You will recall how Tony Abbott designed the frame ‘Team Australia’ for the same purpose: precisely to divide us.

Labor and its leaders need to become more proficient in the framing arena. They should not allow themselves to be trapped in their opponents’ frames. They must become more adept at challenging these frames, calling them out, as did Obama. They must become more creative and skilful in developing their own frames.

Unless they can unframe their opponents; unless they create powerful frames that represent their point of view, their values, their policies and their plans, they are destined to wallow in the wake of Coalition frames.

And they have to understand that facts and reason alone are insufficient. Unless the emotional content of their frames is designed to appeal to the voters, they will not succeed in attracting the swinging voters they need.


The last in this brief series on framing, which will be published in a couple of days, uses contemporary examples of how the government is framing its ideas, policies and plans. Some are, or will be effective; some will have limited appeal; some may end up on the scrap heap. Labor’s will need to counter them, match them, or surpass them. That’s quite a challenge.

What do you think?
Ad astra has used examples from our own political scene to illustrate further the concept of framing. You will have recognized many of them. He illustrated the danger of becoming trapped in an opponent’s framing, and how to disentangle from it.

In part 3, he will use very contemporary examples of framing which you will remember.

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.