A smile is not enough


[The Turnbull residence at Point Piper, Sydney]

After Turnbull toppled Abbott in September the polls turned in favour of the Coalition; Turnbull’s ‘satisfaction’ rating was high; and he had a commanding lead over Shorten as preferred prime minister. The big question for Turnbull, the Coalition, and indeed Labor, is whether he can maintain those poll numbers all the way to an election.

In my view there are already signs that suggest he will not. That may not yet be showing in polling but unless he acts to meet public expectations those polls will slowly drift away from him.

When Turnbull first won the post as prime minister, he could not stop smiling. In his victory speech, in early interviews and press conferences, he was ceaselessly smiling. Between christmas and new year, when he announced the demotions of Brough and Briggs, he was no longer smiling. Perhaps it was no smiling matter but it was a hint that the pressure of the job is starting to tell.

Turnbull has a reputation as a ‘small l’ liberal with his views on gay marriage and climate change. He does represent an electorate where such views go over well and, especially after Abbott, the wider electorate also saw such views as a hopeful sign for the future. So far, however, Turnbull has done nothing to action such views: he has accepted the position that the gay marriage issue will be put to a plebiscite and not just a parliamentary vote; and, although signing up to the Paris agreement on climate change action, he will stick with Abbott’s ‘Direct Action’ policy (which most experts suggest will fail to deliver). It appears this is a result of deals done with the Right of the Liberal party to secure the top job or, at the least, bowing to the reality of the number of far Right members in his party. It is, however, creating disillusionment in the electorate. As most people accept the reality of politics, he will be given time to make changes but he will not be given forever. While he may wish to make changes, he is hamstrung by the deals he did and the numbers in his party who do not support his more liberal views. Unfortunately, he may not have the power within the party to over-rule those deals until he wins an election (when he can then claim leadership in his own right) but ironically he may not win an election unless he makes those changes first — a classic Catch 22!

Turnbull arrived as a breath of fresh air, saying the right things, and appearing as a very different politician to Abbott. But the announcement about Brough and Briggs (and the abandonment of the Gonski funding model for education which was announced at about the same time) was made during a period, between christmas and new year, when the attention of most people was on issues other than politics. To the cynical amongst us, which now includes a majority of people when it comes to politicians, it gave the appearance of deliberately trying to ‘bury’ the news. (The news about Brough and Briggs was effective in burying the Gonski announcement.) For someone who first appeared as ‘different’ to Abbott, that is a fail. It tends to suggest that he is merely another politician, not better nor worse, but just as willing to play political games. That is not a view that fits with how he first attempted to portray himself and the electorate will add that to the list when adjudicating on his prime ministership. On its own it may not change the electorate’s view but it is another straw on the camel’s back.

The Trade Union Royal Commission (TURC) was initiated by Abbott but its report was delivered to and released by Turnbull. He described it as a ‘watershed moment’ for the labour movement. Making so-called union corruption an election issue, which he also promised, is a double-edged sword. Union bashing (and by association Labor and Shorten bashing) goes over well with some but unions can be effective in fighting back as they proved with WorkChoices. Turnbull is trying to frame it (following Ad Astra’s explanation of ‘framing’) as in the interest of ordinary union members but much will depend on the frame the unions use in fighting back. The Guardian has already pointed to the number of powerful women in the union movement and suggested:
A rise in female leadership and the diversity of social backgrounds from which they come has delivered to the union movement a face that looks far more like Australia’s than the Coalition’s own cabinet.
The public are also aware that the ATO released information that almost 600 of Australia’s biggest companies paid no tax in 2013‒14. While there are many reasons for that, the bald facts suggest that companies can avoid tax with impunity which reflects poorly on the government. Senator Xenophon has raised questions about the company that bought the Dick Smith electronics chain and floated the business in December 2013 making a profit of $400 million only to see the company now in voluntary administration. Echoing the TURC terms of reference, Xenophon said: ‘There are some real questions to be asked here about our level of corporate governance …’ [emphasis added]

When all that is put together, I doubt that TURC will really have the impact that some in the Coalition believe. Many in the electorate will be asking questions about why the unions are being pursued but big business isn’t. It’s a fair question. Politicians lose their positions when caught out but just losing their position is apparently not enough for union leaders. A politician who rorts the benefits he or she is entitled to is allowed to pay the money back but a union leader faces fraud charges. Some in the electorate already recognise the inconsistency and see it continuing under Turnbull.

Turnbull also appears happy to reduce penalty rates but lower wages not only affect workers but mean lower tax revenue for government. Bosses have argued since time immemorial that lower wages allow them to employ more people but it has never happened: during the Great Depression the then Arbitration Commission reduced wages in Australia by 10% with businesses promising they would then be able to employ more people but unemployment continued to rise, from 20% to 30%. Turnbull, however, side-stepped the issue by saying it was a matter for the Fair Work Commission. That is not what people expect of their government: government representatives will most likely make representations to the Fair Work Commission when the case comes up and people expect to know whether the government will support or oppose a reduction in penalty rates. Simply pretending that it is nothing to do with him, is not what people expect of a prime minister.

When it comes to economic policy? — no change there. The Turnbull government is still attacking those lower on the pecking order and leaving business and the well-off alone to get on with the job of making money — sorry, according to Turnbull that should be getting on with creating jobs. Despite Turnbull telling us that his approach will be ‘fair’, he should be conscious of the reaction to the 2014 budget when it was commonly and widely believed that the burden of cuts fell disproportionately on the less well-off. If people perceive that is still happening, or happening again, Turnbull’s claims of fairness will be seen as meaningless and just political ‘clap trap’ — not good for a politician’s future as Abbott and Hockey discovered. Of course, the idea of an increase in the GST is still alive, although opposed by a majority of voters.

The lack of activity by the government is reflected in the real economy. In December construction activity declined and there was also a downturn in new orders going into 2016; and a business survey found companies had lower expectations for sales, profits and employment in 2016. Around 70% of voters consistently rate the economy as an important issue and these indicators do not bode well for the government in 2016.

The approach to TURC and economic policy suggest that Turnbull is, at heart, still a businessman and will support big business. He may have small ‘l’ liberal social views but displays neo-liberal economic views and that will become more apparent to the electorate as time passes, and will be exacerbated if he fails to implement some of his social views.

To date, Turnbull has made only one significant new policy announcement — the science and innovation policy. There are a lot of words about a ‘cultural’ shift but little on where the money comes from: it appears that some funding is still dependent on the Senate passing previous cuts proposed by Abbott and Hockey. There have been a series of lesser announcements by his ministers, some of which seem to have had little attention in the media, but which together add up to more cuts to health and welfare spending, such as changes to paid parental leave, to Medicare benefits and to the eligibility of former public servants (both state and federal) for a part-pension. While not all of these measures have attracted wide attention, the people affected are certainly well aware of them and as the number of these groups is added to, that is a growing number of voters who are becoming more disillusioned, more convinced that the Abbott approach is continuing.

The Turnbull government is still pursuing the Abbott government policy of a transfer of powers to the states. Morrison has floated the idea that the states should receive a guaranteed share of income tax. The underlying idea is that the states become solely responsible for schools and hospitals and the commonwealth covers Medicare, the PBS and universities. Given that education and health are issues which the electorate sees Labor as better able to manage, the cynic in me suggests that this is also a political strategy to take away one of Labor’s strengths at the federal level. I do not expect everyone to see this, but people will see the commonwealth withdrawing from hospital and school funding. For many years now, commonwealth financial support has been central to health and education and it will be difficult to change that public perception. That leaves some room for Labor to continue pursuing commonwealth involvement in health and education because, at least for now, that is what the electorate expects.

Decisiveness is lacking or, at least, there is no sign of it yet. It is all well and good to make promises about consultation and proper consideration of issues but people often expect their leaders to be decisive, even with less popular decisions. Four months into his prime ministership and Turnbull has not made any major decisions — he has simply continued the Abbott policies. People expected there would be changes in the policy approach but are not seeing that. Turnbull may have provided a fresh approach in his words and demeanour but not in policy and that will soon wear thin with the electorate.

Some of these issues suggest there may be a temptation to go to an early election before the gloss of the Turnbull leadership wears off and more expectations are left unmet. At an election, however, he would be required to put policies before the electorate and if they remain the Abbott policies, the electorate will not be well pleased. Also if he goes before he has even presented his first budget, it will suggest signs of panic. The budget is often seen as a key indicator of the direction of a prime ministership and to go to an election without presenting one is not a good look. Turnbull, however, is trying to frame an opportunity to go early by using the TURC recommendations and associated legislation as a potential trigger for a double dissolution. Most commentators doubt that a double dissolution will be called because of the likelihood that it would give rise to an increase in minor parties in the Senate (owing to the smaller quota required to win a seat). There may not be a double dissolution but Turnbull may still be tempted to go early — how early is the question, as that also depends on a number of legal requirements regarding the timing of House and Senate elections. Legally he could hold just a House election but it would be electorally unpopular to again separate House and Senate elections. So his options for an early election appear limited, giving the electorate more time to see his true colours.

On 29 January, however, he did indicate that an election would not be called until August, September or October, thus acknowledging the difficulties of going early, but only a few days later, on the first sitting day of parliament, he said a double dissolution was still a ‘live option’ — although that may have been intended to pressure current cross-bench senators to support his legislation rather than a genuine intention. The fact that he can express those contradictory positions within a few days does not present the image of a decisive prime minister.

Basically, Turnbull created a persona before he became prime minister that is not being matched by his actions as prime minister and the electorate will grow increasingly disillusioned with this. So I think there is reason for optimism that the Coalition can be defeated in the election this year. The big question is whether Labor will be able to take advantage of this — but I will save those speculations for another time.

What do you think?
Is Ken’s optimism justified? Will people see through Turnbull’s glossy veneer before the election or will awakening come too late? Can Labor be effective in highlighting Turnbull’s ineffectiveness?

We hope you noticed that this piece was posted on Sunday morning rather than our previous regular time of Sunday evening. This will become our new standard posting time (9.00am on a Sunday) allowing you time to catch up after breakfast or brunch (depending on your time of rising).

Next week, at 9.00am on Sunday, 2353NM discusses a link between guns and electric cars in ‘Americans aren’t the only ones with blinkers’.


Still more on framing the political debate - the key to winning



I began this short series on political framing with the image above, and illustrated the concept with some overseas examples. In the second part I used examples from the contemporary federal political scene, pointed out the dangers of accepting political opponents’ framing, and examined ways of countering that framing. In this final part, I will further illustrate framing with some very contemporary political framing.

I hope that these pieces will convince you of the continuing reality of framing in our political scene and the power of a strong and plausible frame in setting the political agenda. I hope too it will offer some hints to Labor leaders as they seek to counter and match the Coalition’s skill at framing.

Abbott was a master at framing. He’s gone now from the top job, or we hope he has, but his legacy persists.

Take the ‘Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption’. If the title had not included ‘and Corruption’, it might have been seen as a neutral body assigned the task of examining how unions are managed and governed. But Abbott was determined to frame the Commission’s task as a legal investigation into what he asserted was widespread union corruption. His framing prejudged the outcome. Now that the Commission’s findings are public, Abbott will not be disappointed.



He could have achieved his purpose had the Commission been simply into trade union governance; the terms of reference would have defined the scope of the inquiry. But typically Abbott has never been known for subtlety; bare knuckle street brawling is all he knows.

His naming of the Commission and his stated purpose for initiating it naturally evoked a negative response from Labor and the unions, who immediately and persistently framed it as ‘a political witch-hunt’ designed to ‘get’ Julia Gillard, Bill Shorten, the Labor Party, and by the way, the union movement too. Abbott has probably succeeded in several of his aims, but at the expense of the Commission being seen as biased from the outset, even more so after Commissioner Dyson Heydon was found to be a scheduled guest speaker at a Liberal Party fundraiser.

Here is a classic example of how divergent the framing of the one event can be. Voters are left to decide which framing they find most plausible: ‘shining a spotlight on union corruption’ or simply a ‘witch hunt’ designed specifically to discredit political enemies.

Let’s move beyond Abbott to examine if the propensity for framing has persisted after his ejection by his party. Yes it has. Here are some recent examples.

As mentioned in an earlier piece, newly elected Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull quickly elected to distance himself from Abbott’s negative framing with “We cannot be defensive, we cannot future proof ourselves. 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 and there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.” The people responded encouragingly to his positive and optimistic framing of Australia’s position in the world. His ratings soared.

In bringing down the MYEFO, Scott Morrison with his dalek Mathias Cormann in tow tried his hand at framing that controversial statement.



Even before it was announced, Morrison was framing the fiscal outlook with the words: “We do not have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem.” Sensible economists threw up their hands in despair. They know full well that Australia has a revenue problem, and that it will persist until more revenue is raised. Of course spending can always be reduced, but not enough to close the existing gap between revenue and expenditure. It seemed curious that Morrison should persist with the same framing as the discredited Hockey, when he had an opportunity to break free from it.

To answer this conundrum, it is necessary to look beyond the surface of Morrison’s framing to a deep-seated Coalition frame, namely that it is intent on reducing taxes, certainly not increasing them. To Morrison, increasing revenue equated with increasing taxes, which is anathema to him. Presumably, reducing tax concessions for superannuants and those enjoying negative gearing or capital gains concessions, equates with increasing taxes in Morrison’s mind.

He too proved susceptible to the ubiquitous three-word slogan. Soon he was repeating his own: “Work, save, invest”. As with all such slogans, he was framing his own fiscal management style. I suppose it is a morphed version of Hockey’s “Have a go”

When MYEFO finally emerged and economists and journalists examined it, Morrison felt the need to create another frame, one that portrayed the government as knowing where it was going and how to get there, while at the same time warning that it would take time. In his MYEFO address, he announced that the government was ‘making progress’. He said that this year’s budget position will be better than last year and emphasised there is ‘no magic solution’ because the government will not ‘put the safety of the passengers [growth and jobs of Australians] at risk’. Morrison suggested there is no one ‘save’ or ‘tax’ that will solve higher debts and deficits and lower growth forecasts, and that Australians appreciate the government’s ‘patient approach’

Appearing on 7.30 to explain MYEFO, Leigh Sales challenged Morrison with: “Politics frames everything?”



He responded with: “Well, it may frame things for journalists. What it doesn't frame for me is how we go about setting the tasks of returning the budget to balance. And that's our job and that's what we're doing.”

She retorted: “I'm directly asking you about rhetoric and the framing that's changed over a short two-year period?”

He returned her serve: “Well, reality is reality, Leigh. And we're confronting reality and we're dealing with the reality of what's happening globally and what's happening domestically.

“And what is in this statement today is a very sober, very honest and very patient statement which says: we will return the budget to balance - not as an end in itself, by the way, but a means to an end: and the end is jobs and growth.

“And everything we're doing, whether it's in fiscal policy or innovation policy or infrastructure roll-outs: it's all about jobs and growth. And we are not going to put at risk our objectives on jobs and growth by pursuing policies that would be contrary to that objective.”


Being in the holiday season, Morrison thought he could finally fob Sales off with the homely analogy of taking the kids on a holiday: “It's like going off on that summer holiday: you get in the car; you know where you're going; you don't put the passengers at risk; you get to your destination safely. Of course there will be people chiming in from the back seat like my kids always do, saying, ‘Are we there yet? Are we there yet?’ Well, we are going to get there and we're going to get there with everybody onboard.”

No doubt he thought this was very clever framing at a time of year when most parents would identify with his analogy. Probably many voters did, but some journalists thought it was pretty pedestrian. It is yet another example of how politicians use framing to get their message across by using folksy metaphors.

Writing in The Guardian, Katherine Murphy was scathing about Morrison’s approach:

This budget update has the distinct sound of desperate chasing of rats and mice in the hope that the budget trend will look vaguely credible. Sorry, it still doesn’t look credible. Much more work to do.

“Not only substantial policy work, also framing work. The government is trying to move past the mess of Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey, who came into government with thunderous over statements about the perilous state of the books, while peddling the fantasy the budget could be fixed without pain. But if the reboot is just folksy analogies about back seat drivers getting angsty about budget strategy – that ain’t going to cut it. Australians comprehensively rejected the agenda laid out in the 2014 budget, and the vehemence of the rejection has forced the government to go back to first principles at a time when it needs to be making a case for re-election.

“So what’s the summary? The objective lesson of MYEFO is it’s about time the political conversation about fiscal sustainability and economic reform got serious, because we’ve about had it with the quick fixes and sugar hits and the nasty surprises that appear random because they are random.

“The objective lesson of MYEFO is the government – in budget terms and reform terms – has blown its first two years in government. Whether it blows a third remains to be seen.”


On another front, Julie Bishop tried her hand at framing. Confronted with questions about the Coalition’s unquestioning support of coal, she retorted defiantly: "Coal-fired power generation is here to stay. "Fossil fuels will remain critical to promoting prosperity, growing economies, and alleviating hunger for years to come."

Within a few days environment minister Greg Hunt took the framing further in the course of defending the Adani Carmichael coal mine, piously saying “…it would be an act of ‘neo-colonialism’ not to support the mine, because Australian coal would ‘bring people out of poverty’.

Note the humanitarian frame in which these two ministers wrapped coal mining in general and the Adani mine specifically. The lifting of people out of poverty and hunger always pulls on the heartstrings, irrespective of how harmful the method of lifting them.

Finally let’s look at the framing of climate change by Abbott’s former business advisory council chairman Maurice Newman: You can read the whole hair-raising frame here. Here are some excerpts to whet your appetite and raise your hackles:



First, Newman criticised Malcolm Turnbull and Barack Obama for prioritising ‘collectivist visions’ over ‘private choice’ in relation to climate change… He accused world leaders of acting ‘like ancient druids pleading with the gods for good seasons’ at the recent Paris climate talks, blasted the final Paris agreement, which aims to hold global temperatures to a maximum rise of 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, saying there was ‘no empirical scientific evidence’ to support the policy.

He lamented that “without a Tony Abbott in Canberra or a Stephen Harper in Ottawa, no world leader utters a peep in protest”.

He accused western capitalist societies of giving up on rational thinking: “They embrace junk­ science and junk economics and adopt wealth-destroying postmodern pseudo-economics, which teaches that taxpayer subsidies can produce desirable ‘economic transformation’ and faster growth. “Pigs may also fly” he retorted.

“Climate change has cowed once great powers into meekly surrendering sovereignty and independent thought to unelected bureaucrats in Geneva. From the White House to the Lodge, private choice now runs a distant second to collectivist visions. Greenpeace exposes sceptics hired to cast doubt on climate science.”

Newman repeated his previous assertion that the United Nations was more about Marxism than science. “But then climate change is not about credible scientific evidence,” he asserted. "It has its roots in Marxism, and ultimately the Green Fund is presided over by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, run by Costa Rican Marxist Christiana Figures...”

“…The media, in step with the Green­Machine, will bombard us with climate alarmism to the applause of the leader of the free world, Barack Obama, who says: ‘My mission is to make the world aware that climate change is a bigger threat than terrorism.’ ­ Really? That’s serious. Clearly authority, not common sense or science, now rules the world.”


And so on he goes. Newman is framing action on global warming as a monumental Marxist conspiracy: “World leaders were succumbing to “bogus science and catastrophism” and considering abandoning fossil fuels – ‘the world’s cheapest, most ­efficient and wealth-creating power source’ – in favour of ‘costly, inefficient renewable energy’.” He warned that the 1.5 C target would be ‘relentlessly pursued’ by the UN with the help of the media.

As is usual with such radical framing, facts don’t count. The Guardian article went on to point out that last month the US environmental think tank Oil Change International and Britain’s Overseas Development Institute found the amount spent by G20 governments on fossil fuel subsidies was more than three times the amount spent by the world on subsidies to the renewable energy industry.

Such framing is frightening, but it is embraced by groups such as the ultra-conservative US think tank, The Heartland Institute, which holds annual conferences for climate deniers. At the last one, Lord Monckton was the celebrity speaker.

That brings us to the end of this three part series on political framing.

I trust the series has explained the concept of framing, the power it has on political thinking, the benefits that accrue from convincing and appealing framing, the downside of inappropriate framing, the danger of adopting opponents’ framing, the importance of countering such framing, and ways of negating opponents’ framing.

Effective political framing is the key to success in politics. Ineffective framing leads to failure.

Conservatives the world over are adept at successful framing; progressives fall far behind. If Labor is to overcome the popularity of our new prime minister, it will have to match his framing, counter framing that is inconsistent with Labor values, and create some stylish and appealing framing for its own values, policies and plans that will win over the hearts and minds of the swinging voters. Is it up to this challenge?

As an interesting exercise, when politicians next offer their policies and advance their plans, try asking yourself: “How are they trying to dress up their proposals to make them sound attractive?’; ‘What framing are they using here?’; and ‘Is their framing reasonable, believable, and most of all moral?’. Expect to find yourself disappointed!


What do you think?
In this, the final piece on political framing, Ad astra used recent events to reinforce the concept and application of political framing, ending with a grotesque example in the climate change debate.

He anticipates you will now ask about politicians: What are they trying to say? What impressions are they trying to create? In what way do they seek to change our opinions? What framing devices are they using?

Are you ready to expose our politicians?

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.