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.

Comments (22) -

  • Ken

    1/20/2016 7:11:42 PM |


    I find it interesting that the Bush and Abbott framing was centred on two areas -- national security and the economy.  They have always been areas in which progressives feel trapped and the need to go along or else risk, as you mention, being seen to be soft on border protection, soft on terrorism and to be high taxing.  I think what makes these frames more effective is that they tend to elicit emotional responses.  Progressives do well on issues like education and health which even voters will respond to on a more rational level.

    I'm not sure about the distinction between 'spin' and 'framing' -- I think there is considerable overlap.  I do not see genuine spin as misinformation so much as presenting information in the best light to suit the presenter.  So Abbott could spin the emissions trading scheme as a tax, appealing to the 'hip pocket nerve' rather than even using the words emissions trading scheme -- to my mind, it is the use of spin to create a mindset favourable to the person's aims (and perhaps that could also be my definition of 'framing').  It is about creating a mind-set that allows people to see things the way the person wants them to -- I recall that teachers used to be taught  that one of the first things they should do when taking a class is create a mind-set for what was to follow, even if it was something as simple as telling the class to open a particular book.  As you state, 'framing' by other names has been around for centuries.

  • 2353

    1/21/2016 8:21:18 AM |

    Perhaps the question we should be asking is why the progressives have let the conservatives frame the national security/economic discussion.

    The contrarian policy run by Swan & Rudd ensured that Australia did not participate in the recession of the late noughties (one of the few developed countries in the world that dodged the bullet) while a lot of countries run by conservatives at the time (UK and USA as two examples) are still trying to pull themselves out of the hole.

    In WW2, Curtin overruled Churchill to return troops to Australia to defend what looked like an imminent attack - Menzies argued the point at the time.  Whitlam opened the door to allow the current good relations with mainland China (which does relate to national security), as well as pulling troops out of Vietnam - controversial at the time but the US followed our lead a short time later.  Hawke committed troops to the first Gulf War - yes he was sucked in by Bush (but he wan't the only one!)

    It's about time the ALP challenged the orthodoxy.

  • TurnLeft

    1/21/2016 10:50:36 AM |

    while in Govt I asked a Labor MP to stop saying 'carbon tax' his response was once people saw it was working it wouldnt matter what it was called - the first time ALP let the media/ ipa/ lnp get away with calling carbon pricing a "tax" was the day they lost the 2013 election and we lost a key tool in fighting climate change... the ALP fell into the LNP trap of calling it a 'tax'... too many people were crying out for ALP to stop calling it tax, that was LNP framing, but the ALP didnt care

    I saw an ABC onair person n the middle of talking about it pre-election say 'carbon pricing' then corrected herself 'carbon tax' - at that moment, i was sure in my heart (without proof) that ABC management had made it policy to call it carbon tax, which became virtually campaigning for the LNP Oppo

    all because the ALP was too lazy to bother correcting anyone who said 'carbon tax'

  • gravel

    1/21/2016 11:46:24 AM |

    Ad Astra

    I'm probably way off base here, but I feel that the framing, either positive or negative, is whatever the msm choose.

    Take this week for example.  With the exception of a few articles, there is not a mention  of the chaos and infighting going on with the lnp regarding the preselections.  I know if this was happening within the Labor party it would be headline news day after day.

    While Shorten is going around the country pointing out the horror of raising the gst, while the so called government is letting companys rip of Australians by not paying taxes, Shorten, in every news report, is being accused of running a scare campaign.

  • Matters Not

    1/21/2016 12:36:09 PM |

    'Conservatives' tend to speak to individuals and draw attention to the potential negative, personal impacts.  They promote the idea that:<em>It's all about you</em> .  

    'Progressives' on the other hand tend to speak in terms of 'ideas', 'concepts' and the like and their potential impacts on the many.

  • Ken

    1/21/2016 3:17:45 PM |


    Although Rudd and Swan helped Australia avoid the GFC recession, it gave birth to the 'debt and deficit' disaster campaign by Abbott and co.  So Abbott effectively reframed what should have been a good news story.  And unfortunately, the ALP went along because when Gillard ousted Rudd she and the party were reluctant to use that success in their campaign.

    The Curtin one is interesting largely because it was a change in national outlook.  For the first time an Australian government said the defence of Australia is more important than the defence of 'the motherland'.  Whitlam's visit to China was also a change in national outlook.  So perhaps that is where Labor has its strength in national security -- on the big picture issues.


    I think even calling it a carbon price is ever so slightly misleading.  It was a market-based trading scheme (which should have appealed to the economic rationalists) but, yes, with a price fixed by government for the first three years (or was it two -- I've forgotten already).  But your point is well made.  Labor conceded the use of the word 'tax' which they should never have done.

  • Ad astra

    1/21/2016 4:29:40 PM |

    Thank you for your comment.

    I agree with you about the common areas for conservative framing – security and the economy. As Labor seems always to do poorly in these areas in opinion polls, no doubt the Coalition sees them as areas of vulnerability to be exploited.

    You question the distinction I draw between framing and spin. Wikipedia says: “In public relations, spin is a form of propaganda, achieved through providing a biased interpretation of an event or campaigning to persuade public opinion in favor or against some organization or public figure. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, ‘spin’ often implies the use of disingenuous, deceptive, and highly manipulative tactics.”. This corresponds with my interpretation of spin. However, this might not be far removed from some of the more disingenuous framing that we see too often in political discourse.

    Certainly framing can be quite benign, as in the example you give.

  • Ad astra

    1/21/2016 4:44:20 PM |

    I agree, it is time Labor called the Coalition’s framing for what it is. The examples you offer support the view that Labor should choose the frame that most fits its approach, even when it defies conventional wisdom. It is, as Lakoff says, essential for progressives to create the framing that suits their position, and not be dragged into conservative framing.

    Labor needs expert advice about the words and metaphors that it ought to use to frame its values, attitudes and objectives. Who is advising Bill Shorten? He needs help to get his language and his metaphors right to reflect Labor’s worldviews, and once done, he needs to repeat them consistently, just as Abbott did, until they are imprinted into the mind of the voters.

  • Ad astra

    1/21/2016 5:05:15 PM |

    Of course you are right. The media chooses its own frames, to suit its own purposes. It is not in the interests of the Murdoch media to make much of the pre-selection tensions in the NSW LNP, or Abbott’s attempts at a comeback. If Labor were having such pre-selection woes, they would be framed as yet another sign of disunity within its ranks. The Fairfax press is less inhibited than News Limited in reporting Coalition discord; thankfully, the online press pulls no punches.

    Framing an opponent’s words as ‘a scare campaign’ is the oldest trick in the framing book, but it’s trotted out again and again. It must work. It’s time Labor had a counter. With anything that’s characterised as a scare campaign, perhaps Labor should respond by pointing out that it is the LNP polices that are scary, not the words of caution used by Labor.

  • Ad astra

    1/21/2016 5:18:29 PM |

    Thank you for your comment. You have been a long time supporter of TPS.

    You are quite right. The moment Julia Gillard tacitly agreed that a price on carbon was ‘a carbon tax’ the battle against Abbott’s ‘Great Big New Tax’ framing was lost. She, and Labor generally, never learnt that even if logic pointed to such a conclusion, it should never have been conceded. Lakoff would have seen that concession as simply accepting the opponent’s frame, and thereby becoming trapped in it, as indeed Labor was for its remaining years in power.

  • Ad astra

    1/21/2016 5:31:13 PM |

    Matters Not
    Thank you for your comment and welcome to The Political Sword. Do come again.

    Your perceptions are accurate. Conservatives have the knack of personalizing their framing. The ‘Great Big New Tax on Everything’ is a classic example. Abbott, Hockey and Barnaby Joyce personalized the framing to the ironing, to vacuuming, to opening the fridge, and even to the leg of roast lamb. They made people annoyed with Labor’s imposition of another tax burden that affected their everyday activities. Labor was never able to establish a counter framing that focussed on the health and longevity of our planet. That was too remote an issue for many; whereas the lamb roast was next Sunday’s family meal.

    Concepts and ideas need to be wrapped in everyday concerns. Otherwise they seem nebulous and far away. They take consummate skill to frame. Labor has not yet learned this skill.

  • Bacchus

    1/21/2016 11:23:39 PM |

    For those here who may enjoy a satirical look at the topic at hand, Rossleigh at the AIMN excels again!

  • Ad astra

    1/23/2016 3:40:51 PM |

    That AIMN article provided many good examples of framing. Thank you,

  • TalkTurkey

    1/24/2016 5:24:49 PM |

    Greetings Comrades All,
    Welcome back to them as we haven't seen here for a while,
    and Welcome for the first time, Matters Not !

    Sorry folks I have been so quiet myself. I admit I have been having trouble with my heart, and here I don't mean the physical organic pump-lump in my chest which is happy now with its stent, but my heart as in losing heart. It has to do with such considerations as the fact that our countrymen are so ungrateful ... so connable ... And the Media so biased ... I can't see what can ever be changed about that.

    And since I never want to be disingenuous, to project an optimism I don't really feel, I have been tongue-tied here on TPS, especially since Turdball has taken the PMship and is so disgustingly popular, in face of his millions in tax havens and his destruction of Labor's FTTP NBN.      

    Ad astra It's so good to see your lead article here and it reminds me of why I ever started writing here. Because I have learnt so much here, from you in particular but from everyone generally. Just a few examples, here I learnt the term Dog-Whistling, Rent-Seeking, Astro-Turfing (Hillbilly Skeleton taught us that), and now you explain Framing.

    I suppose each of those terms is itself a Frame, and the concept of Framing is central to itself. The Frame hides everything except what the Framer wants you to see, but when you see Dog-Whistling for what it is, a mere Frame, the Frame disappears and you see the whole picture.

    The problem facing Progressives in framing our own frames is that Frames don't work so well on relatively-sophisticated people, because Frames are essentially deliberate oversimplifications, and of course real situations are not usually simple, they take explaining. So what we must do (and it will always take effort) is to point out and destroy the frames, and the fallacies in them.

    And that is something the last Labor Government spectacularly failed to do. The notion of the price on carbon as an unfair tax on battlers, and *J*U*L*I*A* as a liar, so lasciviously connived at by the MSM, was never staunchly refuted, indeed it was meekly conceded, as several correspondents above have pointed out. I used to seethe at the ABC and everybody in the MSM insisting upon using the term Carbon Tax, but what brought me close to apoplexy was when Labor frontbenchers themselves used to just let the term go through without even making any objection or using the situation to point out the frame.
    A slightly different but related sense of the term Framing is as in "I was framed".
    For example, " *J*U*L*I*A* was framed as a liar, but she was framed."

    We must never let LNP frames go unchallenged ever again. And let us ourselves frame Turdball as the rich, greedy, hypocritical, NBN-destroying LIAR who has failed on every promise he made (or agreed to) in the days immediately prior to the last election. Because he is the one thing that is keeping the LNP's nostrils above water. Get him and we've got 'em!  

    Turdball's vulnerable, and that gives me fresh heart!


  • Ad astra

    1/24/2016 11:38:39 PM |

    Talk Turkey
    How good to read your comment, so wise and profound.

    Thank you for your always kind remarks.

    You are right of course about framing in our local context: the despicable way in which Julia Gillard was framed; the supine attitude of Labor figures in challenging that framing; and the urgency of Labor's task in un-framing Malcolm Turnbull, in exposing the weaknesses in the LNP's framing, and in creating a framing that embodies Labor values and inspires voters to seek a more equitable and a fairer society that cares for all its members.

    The next episode in the framing series will be posted on Australia Day morning.

    I hope that your spiritual heart is soon restored as your physical heart has been with its stent. We need all the heart we can muster for the year ahead.


  • 2353NM

    1/25/2016 8:17:16 AM |

    TT - good to see your comment above.

    Of course Turnbull is vulnerable.  He is promoting existing policy in a better suit from all the experience a better postcode gives him.  

    I'm also happy to read that your recent health concerns are fading..

  • Patriciawa

    1/26/2016 3:23:03 AM |

    Hello TT and Ad Astra and 2353!    You're all so right!  Labor has been framed consistently by the LNP over the last several years no matter what it tried to get done, whether in government or opposition.  As you point out too, throughout all those years no one in the ALP learned how to counter this nasty technique which we picked here at TPS back in April,  2011, when Julia was our PM.   Remember this?

    Who Dunnit?

    Seems Julia Gillard has been framed.
    In other words been ‘fitted up;’
    That far and wide she’s been defamed,
    So Aussies feel they’ve been sold a pup.

    So who gains? Who’s in the frame
    For undermining our confidence?
    Who’s in the picture? Who’s to blame
    For putting out false evidence?

    Well, Tony Abbott’s hairy frame
    Appears too often on TV,
    With many an unchallenged claim
    About government inefficiency.

    He’s pictured on a climbing frame,
    In boxing ring, on racing bike,
    With politics ‘called’ as if a game.
    But it’s fixed. He always gets the mike.

    National pride would be our mind frame
    Were we shown our PM abroad.
    There she was met with wide acclaim.
    Who stifled that? There’s another fraud!

    Case for defence is therefore framed
    In terms that prove another crime,
    And those who really should be named
    Are those who stand to win big time.

    So, let’s not have this tale of framing
    End with victory for we know who!
    A man, a party and Establishment all bent on taming
    A brilliant woman, who is definitely not a shrew.

  • TakTurkey

    1/26/2016 7:02:50 AM |

    Patriciawa Hi Welcome and Wow!
    No I don't remember that pome
    It's absolutely germane here now though!
    I love double rhyming
    Sad looking back eh
    So now we're looking forward
    Time to gird our loins for battle
    Get that spirit back again!
    Lovely to see you Patricia

  • Ad astra

    1/26/2016 8:21:49 AM |

    What a good memory you have and how right you are. Julia was framed, 'fitted up' by Abbott and his pernicious team whose object was to destroy her rather than debate her policies. Abbott has always 'played the man', and today we know he's at it again, but this time his target is another PM - one of his own, Malcolm Turnbull.

  • Ad astra

    1/26/2016 8:24:43 AM |

    This morning I'll be posting More about framing the political debate - the key to winning, the second in a three-part series on this subject. I'll let you know when it's posted.

  • Florence nee Fedup

    2/1/2016 8:35:24 PM |

    Seen it tonight on ABC 730. No Labor person to reply to the premiers on GST. Making big story Labor premier disagreeing with Federal leader. No mention of state premiers disagreeing with PM on Gonski.  Then we had the story on  Wills trying once again to stir up trouble with Wills. Old stale story at that. No mention fraction ruckus going in in the Liberal party.

    Started off with was a lie. Saying PM didn't annoy us through the holiday break, keeping a low profile. Saying nothing occurred. I can't recall a Christmas break where so much politics was played out.   Even on Christmas and New Year's day

    Yes PM kept his head low because of the ruckus coming from his government.

    Framing is all about creating false perceptions in the public arena. Once the perception is formed, impossible to correct it.  

    All one can do, attempt to correct the perceptions asap IMHO.

    I  see we are getting another rewriting of the Opera House story.   That was an early example of a Labor government being framed. (Australian Story)

    We have paid millions of dollars correcting the mistake arising in the last few years.

    Same as we will with Turnbull's NBNfraud, coat many technologies broadband.

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