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.

Comments (13) -

  • Ken

    1/26/2016 12:12:04 PM |


    Just jumping in with an early comment.  May come back with more later.

    I think what Hockey and Abbott forgot with their 2014 budget is that there are other 'frames' in operation.  In Australia the 'fair go' operates in the public mind (at least a large proportion of it) as a 'frame' through which political actions are seen.  Hockey was trying to appeal to it with his 'lifters' and 'leaners' categories -- he thought people would see the leaners as undermining a 'fair go' for the rest of us.  But he forgot that the fair go applies to all.  People are prepared to accept sacrifices (budget cuts) if they are seen as fair to all and the 2014 budget failed that test.  The fact that he and Cormann were seen smoking cigars at the time didn't  fit the 'fair go' image -- they could inflict pain but still be smoking their cigars which just didn't appear to be 'fair' (and was also hypocritical).

    I suppose my point is that even political frames do not operate in isolation.  There are mind-sets, an ethos, or 'frames', (call them what you will) that already exist in the minds of the population and political frames can come unstuck if they do not fit, or vary too much, from such popular frames.

  • 2353NM

    1/26/2016 12:47:34 PM |

    There is in Brisvegas folklore a recording from a Radio 4ZZZ (then an activity of the UQ student union) reporter asking Joh Bjelke-Petersen a question, which Bjelke-Petersen didn't want to answer.  So it was asked again and again, and again.  The other reporters (to their credit) realised what was happening so they let the 4ZZZ reporter keep on asking the same question 40 something times until Bjelke-Petersen walked away.  The vision was on every TV station that night.

    While it is possible for progressives to suggest an alternate frame for the discussion, unless it is a live to air interview there is the problem of the editing process.  Obhama was very clever and used the live and unedited format to his benefit - and I have seen Shorten, Rudd and Gillard try the same thing.

    However it is hard to frame a complicated argument (with lots of variances) into a short soundbite without it sounding like a "NO" - to which the obvious reaction is 'well he would say that - wouldn't he'.  The problem here is that conservatives tend to believe in absolutes - it's a very small gap between right or wrong.  Progressives acknowledge there is a large canyon of alternatives between right and wrong and that explaining there is a canyon of alternatives doesn't go down well in electronic media or appeal to those that come along afterwards and cherrypick the interview to suit themselves.

    While we've been here before, a classic case of cherrypicking is the Gillard 'there will be no carbon tax' interview (which was originally done by Channel 10 Brisbane) - its about 2 minutes into this Youtube Clip  The full response by Gillard states that while there will not be a tax per se, the Gillard Government will price carbon emissions and clean up the environment.

  • Ken

    1/26/2016 4:31:48 PM |

    Ad and 2353NM

    'Reframing' the question an interviewer asks has become such a blatant political tactic that people are sceptical of it.  Abbott did it all the time by either not answering questions or giving his stock answer even when it had little relationship to the question.  (I recall Jim Hacker ('Yes Minister') being trained to rephrase questions put to him so he could give the answer he wished to.)  

    So even in adopting this approach much will depend on the way it is done.  Obama handled it well, not rephrasing the question or ignoring it, but directly attacking the 'agenda' behind the question and framing that attack in terms of American values.  It was a strong, positive approach which is required because, as I say, most people are now aware that 'reframing' the interviewer's question is a standard political ploy often intended to avoid difficult questions.

    Labor politicians need training in positive reframing in the manner of Obama and, I believe, they can do that by emphasising Labor and Australian values.

  • Ad astra

    1/26/2016 9:16:25 PM |

    Ken and 2353NM

    Thank you both for your thoughtful and perceptive comments.

    You are right. Re-framing needs to be plausible. It needs to attack the motivation behind the adversarial framing, just as Obama did.

    It needs to bring forth the values Australians cherish. It needs to evoke a 'That's what I believe' response. The community needed no cueing to know that the 2014 Budget was unfair. Labor framing needs to tap into such natural Aussie beliefs, values and emotions. 'The fair  go' tops most others. Labor ought to know this and use it honestly.

    Let's all urge Bill Shorten to get some good advice from the likes of George Lakoff. He and Labor need to lift their game, or we will be doomed to another three years of LNP domination with its conservative elements vicariously pushing the Abbott agenda.

  • Ad astra

    1/29/2016 1:46:30 PM |

    The final piece in this three-part series on political framing: Still more on framing the political debate - the key to winning, will be posted on the morning of 31 January.

  • Ad astra

    1/30/2016 8:18:58 AM |

    Did you read about the new book: Credlin & Co: How the Abbott Government Destroyed Itself, written by Australian Financial Review journalist Aaron Patrick? An account of it by John Stapleton is in today’s The New Daily.

    Apropos of the comment in this piece that Abbott 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.”, here’s what Patrick had to say:

    Credlin big on defence

    Tony Abbott was hardly the first politician to use terror and national security to advance his own ends, but perhaps one of the first to allow his chief of staff to play such a decisive role,” Mr Patrick said.

    “Tony Abbott used war for political purposes and I explore that in some depth,” the author said. “Ms Credlin played a central role. The book explores her influence over national security policy. In his dying days Abbott reached out to the terror threat as a dying man reaches out to water. It was an issue they thought would save them.”

    The book, which will make fascinating reading, will be available on February 1.

  • TalkTurkey

    1/30/2016 1:22:46 PM |

    Greetings Comrades,
    Ad your repetition of the term *framing* is really very instructive in that now I am thinking in terms of frames -  as indeed frames are designed to make me think. The problems for Progressives are, firstly, that frames are essentially simplifications, appealing disproportionately to the less-sophisticated who have little patience with explanation; secondly that the MSM under the All-Seeing Eye of Mordorch deliberately and always skews the frame to suit the Right; and thirdly, that what frames the Left does come up with are ignored or ridiculed by that same malevolent MSM - as 'zingers', yes.

    What we can do is really exemplified by the mighty Obama's action as you have described Ad. It's not reframing - it's DEframing, destroying the premise immediately. And why the past two Labor Governments & the ALP have been so weak on calling out the Liberals, scotching their memes and busting their frames from the word Go, on everything, but most of all that damn Tax On Carbon as *J*U*L*I*A* ALLOWED it to be framed so - I never met anyone who could understand that lack of retaliation, including as it transpires, *J*U*L*I*A* herself.

    We must do better.

    I've just been to Steve Georganas'  FEC meeting, he was Member for Hindmarsh and Dog willing he will be again. He's a good man.
    Then did some windscreen-pamphletting, now going to his BBQ.


  • Bacchus

    1/30/2016 3:05:38 PM |

    "the MSM under the All-Seeing Eye of Mordorch deliberately and always skews the frame to suit the Right"

    Exactly the problem Labor need to counter TT. This from the channel 7 facebook page:

    Election Race
    Federal Budget: Government planning a frugal budget. Labor to heavily tax smokers if they get elected.

  • Ad astra

    1/30/2016 3:52:34 PM |

    Talk Turkey
    How right you are! Labor has to learn how to un-frame LNP frames, an art that seems to elude them. Yet the Coalition seems adept at countering Labor’s.

    Take Bill Shorten’s Gonski move. His logic was impeccable. If we are to be an innovative nation that is able to seize the opportunities that Malcolm Turnbull speaks about often, we need a well-educated workforce, especially in the STEM subjects. Gonski, through its equitable funding arrangements of schools, offers educational opportunity to all who can take advantage of it, even those disadvantaged by ethnicity, language, postcode and poverty. It is a worthy pursuit, one that ought to be pursued by any government, certainly by a government that talks of innovation, initiative, and being agile enough to seize commercial opportunities.

    But what did the Coalition do? First, it reframed the Gonski initiative when Simon Birmingham insisted, as did Christopher Pyne from the outset of Gonski, that you couldn’t solve the problem of falling standards in schools ‘by throwing money at it’. Note how he turned a positive into a negative framing. Then, by repeating the old mantra that what was needed was better teachers, a more appropriate curriculum, and more principal autonomy in running their schools, that re-framing was reinforced. Next, it unframed Shorten’s move by representing it as not a move to improve educational standards and outcomes at all, but as a reversion to Labor’s incurable habit of spending too much and taxing too much to support its profligate spending.

    It was so easy for the Coalition to deliver this reframing triple whammy: Labor’s educational solution was wrong; its financial solution (more money to schools) was wrong; and its approach to government financing of Gonski was wrong.

    What beats me is that although this response was completely predictable (the Coalition did just the same when Gonski was first introduced), Shorten blustered headlong into the same trap as before. Shorten’s message about the need for Gonski was sound, but what was needed was war gaming of the likely responses and rebuttal of them built in to the initial announcement. Shorten started well by linking the need for Gonski to Turnbull’s oft-stated need for Australia to be a smart, agile country, but left it at that.

    He could have said at the end of his Gonski announcement:

    Folks, you can expect Coalition members to rubbish Gonski as they did before.

    Expect them to say we need better teachers, a better curriculum, and more autonomy for principals. We agree. Then ask them why they slashed Gonski spending.

    Expect them to say that you can’t solve falling standards by throwing money at the problem, but don’t expect them to tell you how they would improve standards without money.

    Expect them to accuse Labor, as they always do, of spending too much.

    Expect them to say that Labor will raise your taxes to fund Gonski.

    You can predict what they will say. Ask them what THEY will do to remedy falling standards, and how THEY will pay for it.

    When they belittle what we propose to do, say to them ‘Show us your plans for a smarter Australia, tell us what they will cost, and where the money would be coming from.

    Don’t accept their glib, off-handed response to this serious problem – it’s too important for that.’

    TT, that may fit your definition of de-framing!

    Labor needs help from experts in language, words, metaphors, slogans, and catchphrases. There must be someone out there who can help!

    TT, the final of this three-part series on framing will be posted tomorrow morning.

  • Ad astra

    1/30/2016 3:59:38 PM |

    Your video link illustrates splendidly how the Coalition is attempting to frame its fiscal approach, and at the same time frame Labor’s approach as the opposite – profligate spending and high taxing.

  • totaram

    1/31/2016 9:47:36 AM |

    Another perfect example of accepting the Coalition's framing was the Gillard and Swan attempt to deliver a "budget surplus".  This was not only very wrong in terms of framing, but also economically irresponsible when the economy was still fragile after the GFC. Unfortunately, many in Labor are enamoured of neo-liberal macro-economics, which is why they fail to counter the framing of the coalition. If you believe they are right how can you de-frame what they say?

  • Ad astra

    1/31/2016 11:38:46 AM |

    How right you are. You quote a classic example of being trapped in the opponent's frame.

    The Coalition developed the frame: 'Budget Surplus is GOOD'; Budget Deficit is BAD. Labor allowed itself to be trapped in this frame, and busted its guts trying for a Budget Surplus and even worse, kept promising a Budget Surplus over and again, even as the prospect of achieving it receded.

    Labor could have questioned what was represented as conventional wisdom. It could have argued that there is a time and place for a Budget Surplus, and that there is a time and place for a Budget Deficit. Labor could have advanced the Keynesian argument that there is a place for stimulus spending and Deficit Budgets. Labor even demonstrated the success of that approach during the GFC. But having accepted the Coalition's framing, it hurried towards a Budget Surplus before the time was right. Labor should have been saying: "What's the hurry', and vigorously fending off the neo-liberals and their spear carriers in commerce, where, incidentally, running budget deficits when expanding is a normal part of business practice.

    Your example is perfect.

  • Ad astra

    1/31/2016 11:43:43 AM |

    The final part of this three part series on political framing has been posted on The Political Sword: Still more on framing the political debate - the key to winning:

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