Now that the official election campaign has entered its second week, it’s time to assess how each of the major political parties is framing its narratives.
You will recall that earlier this year there were three pieces on The Political Sword
on framing: Framing the political debate – the key to winning
, More on framing the political debate – the key to winning
, and Still more on framing the political debate – the key to winning
The series began by asserting that the most plausible explanation of why Tony Abbott did well as an opposition leader but was an awful failure as prime minister was that in opposition he had the uncanny ability to frame the political debate in his favour, but in government that ability deserted him.
Abbott is gone but his voice has not. He still talks of the ‘legacy of the Abbott government’, or more pointedly, the ‘Abbott/Turnbull government’. What’s more, the guru who directed him all through his period at the top, Peta Credlin, has reappeared as an ‘election commentator’ on Sky News
to offer her sage remarks.
Perhaps unintentionally, when Credlin labeled Malcolm Turnbull “Mr Harbourside Mansion”
, she reinforced Bill Shorten’s early attempts at framing the political debate with his catchy phrase: “Top hats versus hard hats”
. Shorten will try to frame the contest between the Coalition and Labor as one of the toffs versus the workers. Derived from British slang, a ‘toff’
is a derogatory stereotype for someone with an aristocratic background or belonging to the landed gentry, particularly someone who has an air of superiority, who is often caricatured as wearing a top hat, a monocle and a bow tie. Although Turnbull does not fit this stereotype precisely, we have already seen him characterized in this way in the mainstream media, particularly by cartoonists.
Top hats and hard hats are easily recognized icons that people in the street will intuitively apply to the top end of town and the workers toiling in uncongenial labour.
This framing will enable the electorate to give concrete meaning to the blight of inequality in our society, which will be a hot button election issue. While some might find the notion of inequality difficult to visualize, its real world manifestation, top hats and hard hats, will be visible to all.
This imagery captures the real meaning of Labor’s campaign slogan: "Putting people first”, which is code for "putting ‘ordinary’ people first".
Expect Shorten's ‘top hats and hard hats’ framing to be prominent throughout Labor’s campaign, and expect Turnbull and the Coalition to try to negate it. We saw this played out after Turnbull’s name was found in the Panama Papers. Although there was no hint of impropriety by Turnbull as a company director, a point the media and Shorten himself acknowledged, the mere mention of Turnbull in the Papers ‘raised eyebrows’ because of the now infamous connection in the Papers between individuals and companies and shady offshore manoeuvres to avoid paying tax. Turnbull seems completely innocent, and has said so, yet the association will remain throughout the campaign with the help of reminders from Shorten like “To be fair to Mr Turnbull, he should be given the chance to fully explain himself”
. Expect more of this because the Panama connection reinforces Shorten’s framing of Turnbull as a toff in a top hat.
The ‘top hats versus hard hats’ framing will be strengthened every time Turnbull attacks trade unions, every time he insists that the Australian Building and Construction Commission must be reinstated to counter “lawlessness and thuggery in the construction industry”
; indeed he will remind us that this is so important to the economy that the double dissolution election we are about to have was called because of the Senate’s refusal to reinstate the ABCC.
Top hat versus hard hat framing will also be reinforced every time Shorten points to the unethical, and at times fraudulent behaviour of the big banks, and how this has impacted on the ordinary man in the street, some of whom have lost their life’s savings or have been denied legitimate insurance claims, all because of the banks’ system of paying personal bonuses to executives who make or save the bank money. Shorten will continue to press for a Royal Commission into banking (which has wide appeal in the electorate); while Turnbull will insist this is overkill and that the Coalition has the banking problem in hand. What’s more, he’s given them a stern lecture!
This framing is now set in concrete and will be restated and reinforced by Labor every single time instances emerge of the little man at the bottom of the pile being done over by the big man at the top. Shorten will see to that.
There are countless examples of the well off receiving advantages that are denied to the less well off; the budget provided still more. Newly announced Coalition policies will do so again and again as it embeds its trickle down philosophy
into its economic plans for “jobs and growth”
, which is another version of Bill Clinton’s “It’s the economy, stupid”
. For ages, the Coalition has portrayed itself as the ‘adult’ party best suited to manage the economy, and Labor as kids without a clue. By focusing on “jobs and growth” the Coalition is reinforcing this framing.
Whenever the well off seem to be gaining another benefit under the Coalition, and Labor objects and points to inequality, the Coalition will try to counter this framing with its ‘class warfare’ and ‘politics of envy’ catchphrases, which it trots out every time criticism is directed towards those at the top being given special advantages. It’s a slogan that resonates with the electorate; few people regard envy as a desirable attribute, so to be accused of envy is uncomfortable. Shorten needs to rebuff this characterization. I thought David Marr’s rebuttal on Insiders
was clever. He hinted that ‘the politics of greed’ might be used to counter ‘the politics of envy’.
Let’s look at some other attempts at framing.
In the last few days, as several Labor parliamentarians and candidates have expressed discomfort at the punitive approach this country is taking towards asylum seekers, Coalition members: the Deputy Liberal Leader, the Immigration Minister, the Treasurer and his sidekicks, and any Liberal handy to a microphone, have lambasted Shorten and Labor for being 'soft on border protection'. They have been vigorously framing Labor as being disunited on border protection, even keeping an account of the numbers who seem to be at variance with Labor policy. Their framing has already extended to painting Labor as so soft on border protection that should Labor win government the people smugglers would soon be back in business, with boat arrivals starting up again in earnest, complete with all the horrible consequences: more drowning at sea, hordes of arrivals, long periods of detention, untold expense for the taxpayer, and a reversion to the ‘awful period under Kevin Rudd’.
This is powerful framing. Generally speaking, the electorate embraces the tough, albeit ruthless approach to ‘border protection’ the Coalition has in place, and in Western Sydney, where there are many marginal electorates, voters would react strongly against any relaxation of the Coalition’s measures. Abbott created this animosity to asylum seekers as soon as he called them ‘illegals’, stoked up his ‘Stop the Boats’ slogan, and implemented his harsh and unbending approach to what he liked to label ‘border protection’, as if we were facing an enemy invasion. Scott Morrison was ready to do his bidding, and now Peter Dutton seems to relish being Mr Tough Guy.
Peta Credlin too is onto the power of this framing and says so in an article in the Sunday Telegraph: Bill Shorten’s boats plan is sinking fast
, reproduced in the Herald Sun:
We’ve seen this week that it isn’t just the senior Labor leaders who lack ticker on boats. At last count, 16 MPs or candidates have openly defied Bill Shorten. If they’re prepared to go rogue before an election, there’s every chance the boats will start again if Labor is put back in charge of our borders… It was a humanitarian catastrophe, a national security disaster and a budget calamity. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again.
This framing of Labor can be expected to exacerbate, especially if more Labor people abandon party unity and speak out against Labor’s established asylum seeker policy. Shorten must pull these dissidents into line. We understand and respect their feelings, but they need to decide whether they want Labor to succeed at the election. Although social media gives expression to many who endorse the dissidents’ views, such views are electoral poison to a hard-nosed electorate that Abbott has indoctrinated to be tough on asylum seekers and is averse to any hint of softness on border protection.
Some Labor people feel it would be better to spend another term in opposition than go along with the Coalition’s harsh policy, which by the way Turnbull has faithfully and forcefully reiterated with a gun at his head and hard line conservatives ready to pull the trigger. Who knows whether he believes his hard-line rhetoric? But be certain it will continue. Some Labor dissidents might prefer to be in opposition, but do their views coincide with their constituencies?
Here are some more contemporary examples of attempts at framing.
Malcolm Turnbull has vehemently condemned Labor’s proposed changes to negative gearing and capital gains tax, painting them as irresponsibly ‘smashing the housing market’, depreciating the value of many people’s largest asset – the family home, and pushing up rents. That most economists, many commentators, and the RBA itself disagree has not softened his attack. Obviously, he sees this framing as advantageous, taking, as he insists it does, wealth from families whom he asserts will lose out as their home loses value. He knows that taking away wealth or advantage always creates anger and resentment.
Typically, Abbott’s framing of Labor’s proposal as “a housing tax”
was much more brutal!
Predictably, the real estate industry has come out against Labor’s proposed changes, and is threatening a campaign similar to that of the miners against the mining tax. Self-interest always trumps the common good.
For his part, Shorten has framed negative gearing as a taxpayer subsidy to enable the wealthy to buy their “second, third or tenth home”
. Again, the toffs will do well while first home-buyers are left bereft, outbid by wealthy investors. Shorten’s line is appealing to young couples seeking to enter the housing market, and to their parents too.
How well these contrasting frames will play out, only time will tell.
The Coalition has had difficulties selling its planned changes to superannuation. It has framed this policy as hitting only the very wealthy (which it believes will appeal to most of the electorate) and that it is fair and is definitely not retrospective
. Retrospectivity is an attribute voters hate. It is fascinating to hear well-informed economists and commentators disagree so strongly on the issue of this policy’s retrospectivity. I’m not going to canvass here one side of this debate, or the other. Read though what Peta Credlin had to say on this subject:
"There are two problems with the Coalition’s changes to superannuation. First, every candidate has to be able to explain them and super is notoriously complicated at the best of times. Second, the government looks like it is using our savings to solve its Budget problems. Why should people trust a government that raids their personal, private savings whenever it needs money? We put our money into our super so we can look after ourselves. Claiming that the changes are not really retrospective, when they take into account contributions starting from 2007, makes the government look devious as well as unprincipled.”
Clearly she doesn’t think highly of the Coalition’s framing!
As if criticizing the Coalition’s superannuation policy was not enough, Credlin took a shot at Turnbull’s abandonment of his ‘Penrith walk’: “Added to this, cancelling a planned walk through a Penrith shopping centre was a bad look for the Prime Minister. I warned here last week that Labor would try to paint him as out of touch and he played straight into their hands.”
Then, in an apparent attempt to soften her labeling of Turnbull, she added “Yes, he is “Mr Harbourside Mansion”, but he and Lucy bought their home after many years of hard work. He has an inspirational self-made background and he has to disable Labor’s attack by telling his story rather than let them define him.”
There it is, right out of the horse’s mouth! Being ‘out of touch’ is another frame Labor is attempting to put around Turnbull. Credlin can see this plainly.
And of course the old, old stereotypical framing of Labor as the profligate spenders, and the Coalition as the party that looks after the top end of town but says ‘No’ to spending on the less well off, will continue.
This piece is already long enough. The campaign has just begun. Many frames have surfaced, too many to discuss now, and many more attempts at framing will emerge. The Greens are vigourously framing themselves, Labor and the Coalition to suit their agenda. I will deal with all this next time around.