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Hordes of illiterates

By Ad astra

If you had to pick a minister to deliver a nasty message, you would not go past Peter Dutton, master of cruel comments, replete with his trademark po-face and matching body language. Last week, on Sky News, responding to the suggestion by the Greens that we should up our refugee intake to 50,000, his comment was: “They won’t be numerate or literate in their own language, let alone English. These people would be taking Australian jobs, there’s no question about that. For many of them that would be unemployed, they would languish in unemployment queues and on Medicare and the rest of it, so there would be huge cost and there’s no sense in sugar-coating that, that’s the scenario. To be clear: they’ll take all our jobs and also they won’t get jobs.”

Framing the Greens’ and Labor’s asylum seeker policy
Dutton’s outlandish claims are untrue, and he knows it. So what was he up to? The most obvious conclusion is that he was trying to wedge the Greens for advocating an extra refugee intake, and Labor, whom he insisted are seriously divided on asylum seeker policy. This framing was embellished by drawing attention to the association of Labor and the Greens. It was a triple whammy that only Dutton, redolent with all his innate nastiness and vindictiveness, could deliver.

But was it just another instance of Dutton spewing his venom all over his enemies and those loathsome asylum seekers that cause him so much angst? Commentators were quick to assert that his mouthing-off was not just same-old Dutton, but a well-planned Coalition strategy to frame the progressive parties as soft on border control, keen to bring in even more asylum seekers, who, despite being illiterate, would take jobs away from Australians, would join the queue of the unemployed, would thereby be a burden on our social security network, and would cost taxpayers a fortune. How they would both take away our jobs and yet be unemployed was not explained.

The fact that Julie Bishop and later Malcolm Turnbull quickly supported his remarks suggests powerfully that they, and the LNP machine, were not just backing Dutton, but had thrust him out there to do his dirty work. When Turnbull said “Peter Dutton is an outstanding Immigration Minister” he was confirming that the Dutton ‘outburst’ was a deliberate strategy to re-focus attention on the always-successful-for-the-Coalition boat people theme.

A day later Turnbull might have been having second thoughts about his unequivocal endorsement of Dutton when he described Australia as an ‘immigration nation’, a subtle variation on his ‘innovation nation’, and again when he wrote an opinion piece in Fairfax media attempting to justify the Coalition’s attitude to immigration. To add insult to injury, Turnbull then self-righteously accused Shorten of demonizing Dutton! Such bizarre political rhetoric seems to have no bounds.

Some have labeled the Dutton episode as an example of the ‘dead cat’ strategy. Attributed to Lynton Crosby, who used it in the UK elections when he was assisting David Cameron, it goes like this: You throw out an outrageous proposition to distract the media and say, to use Crosby’s words, “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!” Journalists will then talk about the dead cat, and will stop talking about issues that have been causing grief, or issues that favour one’s opponents. 2353NM has written extensively about this in Dead cats and reset buttons.

Dutton’s mouthing-off is a classic example of the LNP’s vindictive framing of both Labor and the Greens. Coalition members will ignore the indignant calls for an apology from Dutton, because what he did was under instructions from his party, who knew nobody could do it with more venom than could Dutton.

There is no doubt that PM Turnbull and his Coalition colleagues will use the asylum seeker issue relentlessly to frame progressives, especially those who would prefer a more humanitarian approach. They will be framed as soft, unwilling to strictly protect our borders, unwilling to protect Australian jobs, indeed unwilling to protect our way of life, which Dutton asserts is now threatened by hordes of illiterates, and that their approach is hugely expensive and a threat to our treasured multiculturalism.

Bill Shorten did hit back, but rather mildly with: “Mr Dutton’s comments are comments Pauline Hanson would be proud to make, and if this is the best the Liberal party can do, it is not very good at all.

The Coalition’s framing, indeed its xenophobic dog-whistling, will resonate with many voters, especially those in the marginal seats of Western Sydney, but as an insult to all refugees, and, as Lenore Taylor says, to Australians generally, it may not be as potent as it might have been.

How well Shorten’s rebuttal resonates with them, time will tell. But the Greens’ framing of Labor as indifferent to the suffering of those in offshore detention will blunt Shorten’s attempts to take a firm but humanitarian line on asylum seekers that might appeal to moderate voters.

The last piece on this subject on The Political Sword: Top hats versus hard hats outlined a number of instances of framing used by the main political parties; this piece builds on it, so let’s look at some more.

Framing the Green/Labor alliance
Another powerful LNP framing strategy will be to play on the possibility of an alliance between Labor and the Greens, something the latter have canvassed openly, from which Labor has speedily run away. The LNP will characterize such an alliance as a reprise of the Julia Gillard/Bob Brown alliance, the public signing of which we are now being reminded. Painted by the LNP as a catastrophe to be avoided like the plague, this alliance, with the support of the rural independents, resulted in one of the most productive periods ever in federal politics with around six hundred pieces of legislation passed, some of it epochal.

But the Coalition continues to portray it as a disaster never to be repeated. Facts are irrelevant; the perception of chaos and disunity in Labor that Tony Abbott and the Coalition exploited prior to the 2013 election was a prime reason why Labor lost. You will have noticed how quickly Turnbull and his ministers jumped on Richard di Natale’s desire to form an alliance with Labor as an opportunity to wedge Labor.

Framing health – a Labor strength
Labor has always been strong on health. So when Shorten announced, on World Family Doctor Day, that Labor would defend Medicare, would protect bulk billing, and would unfreeze the indexation of Medicare benefits, frozen by the Coalition until 2020, and inject $12.2 billion into this over a decade, family doctors and Brian Owler, president of the AMA, applauded, pointing out that this would reduce the cost to the patient of a GP visit by around $20, halting the imposition by stealth of the dreaded GP co-payment, already rejected by the Senate. Shorten made the telling point that the Coalition can find almost $50 billion to give tax cuts to businesses and multinationals ahead of funding Medicare – powerful framing!

Reflexly, Coalition spokespersons labeled the move as ‘same old Labor’. Scott Morrison said: “Every time you see Bill Shorten’s lips moving in this campaign, he’s spending more money that he doesn’t have.” ‘Same old Morrison’! So the old, old framing of Labor as profligate spenders racking up more debt and deficit continues, and will do so until Election Day.

Global warming a rich area for framing
Surprisingly, there has not been much emphasis yet on climate change, but that will change as we approach the election. Both Labor and the Greens have set carbon mitigation targets much more ambitious than has the Coalition, and will frame the Coalition as wedded to fossil fuels and those who own them, endorsing more coal mines even as the threat of global warming increases month after month. April was the hottest April on record for the globe, and we are heading for 2016 being the hottest year on record! They will frame the Coalition as short-sighted denialists, environmental vandals, and in the pocket of the coal lobby. It beats me why the don’t ask them: “Where is Abbott’s much-vaunted ‘Green Army?’, which was so central a plank in his carbon mitigation platform.

reefThe Coalition, via their loquacious spokesman, Greg Hunt, will ignore the facts (always ‘with great respect’), will continue to assert that they are on track and will easily ‘meet and beat’ their emissions targets, will deny that emissions are actually increasing, will boast that Australia has higher targets and is making better progress than comparable nations, and that nothing more needs to be done but to implement their ‘Direct Action Plan’, which environmentalists and economists alike ridicule. Although forced to acknowledge the damage being inflicted on the Great Barrier Reef, Hunt was able to make light of it, make upbeat prognostications about its future health, and insist that he is devoted to improving water quality in the vicinity, as if that’s all that is necessary to preserve this iconic natural wonder and tourist bonanza.

Already Hunt is re-stoking scaremongering about Bill Shorten’s ‘massive new electricity tax’, insisting that both Labor’s and the Greens’ emissions targets and their intention to re-introduce a carbon pricing mechanism to reduce carbon pollution “couldn’t have a worse impact in terms of electricity prices”, which he insists will skyrocket for us all. He likes to emphasize its impact on the less well off, for whom he shows pseudo concern. Again it’s the ‘same old, same old’ carbon tax argument that served the Coalition so well under Abbott.

Out of touch Turnbull
By framing Turnbull as a man in a top hat in a harbour side mansion who is out of touch with ordinary people and the travails of Struggle Street, Labor and the Greens have attached a label to him that will stick. It contrasts with Labor’s framing of itself: Putting people first.

For his part, Turnbull has tried to negate this by travelling often on public transport, always ready to take ‘selfies’ for his Facebook and Twitter accounts. He doesn’t try to disguise his wealth, attempting instead to represent it as a result of enterprise and hard work, two attributes he values in others, and indeed wishes upon the whole nation.

How well Shorten’s ‘out of touch’ frame will dominate Turnbull’s frames: ‘jobs and growth’ and ‘enterprise and hard work’, is one of the intriguing questions that the long election campaign eventually will answer.

Framing the NBN
Events of last week highlighted the importance of the framing of the NBN. The AFP raid on Senator Conroy’s office and the home of one of his staffers in pursuit of the source of leaks from NBN Co. Limited, underscores how sensitive an issue this is for both parties. When, in a fit of pique at Labor’s fibre-to-the-premises NBN initiative, Tony Abbott instructed Malcolm Turnbull to ‘demolish the NBN’, tech-head Turnbull decided that instead of killing it he would create a hybrid mixed-technology system using fibre-to-the-node (FTTN), with Telstra’s ageing copper wire from a box on the street corner connecting it to the premises. It ended up being second-class, soon attracting the tag ‘Fraudband’. Not only is it poor technically, it is slower, behind in its rollout, and increasingly costly, possibly eventually costing more than Labor’s FTTP version. In short, it is a flop. This is what the leak is said to expose.

To counter this embarrassment, and Labor’s framing of Fraudband for what it is, an inferior system, the AFP raids were a distraction welcomed by the Coalition. Turnbull angrily framed Labor’s protest about the raids as politicisation of the NBN initiative, labelling it a shameful slur on the integrity of the AFP, even putting our national security at risk! No one has yet explained how the AFP, supposedly free of political bias, chose the second week of the election campaign to add these raids to its six-month long investigation, how Sky News was there to report and film it, and how an NBN employee was allowed to photograph seized documents (subsequently ordered to be destroyed).

These recent developments have blunted the Coalition’s framing of Labor’s version of the NBN as grossly expensive, indeed unaffordable; Labor has countered by labelling the Coalition version as a dud, and an expensive one at that.

Framing ‘Jobs and Growth’ versus ‘Putting People First’
It seems appropriate to end this rather long piece with ‘Jobs and growth’, the Coalition’s most frequently used three-word slogan. The LNP has tacitly assumed that voters will interpret ‘Jobs’ as ‘jobs for you’, and that ‘Growth’ will be interpreted as a ‘growing, prosperous economy’. They have assumed also that these two concepts will be an object of admiration for voters, who will therefore vote for the party that espouses them.

What they never explain is how they will achieve jobs and growth, except to hint that if tax breaks are given to businesses they will invest more, expand their scope, boost the economy, and of course employ more. Their belief is that reducing company tax to 25% over a long period will provide the stimulus that will bring about ‘Jobs and Growth’. This is based on the old and long-discredited concept of ‘trickle down’ economics, which has been dealt with extensively in Trickle down thinking breeds inequality, published on The Political Sword on 11 May.

Apparently, the Coalition is hoping that framing ‘Jobs and Growth’ as the centrepiece of its election pitch will win the day without having to explain what it means in explicit terms, and how it will work; indeed whether it can work at all!

In pursuit of his goal of fairness for all, Bill Shorten is framing his campaign messages under his three-word slogan: ‘Putting People First’. His object is to cast Labor as personally concerned about individual people rather than being wedded to the inanimate concept of ‘Jobs and Growth’. He embellishes that framing by asking voters: “What sort of country do you want to live in?” His implication is that Labor seeks to provide a country that is fair to all, one that gives educational and job opportunities to every individual who can benefit.

Every time Shorten makes a promise to fund an initiative, Turnbull frames him as being on a ‘spendathon’, digging a bigger and bigger black hole of deficit.

Time will tell which framing, the Coalition’s economic one, or Labor’s personal one, will prevail.

As the election campaign continues, you will recognize many other instances of framing. Whatever messages politicians seek to transmit, they will place each of them in a frame that embellishes and enhances the message, that gives it deep meaning for voters, and that appeals to voters’ sentiments, and at times voters’ self-interest. They will seek to frame their opponents’ messages and policies as ill-conceived, poorly thought through (thought bubbles), unworkable, extravagant, unfunded, and sometimes, ideologically driven.

As voters, we need to recognize the framings that politicians are using so that we can analyse and appraise their inherent merit, their feasibility, and their validity for each of us and for the nation as a whole. I hope this and the previous essay about framing: Top hats versus hard hats will assist you to do this.

What do you think?

Are you picking up the framing that all sides are using?

Have you seen other examples of framing and counter-framing?


Also by Ad astra:

Top hats versus hard hats

Inequality will be a hot button election issue

The calamitous Abbott lies in wait

The irrational voter

Where are the crooks?

This article was originally published on The Political Sword

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  1. Jaquix

    The Libs in general tell so many lies. Such a trite thing to say, but its so true. I watch them for a few seconds, then turn the sound off because Im sure it raises my blood pressure to a dangerous level. The polls holding steady, despite the NBN thing, and the constant barrage of “jobsandgrowth” speak, is a good sign. Malcolm looks a bit frazzled these days, Im sure he must be having nightmares after seeing his popularity slide down, down every week. There are 6 weeks to go, and I hope that Labor gets to talk about its policies (other than education and health) and intentions on climate change and in particular the renewable energy investment opportunities they will pursue and encourage, a subject neither side has mentioned so far. Also the marriage equality vote saving 150 million or whatever the figure is, and a lot of unnecessary nastiness. Today Daniel Andrews is making an historic apology to gay people convicted in the past for being themselves. That should be a good opportunity for Bill Shorten to make a powerful statement on the Labor policy of a vote within 100 days. I did hear Malcolm Turnbull and Fiona Scott making very nasty and demonstrable untrue statements today at Corangamine. The ABC gave them a long, long time on the air, spouting this stuff. The danger is that swinging voters will be swayed by this scare campaign. I can see that Labor is generally going with the “positive” type of campaign, but you cant let the enemy get away scott free from all this stuff, especially when the ABC picks it up and frames its own interview questions along the lines of what the Libs have said.

  2. diannaart

    Indeed, framing Dutton’s contradiction laden brain fart as part of a clever strategy by the PM was a big mistake, hence the backtracking.

    I am looking forward to, finally, seeing the very positive use by framing the debate around climate change – would be a first for Labor. Of course, the big bad with this frame is for the LNP to link Labor in the dreaded Greens – so predictable. Problem for Labor is how to do something about fossil fuels, engineer new sustainable tech while still sounding like lean and mean economic managers.

  3. Dragonbonetor

    What Peter Dutton is really saying is, “Don’t rely on an LNP government to provide sufficient confidence in / stimulus to the economy to generate jobs for currently unemployed residents, let alone expect us to be able to handle any increase in the number of people looking for work.”

  4. kathysutherland2013

    @Dragonbuster – but – but Jobs and growth……

  5. Roma Guerin

    The LNP has not mentioned their cast iron guaranteed Border Force for at least two weeks. This was their flagship for saving us from the invading hordes. After spending a couple of millions on uniforms and medals too. What could possibly have gone wrong? Or is that gone to parliamentary privilege till after the election?

  6. astra5

    Thank you for your comments. As you are seeing hour after hour, the Coalition’s perpetual framing of Labor continues.

    Yesterday, Treasurer Morrison and Finance Minister Cormann attempted another ‘black hole’ framing of Labor. Their attempt was so clumsy, so poorly thought through, so outrageous in its assertions, and so arithmetically flawed, that it soon tanked and became an embarrassment to the two men who are supposed to be in charge of our nation’s finances. They were shown up to be dishonest and fiscally reckless in the way they attempted to discredit Labor. Instead, they comprehensively discredited themselves, and dragged the Coalition under in the process.

    Here are excerpts of what Bernard Keane had to say today in ‘Crikey’ in a piece ‘Morrison’s bad day: black holes and budget realities’. He began:

    “The first budget black hole was a mere $540 million. That was in 1987 dollars, which is around $1.5 billion these days. It was in John Howard’s tax policy, assembled by his shadow treasurer Jim Carlton and launched during the 1987 election. Paul Keating seized on it and tore Howard apart, because it really was a black hole – Howard admitted it was an error by Carlton. His campaign never recovered. Ever since, governments in election campaigns have been trying to replicate Keating’s 1987 attack, and failing.”

    Keane then went onto explain how, at that time and at the government’s request, the Department of Finance had put together the ‘facts’, some of them an outright lie. They included large-scale spending that Labor had considered but rejected while in government. It seems that the same process took place before the black hole announcement yesterday. Keane concludes with this:

    “The chief problem was that they’d done exactly what Finance did back in 1996 – shoehorn in something that could be vaguely linked to Labor but wasn’t actually a commitment. Thus, a relatively modest Labor commitment on foreign aid turned into a $20 billion whopper that proceeded to thrash about in the Morrison-Cormann media conference and smash it to pieces, especially given the Coalition has exactly the same nebulous commitment to increased aid funding as Labor.

    “Along with other extrapolations, double-counting and general half-arsery, over the course of a short period of time in that media conference, the black hole went from a claim of $67 billion – a new record for black holes – down to a claim of $32 billion, and Morrison was reduced to saying not so much that there was a black hole but that Labor needed to clarify its spending commitments.

    “Fairfax’s James Massola summed up a quarter of a century of politicians trying to out-black hole their opponents in front of increasingly incredulous journalists when he asked “is there a black hole in your black hole?”. Of course, a black hole inside a black hole would actually make the original black hole even worse, but you get the point. It left what was intended to be a day devoted to attacking Bill Shorten’s fiscal credibility as a smoking ruin for the government.

    “And yet there’s a grim reality beneath all this: under this government, spending has ballooned from 24.1% of GDP in Labor’s last year to 25.8% of GDP this coming financial year. Net debt will grow from 10% of GDP in 2012-13 to 18.9% in 2016-17. Even Scott Morrison admits he has a spending problem. But neither side is talking seriously about significantly altering our current fiscal trajectory. Like 1996, for all the talk of black holes, it suits both sides to ignore the budget reality.”

    Lies have a habit of biting the perpetrator, as they have done this time, with the usually unflappable Dalek Cormann fluffing his lines this morning when he inadvertently heaped praise on Bill Shorten: “Bill Shorten is very caring and very much in touch and Bill Shorten every single day is promoting our national economic plan for jobs and growth, which of course is exactly what Australia needs given the continued global economic headwinds.” about which Shorten quipped: “I guess Senator Cormann has officially terminated Mr Turnbull’s scare campaign.

    Clearly, framing can come badly unstuck.

    Issue #27

  7. astra5

    Why then did Morrison and Cormann embark on this frolic? Maybe the back room minders reasoned that even if their effort bombed out, as it did spectacularly, ‘black hole’ would resonate in many voter’s minds and stick there, without question, until Election Day.

    Personally, I feel that the Coalition has made its ‘black hole’ run far too early. After another few weeks it will likely be a distant memory in the uncommitted voter’s mind. Labor has plenty of time to come up with credible costings and negate the black hole framing.

  8. Michael Taylor

    astra5, I think it can be summed up as thus: the government is more intent on playing politics than actually governing. They have always acted as though the former is what wins elections, and unfortunately, with a compliant media and a politically illiterate electorate … it has been allowed to work. If we had a Fourth Estate that took governments to task, perhaps the latter would be the way to win elections.

  9. diannaart

    Lies have a habit of biting the perpetrator, as they have done this time, with the usually unflappable Dalek Cormann fluffing his lines this morning when he inadvertently heaped praise on Bill Shorten: “Bill Shorten is very caring and very much in touch and Bill Shorten every single day is promoting our national economic plan for jobs and growth, which of course is exactly what Australia needs given the continued global economic headwinds.” about which Shorten quipped: “I guess Senator Cormann has officially terminated Mr Turnbull’s scare campaign.

    That is hilarious… Dalek (luv that) Cormann doing Bill’s work for him.

    @ Michael Taylor

    I agree the government has continued playing the political games expected of an opposition, as for making their run too early – our coalition knows that continued repetition has paid off in the past. Hopefully, the public will finally catch on to these games, BEFORE July 2.

  10. Kaye Lee

    The Coalition don’t care if what they say is true. They don’t care if their policies are good for the country. They are trying to run the same campaign that Tony Abbott did – STOP THE BOATS and WHO DO YOU TRUST WITH THE ECONOMY?

    They knowingly and deliberately “capitalise” on people’s xenophobia. They keep harking back to surpluses achieved a decade ago in very different times and largely won by selling off our assets. The blowout in the debt in the last three years is….say it with me…”LABOR’S FAULT”…..please ignore the huge increase in spending on “national security” because the enemy is all around us ready to strike at any moment and please forget our promised bipartisan support for education, hospital and NDIS spending.

    And if you don’t think this is a very deliberate strategy……

    February 2011:

    “THE opposition immigration spokesman, Scott Morrison, urged the shadow cabinet to capitalise on the electorate’s growing concerns about “Muslim immigration”, “Muslims in Australia” and the “inability” of Muslim migrants to integrate.

    Mr Morrison’s suggestion was made at a meeting in December at which shadow ministers were asked to bring three ideas for issues on which the Coalition should concentrate its political attack during this parliamentary term.

    The Herald has learnt several colleagues, including the deputy leader, Julie Bishop, and the former immigration minister Philip Ruddock, strongly disagreed with the suggestion, pointing out that the Coalition had long supported a non-discriminatory immigration policy and saying it was not an issue that should be pursued.

    Sources say Mr Morrison told the shadow cabinet meeting on December 1 at the Ryde Civic Centre that the Coalition should ramp up its questioning of “multiculturalism” and appeal to deep voter concerns about Muslim immigration and “inability” to integrate.

    The sources say Mr Ruddock, the shadow cabinet secretary, was particularly “blunt” in his rejection of the suggestion, saying a well-run and non-discriminatory immigration policy was essential for nation building.

    Others said they had picked up on strong anti-Muslim sentiment in their electorates but thought running a campaign against Muslim immigration could be “misconstrued”.

    PS I try not to criticise people’s appearance but have you noticed how the dalek’s eyebrows never move? He’s blander than rice cakes and more repetitive than 50 green bottles hanging on the wall.

  11. astra5

    Kaye Lee
    Thank you for your comment, and the SMH link. I was not aware of this episode. It gives credence to the view that some of the Coalition’s moves are cynically opportunistic, needing no basis in fact. Any lie will do so long as it imprints beliefs into voters’ minds that denigrate opponents. Xenophobia will do if it gives them an advantage. It’s ruthless, win-at-any-cost politics.

    I see you still remember Greenbottle from The Fourth Form at St Percy’s and his exasperated class master: Yes, what!

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