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.
The 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:
This article was originally published on The Political Sword
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