The LNP government are experts at using a carefully selected set of ‘naughty, bad, bad Labor’ words to frame an issue to their advantage. They work hard to keep these words negative for Labor, to wed them to bad connotations, and to insert them into any situation, especially when they’re on the back foot. Negative words like ‘unions’, ‘pink batts’, ‘waste’, ‘red tape’ and ‘Craig Thomson’. It should be obvious that they’re doing this, but unfortunately the electorate don’t think very hard about what is actually being said. They just let the negativity wash over them, and Labor ends up getting bashed, unjustifiably, time and time again. And of course the media don’t help, because they adore anything that even looks like Labor bashing. So these negative words find themselves all over political sound bites all over the news. Like a virus, they get spread around the electorate, eating away at Labor’s credibility, particularly amongst disengaged voters.
It’s important to understand that this is not dog whistling. This is strategic framing. The Liberals are experts at this tactic, and Labor are terrible at combatting it. But if Labor are going to win the next election, they need to get better at communicating. They need to learn how to defend against these words, to shift the frame and to expose the Liberals for what they are really saying. They need to turn these ‘naughty’ words into toxic words for Tony Abbott.
I know it’s not easy. I know Labor’s first instinct is to try to explain the complexity of an issue, to throw facts at the problem. But this is not going to work. It’s time Labor realised that facts are the domain of the left, being abandoned by right-wingers long ago. As George Lakoff, framing expert and author of ‘Don’t think of an elephant’, explains, progressives need to get over the myth of ‘Enlightenment’ which is that:
“The truth will set us free. If we just tell people the facts, since people are basically rational beings, they’ll all reach the right conclusions”.
I must admit, I’m a victim of this myth. I throw facts at Liberal bullshit all the time. But just as Lakoff says, facts just bounce off Abbott voters. They’re impervious to rational argument.
So what can Labor do? What should they say to combat these words being used against them time and time again? I’ve written before about Labor’s communication problems, and how these problems overshadow the great policy reforms of the previous Labor government. So it’s time Labor tried something new. Here are my tips about what Labor should be saying in the media (mainstream, independent and social), to build their own frame. Just by using two sets of these naughty words together, you can see that Labor can turn the negative words frame to their advantage:
Pink batts and Red Tape
This week, Joe Hockey said:
“If we don’t get on top of the proper management of the NDIS, not only would it not be sustainable, but it could end up as big a farce as the pink batts program or the $900 test program.”
This is clearly Joe Hockey on the back foot, worried about how he will explain that his government is putting at risk the NDIS, by putting a hiring freeze on public servants who need to run the program. He is also no doubt pre-empting a change to the NDIS funding in the budget, now that Abbott’s government has decided they have run out of money. It’s clear there are several layers of bullshit intertwined in this short statement. But focussing just on ‘pink batts’ for a moment. These are two short words, that when put together, cause havoc for Labor. Let me lapse into old habits and throw in some facts. The Home Insulation Scheme was no more dangerous to installers than the industry was before the government funded stimulus scheme was implemented. A scheme that successfully insulated (and ironically cut energy usage) in over a million homes. As eloquently outlined in this Independent Australia article:
“The CSIRO’s basic research – developed further by Possum Comitatus at Crikey – found the rate of fires, injuries and deaths was actually four times higher during the Howard years than during the period of the home insulation program”.
The lack of knowledge of this fact amongst the electorate is evidence of Labor’s failure to defend against the ‘pink batts’ frame. So moving right along, since we know facts don’t help, let’s look at what Labor should be saying, by throwing in another Liberal negative frame: ‘red tape’.
We all know Liberals say they’re cutting ‘red tape’ because they want to do a favour to their rich business mates. We know the regulations they are cutting are actually really important for consumers and workers to keep people safe, to save the environment, to protect communities from rampant greed and to safeguard employee rights. We all get that right? Yet, we now have a government who has celebrated ‘repeal day’, where over 8,000 regulations (rights) are on the chopping block. And the Australian public have mostly stood by and welcomed this attack on all of us. Go figure. It’s actually too hypocritical for words to, in once sentence, enact a Royal Commission into the ‘pink batt debacle’ at the very same time as you’re cutting hundreds of regulations that stop private businesses, like the ones that took up the government funding to install home insulation, from putting profit ahead of safety. That’s right. Private companies hired the workers who tragically died due to a lack of regulation and training in the insulation installation industry. Abbott is hypocritical beyond Bullshit Mountain. And no, I’m not asking Bill Shorten to say this. Don’t forget, Lakoff says not to think about an elephant. Don’t mention Abbott. Labor needs to make their own frame. Because defending against Abbott’s frame just gives his words more prominence, and in turn more value. But how about this for a frame that meets these parameters. How about Shorten say this whenever he’s in the vicinity of a camera or a Facebook meme:
We welcome an enquiry into safety within the home insulation scheme. We welcome any inquiry, no matter how politically motivated to try to make Labor look bad, to make sure workers have the rights to a safe work place and the regulations that enshrine these working rights in law. Unions protect workers’ rights in this way. Perhaps if more of the workers installing home insulation were part of a union, these tragic deaths might not have occurred. At a time when the government is cutting regulations that protect workers, and that make sure young men and women don’t die in workplace accidents, it’s important to remember that ‘red tape’ is not a naughty word. It’s often not until the tape is taken away, that we realise just how badly we need it.
Then say it again, and again and again. See how that goes Labor. See how often Abbott and his team mention pink batts and red tape after this new frame has been heard by the electorate a couple of hundred times.