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The triple-pincers: showing their true colours

There is a line in the brilliant Anat Shenker-Osorio’s book Don’t Buy It which Labor should use as their mantra when developing policies and communicating them. Attributed to political advertising expert Ryan Clayton, Anat says:

‘a winning message is one that engages the base, persuades the middle, and provokes the opposition to reveal its true colors’.

Too often, Labor seems to be trying to appease voters by being all things to all people. But this usually results in beige policy, and bland messaging which doesn’t cut through, and doesn’t rouse support.

It’s obvious why Labor does this. It’s particularly obvious to me, who is half-way through a PhD researching the way media reports industrial relations disputes and Labor policy. Labor, understandably, are wary of the media’s reaction to their policy announcements. And they have every right to be.

The patterned response by the media is the same whenever Labor offers up a progressive policy. Let’s use the example of the mining tax (which incidentally was the topic of my honours thesis).

Step 1: Labor announces the policy.

Progressives take a look and are impressed, noting that it is tackling wealth inequality and the two-speed economy, sharing the wealth from the sale of minerals owned by the entire community with that community.

Step 2: The triple-pincer-movement of opposition to the mining tax erupts.

The Liberal Nationals, mining company owners and the mainstream media commence a campaign of hyperbole, threats, doom and gloom, telling voters the latest Labor Great Big Tax is going to ruin us all, jobs will be lost everywhere, food will be taken out of children’s mouths, and the economy will retaliate against the little guys who should get back in their box and stop expecting wealth to be shared.

At this point I should note that my research showed 75% of mining tax newspaper articles from the day the policy was released, to the day the campaign culminated in Rudd being ousted as PM, shared the same ‘economy will suffer from the mining tax’ narrative as the Liberals and mining executives. So maybe not every article, but a dominant majority.

Step 3: The triple-pincer-movement discreetly shifts the doom and gloom narrative from complaining about the mining tax, to claiming it is an electoral problem for Labor.

This is a very clever strategy that certain vested-interests in the media use, fed no doubt by media ‘liaison’ from fellow pincers, to generate public opposition against Labor policies.

Simply, the media reports there has been a ‘backlash’ against the policy, and that creates a backlash against the policy. In a subtle form of agenda setting, the media know the news audience takes more notice of an issue when it is costing Labor votes than they do when it’s just the mining executives complaining about having to pay tax.

Where else have I seen this strategy used recently? Oh yes – Labor’s dividend imputation changes. Of course with any taxation change, there will be ‘losers’. In this case, Labor announced on the same day as they launched the policy that 200,000 non-tax-paying shareholders would stop receiving dividend cash back from the government. Immediately, journalists raced to find evidence of ‘backlash’ against the policy by framing these 200,000 shareholders as victims of a Labor policy.

Immediately, Labor was framed as villainously engaged in a ‘$59b grab’ – you grab something you’re not entitled to – therefore Labor was in the wrong for grabbing money from poor shareholder victims. And these victims were given various soap-boxes to tell their sad tale of victimhood, as evidence of the backlash against villainous Labor.

Then the narrative quickly shifted, in time for elections on the weekend to ‘how dumb of Labor to release a policy which incurs backlash on the same week as a state election and a Federal by election’. Greens leader Richard Di Natale piled on, trying to ‘capitalise on the backlash Labor has received’ and it certainly didn’t end well for him. History will show Labor won the by election and lost the state election, albeit with a 1.5% swing towards. But I digress.

The point of the imaginary backlash, or the focus on a very small number of unhappy well-off-people in the great scheme of things, which is to be expected when inequality is finally being addressed, or the focus on just the downsides of the policy, and not the upsides, is that the media is bringing about a certain response to the policy, by manipulating their reporting in favour of that certain response to a policy.

Back to the mining tax. In fact, the policy was broadly popular. As this Essential poll shows, the Minerals Resource Rent Tax, after the pincer-movement-sky-is-falling campaign against it, and by the time the Liberal Party got their wish of using the promise to axe the tax to win an election, was supported by 52% of the population. Not exactly a mandated backlash then.

But there’s something even more important in this poll, which takes me back to Anat: ‘a winning message is one that engages the base, persuades the middle, and provokes the opposition to reveal its true colors’.

Look at the mining tax poll figures broken down by parties:

Approve of mining tax:
Labor voters: 76%
Greens voters: 79%
Liberal voters: 33%

Disapprove of mining tax:
Labor voters: 12%
Greens voters: 12%
Liberal voters: 55%

The base is clearly engaged. The middle is being happily persuaded; 33% of Liberal voters approve of the policy and therefore it can safely be assumed some of them might vote accordingly. Remember, Labor only needs a very small margin of people to stop voting Liberal and vote Labor in order to blitz the next election. A 3% swing would give Labor 14 additional seats. And the last bit – making the opposition reveals its true colours?

This is where Labor needs to embrace the obvious, predictable and reliable scare campaign that is thrown at them every time they introduce a Labor-values policy. And that includes the media. What do I mean by this? In the initial policy release, Labor should state in no uncertain terms that they expect the triple-pincer-movement – the Liberals, big business (the very rich) and their cheer squad in the media – to be enraged by the policy. Shorten did this nicely on the Today show, saying ‘I’m going to choose the battler over the top end of town’.

When the triple-pincer movement strikes, this just shows how the policy is the right thing to do. Because they would say that, wouldn’t they? The pincers don’t want to do something about inequality (show their true colours), and Labor do. The pincers always stick up the top end of town, and never the little guy (show their true colours), and Labor do. The media don’t report Labor policies in a fair and balanced way – and Labor should make this point clear.

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr says he is over the mainstream media, and I agree with him. There are thankfully growing opportunities for Labor to bypass the traditional news, to reach the voters directly, opportunities they are clearly embracing. But, while they still rely predominantly on the mainstream media to inform the public of new Labor policies, the best way to develop a winning message – to engage the base and persuade the middle, is to heap the mainstream media in with the other pincers, who show their true colours like clockwork every time.


14 comments

  1. Tom Ryan

    Thank you Victoria. You restore faith in journalism.

  2. Freethinker

    Interesting article Victoria, one of the behaviors of the Australian electorate and readers of the news media that I have observed is that “The Mud Stick” and it does not matter what findings, reports, news or corrections in a proposed policy are following the firs release people will only remember the first one with the negative views.
    In England, Tom Mludzinski, Director of Political Polling have written and article in ComRes “THE MUD STICKS” http://www.comresglobal.com/the-mud-sticks/
    I just wonder if during your research you have find a trend on this.

  3. diannaart

    Victoria

    I am hopeful to know that Labor is looking beyond the compromised 4th estate to communicate with the electorate – not before time.

  4. Freethinker

    Thank you Victoria for your reply and link.
    I just read it and agree with you, journalism it is in decadence.

  5. Michael Taylor

    You’re on a roll, Vic. Career-best form.

  6. Conrad

    Even the ABC’s ‘The Insiders’ leans to the right, being stacked with News Ltd staff or camp followers. And they don’t sound like ‘Insiders’ with their tepid re-hashing of the previous week’s MSM content. Victoria we need you, and Van Badham (from The Guardian Australia), to be a commentator on The Insiders – then it might be worth watching.

  7. Stephen Kennett

    I agree with your point on the problem managing press bias and the tendency by political parties to jump to proposed legislation before examining the counter arguments. It is a never ending source of debate.
    Left or right leanings of the press may be true. However, your argument still relies on the premise that the two particular pieces of proposed legislation are seen by an unbiased observer as being just. If per chance, they were not well constructed and fair then your whole argument fails. The press and the other political parties are then seen to be simply doing their job in exposing the flaws of the proposed legislation. This weakens your argument. You should also be wary of quoting statistics without the associated source and uncertainties. A sample of as few as 25 voters could produce these numbers and would be meaningless.

  8. Frank Smith

    The dumbing down of “Our” (or is now “Their”) ABC is of major concern. Michelle Guthrie last week concurred with a report compiled for the Board that ABC News needed to put less emphasis on national and political reporting and more emphasis on “human interest” stories, presumably of the type thrust upon us in “New Idea” magazines in doctor’s waiting rooms. So, the ABC needs to become indistinguishable from commercial TV and radio or the lies and obfuscation dished up by Murdoch’s News Ltd and Fairfax – I don’t think so!

    https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/mar/16/abc-news-should-cover-more-human-interest-stories-michelle-guthrie-says

  9. Jaquix

    Thanks Victoria, an interesting read. Youre right, Labor would be well advised to remember this 3 prong approach. But its very difficult with the media landscape we are battling with in Oz now. However, there are glimmers that the (non Murdoch aligned) economists reasonable journos are being heard. Labor should have had a better response to the “what about the authentic pensioners who have a small shareholding?” Chris Bowen knows his stuff, but he was a bit too dismissive of this genuine question IMO. They should have hadf a stronger message for those people (not the adviser-created pensioners that Morrison is so concerned about),. Your Ph.d sounds very interesting!

  10. helvityni

    Yes, Frank Smith, they had one sweet story on 7.30 again last night, about some actress, and Peter Rabbit…

    Conrad, love to see Van Badham on The Insiders…

  11. Harry

    The Coalition tends to cut back public spending that hurts the least well off the most; it uses the pretext that “budget repair” necessitates such measures. Labor tends to promise “budget repair” by taxing those who are relatively well off or very wealthy.

    Both approaches are not necessary and tend to provoke a backlash and the toxic politics that go with it.

    The Government does not need to receive your money in taxes, or borrow your money by selling bonds, or raise money from you by selling you shares in government owned utilities …. before it spends.

    Think about it for a moment. It isn’t, in a literal sense, your money in the first place. Who issues the nation’s currency? The RBA. And who owns the RBA? The Australian Government. The Government doesn’t need to collect its money, which it creates, from you before it can spend.

  12. townsvilleblog

    When I was a young man, we had a Queensland State politician whose only requisite for a policy was “how will it effect a low income worker or a pensioner” if it was a positive effect he would vote for it, if it was not he would vote against it. He was a Labor politician but had no trouble voting against his own party if the policy that they were advocating in his opinion would hurt the low income people or pensioners. His name escapes me at the moment but I note he is mentioned in the Workers Heritage Centre at Barcaldine, Queensland the town where the Labor Party was born.

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