The power of words or “For fuck’s sake, stop saying ‘Green Tape’”

The word ‘spin’ gets tossed around a great deal when people discuss politics, particularly in the abstract. “It’s all spin, you can’t believe a word she says,” is a common refrain around the dinner table in much of Australia right now. But this takes a narrow view of what ‘spin’ can really mean.

In the first instance, when the word gained common usage, it tended to apply to the re-working of a negative into a positive. While real estate agents had been promoting ‘renovators dreams’ for decades, politicians discussing rising interest rates as indicative of strong economic growth, and ignoring poor economic growth to instead focus on falling interest rates was fresher.

But that was then. The world of political communications has evolved a great deal. ‘Spin’, as we would know it, is new. Rebuilt. It is proactive. It is insidious, it is everywhere and worst of all it is hugely effective.

We are only recently emerging from a hugely unedifying ‘debate’ over the asylum seeker ‘problem’. Without getting bogged down in the various sides of that debate, it is the language used during it that is of most relevance. Over the course of the last decade, the phrase ‘solving the asylum seeker problem’ has become central. No one has seriously addressed what that ‘problem’ is, flitting between ‘protecting Australian jobs’ and the epic concern troll that is ‘stopping people dying at sea’.

To the public, however, that ‘problem’ has long been defined by three simple words:

“Stop the boats”.

A massive, intractable, international challenge, full of economic, social, and foreign policy causes and implications is distilled to an easily digestible tidbit. One that localises the global refugee issue, and frames it in such a way that it is near-impossible to argue for anything but an inhumane response without appearing slightly unhinged to the average voter.

Never mind that we are party to a coalition of nations that has spent a decade bombing at least two of the countries where these desperate refugees are coming from. Never mind that the mere thousands of refugees we face pales in comparison with the two million Afghan refugees in Pakistani camps alone. This problem is about stopping boats, and all the terror that implies to people inclined to be terrified.

How about we try another line?

“Great big new tax on everything”.

Anyone notice how the debate around climate change almost never involves the discussion of climate change anymore? The effectiveness of this line has completely shifted the debate around climate to one of ‘who will lose and how much’, one that is custom-built to absolutely devastate support for tax increases of any kind. No matter that the carbon price is not big, not a tax, nor on everything; the line works, and nobody seems to even want to talk about the threat of climate change, unless they’re a particularly frothy-mouthed shock jock eager to denounce it as a hoax.

On this site, Barrie Cassidy spelled out wonderfully where the Prime Minister foot-faulted on this issue, so there’s no point diving into the minutiae. Suffice to say, here lies another instance where the words our leaders use are hugely influential in determining how the public thinks on issues of major import.

There’s a third, newer one, too.

“Green tape”.

While it’s important to note that there is certainly a great deal of unnecessary duplication of environmental regulations in Australia, and a case to be made that there can be more efficiency in protecting our environment, the phrase ‘Green tape’ is a work of dark genius.

Serving as a proxy for ‘removing environmental protections’ it conveys, in two simple words, a message that resonates deeply with the public, appearing clear-headed and realistic, and perfectly concealing the profit-motivated organisations behind the push from Coalition state governments to gain control of the environmental approvals process.

Everyone understands ‘red tape’, and they know it to be bad. Everyone knows ‘green’ means ‘environmental’. Thus, these are bad, wasteful, bureaucratic environmental impediments to Getting Things Done.

See how this works? There is always discussion in the media of how the modern Australian media consumer is ‘more sophisticated’ and can ‘see through the spin’. And this is certainly true; the immediate mockery of the PM’s ‘real Julia’ and ‘moving forward’ and [name your giggle-inducing attempt at 'creating a narrative' here] demonstrates that much.

But this overlooks the fact that the communications guys have grown more sophisticated too. They don’t want to talk directly to voters anymore. They need a pithy phrase that will frame a given political debate in such a way as to make their position unassailable. It’s not about convincing the public to agree with their view. It’s about making the public think about a political debate in such a way that their view is the ONLY answer.

So perhaps that is the next step in the public’s media awakening. A new generation, savvy to the tricks played on them, will learn that any issue is about more than the slogan their political leaders throw at them. Going by the standard of debate we’ve seen in recent years here, one can only hope.

Off the front page

This morning, a report on ABC’s AM program detailed the release of a new report by Melbourne University, demonstrating that the past 50 years have been the warmest Australia has experienced in the past millennium.

That’s 1,000 years.

I’m not going to waste too much time going over the nuts and bolts; there are those far better equipped to do that. And besides, the article in question does more than enough.

No, the pertinent thing to consider here is how little attention it received. In essence, beyond this lone ABC report, it seems to have vanished without trace.

For example, on The Age‘s website today, it was entirely absent, while in prominent position were stories on Kim Kardashian and some fool girl cruelling her future career prospects by suing her old school for not making her smarter.

Beyond these issues is the deeply distressing decline in standards on the websites of the Fairfax broadsheets, but that’s a different day’s post.

And of course, the pièce de résistance, this:

Could this be a sign of science fatigue in the Australian media? If so, this is a fairly terrible thing. It suggests that serious, sober research has become passe unless there is a vocal opponent ready to go toe-to-toe. It’s bad enough that we have a situation that allows for only conflict-based reporting on climate change, but when fairly disturbing news such as this disappears because the public’s over all such things, it’s a worry.

If consumers are sick of reading about climate science, and only are shown it when there is ‘conflict’, it shows a massive disconnect from reality. If reports demonstrating the prevalence and dangers of climate change are so common as to no longer be newsworthy, why, then, is the public so apparently unswayed by the ‘uncertain’ science?

Then again, perhaps its best that these kinds of stories simply vanish for a while. If science isn’t in the news, and the carbon price kicks in and nothing happens, perhaps the world will simply move on for a while, and the temperature around the climate debate can lower for a while (pun entirely intentional).

At least in the meantime we can all look at hideous photos from cricketers’ weddings.

What if Labor has already won?

What is the point of winning elections? The question seems redundant to the point of irrelevance. But the tenor of Australian politics in the present day suggests otherwise.

Consider the behaviour of the bulk of the ALP and its associates since their election in 2007. If there has been one overarching criticism of the party, it has been their incessant reliance on focus groups and polling to shape messages, prioritise policies, even swap leaders.

For a decade, barely an action has been taken by either major political party that has not passed through the prism of popular approval. Schoolkids’ handouts targeted at disaffected Labor families, paid parental leave and nanny support to animate Tony Abbott’s appeal among that renowned block of unitary voters, women. Tax cuts in the tens of billions of dollars when interest rates were already on the way up. David Bradbury. On a boat. North of Darwin.

So much of the recent coverage and discussion of the government’s predicament (including my own) has focussed on how awful things are and what the government can do (if anything) to retain office at the next election.

Kristina Keneally, in The Drum recently, made that case that dumping or watering down the price on carbon/emissions trading scheme/carbon pollution reduction scheme/great big new tax on everything and everything’s family was the last chance. The ‘hail mary’ pass that maybe, just maybe, could resurrect the ALP’s fortunes.

Michelle Grattan suggested that Julia Gillard step aside (although the metaphor was a touch more militaristic). So did Chris Kenny. The Daily Telegraph has wanted Gillard to call a new election from the minute that the last one finished. Alan Jones wants to chuck her in a bag and leave her to the elements. The obituaries are, no doubt, already written.

In all of this prognostication and opinionating, perhaps we’ve all forgotten what this winning and losing caper is all about. What if Labor has already won?

In this world of desperate quantification (numerical support providing objectivity in all things), there appears to be a fierce urge to measure something as unmeasurable as politics.

Presently there are two ways of doing this: polls and elections. Thus, if a party is polling poorly, they are likely to lose an election. They have therefore failed. QED.

But what if – what if – by achieving its stated aims from 2007, the ALP have already won? There’s something cheapening, and frankly distasteful, about the idea that the purpose of winning election is winning further elections.

Pricing carbon pollution has been an incredibly hard task in Australian politics. John Howard couldn’t do it. Kevin Rudd (and Malcolm Turnbull) couldn’t do it. Yet in only a few weeks, Julia Gillard’s ALP will begin implementing this major economic and environmental reform.

Of course Gillard said one thing before the election and another thing afterwards (granted, an unusual deviation from politicians’ normal behaviour), but surely passing the law is more important than winning the election.

Everyone’s talking about what the ALP should do to retain office. But that is based on a flawed premise: that retaining office is the purpose of government. Surely that is at the heart of the trauma our government is being inflicted with.

Perhaps implementing a legislative agenda, dare I say a vision for Australia, is the victory. In that case, the ALP can be at least a little proud. WorkChoices is dead in a ditch and still hated by the electorate. A carbon price is in, and despite the desperation of the likes of Keneally, it’s unlikely to be repealed unless Abbott slaughters them next year, or calls a successful double dissolution. They hauled a recalcitrant electorate through a potentially massive recession pretty much unscathed. The national disability insurance scheme. The apology to the stolen generations. Signing Kyoto. The mining tax, watered down as it is. And so on.

It’s no floating of the dollar, but hey, Rudd/Gillard is no Hawke/Keating.

Even if much of the government’s legislative agenda has been driven by a desire to appease key constituencies (in which case, great job!), it has manoeuvred this agenda through a minority government, a ferociously hostile opposition and an electorate that stopped paying attention ages ago.

Most people would like to believe that those who enter parliament choose to do so in order to Make A Difference. In which case, ALP mission accomplished. The carbon price is a major structural reform that will likely be looked back on as an important step in the fight against climate change. The NDIS looks like being another winning policy in the Labor tradition. There was no recession here.

Labor may well lose the next election, but perhaps they’ve won this war.