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.