During the election, Rudd gave it a name, the “3 line slogan”. But that doesn’t capture its psychological force. A military analogy does. In former centuries, armies besieged cities protected by massive systems of thick walls and bastions. How did they break in? With a humble cannon ball. Compared to a well-made city bastion, a single cannon ball is a bit a joke. But fire one per minute at a weak point in a wall, day after day, week after week, and it inevitably collapses. Abbott used language like this. His history as a boxer would have helped him get the point. Looking for a weak point in Labor’s defences, he lighted upon the apparent incompetence in the “Pink Batts” program, where four contractors died while installing home insulation in one of Labor’s signature stimulus programs.
He thereafter inserted the words “incompetent”, “failure”, or “mess” into every single description of his opponents, with no exceptions. There he was every night on the news. Bang. Bang. Bang. Each shot not making much difference, and, taken alone, quite ridiculous and irritating. But, banging away, day after day, week after week, month after month, he demolished the government’s credibility. It became impossible for the public to separate the ideas “Labor” and “incompetent”. It became the ceaseless riff of his politics. “BUDGET FAILURE. DEBT FAILURE. SCHOOL FAILURE. ROOF BATTS FAILURE. BORDER FAILURE.” said a Liberal party brochure stuffed in my letter box.
Of course, it rubbed off on him too. At one stage, I believe, he was the most unpopular opposition leader in Australian history. Many questioned his chances. But it didn’t matter because it also rubbed off where it was counted, on Labor. When he unexpectedly went silent, just 2-3 weeks before the election, his ratings did an amazing thing. No longer dragged down by his own negativity, he levitated decisively in the polls. That magic won’t be lost on conservatives and we can expect a lot more of this method.
How can progressive politicians respond to this tactic? The military analogy gives a clue. In former times, besieged armies knew they couldn’t just sit behind their walls waiting for the artillery to do its work. They had to come out fighting and destroy the enemy’s siege works. That’s why sieges, paradoxically, so often became a series of bloody pitched battles.
That might be the secret for defeating future campaigns based on the tactic of relentless 3-line cannon balls. Come out fighting and destroy your enemy’s positions. This is precisely what Labor refused to do. Instead it lay down supinely and let Abbott win the public argument every time. It let Abbott frame the home insulation scheme as a “disaster”. It let him frame the carbon tax as “a great big tax on everything”. It let him frame school stimulus spending as a “school hall rip-off”. Gillard worked on the basis that her government’s successes would speak for themselves. In terms of raw achievement, her government’s legislative success was remarkable. But that’s not how politics works. Abbott’s victory demonstrates how vital it is to come out fighting and actively defeat an opponent’s framing of the debate.
For example: what if Labor had framed the carbon tax as the “clean industry levy”; or the school stimulus package as “great schools for great kids”; or the home insulation scheme as “Australia’s most successful home renovation program”? And then repeated that framing relentlessly until it owned those ideas in the public mind.
It’s been 9 years since George Lakoff, a linguistics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. He wanted to educate progressives about how conservatives systematically framed their language around people’s hopes, fears and prejudices: “War on Terror”, “tax relief”, “pro-life” and so on. Tony Abbot learnt this lesson well and applied it with single-minded force and consistency in this election. As much as Labor’s internal divisions, it won him government.
The least we should expect from politicians is that they be good at politics. Our progressive politicians, and Labor in particular, need to get acquainted with the concept of framing and understand that it’s what politics has always been about. In future, they need to get the policies right and then come out fighting for the framing that wins the public debate.