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.