When a political event unfolds, you would expect that each media outlet, and each political journalist might report that event from a different angle. You would expect a diversity of opinion and commentary in the stories, depending on the subjective and independent analysis of the individual journalist. But, my research into the stories told by the media shows this is not how political journalists behave. Instead, a media narrative springs up immediately to explain the what, why, how, when and who, and this narrative is adopted as given by the rest of the pack, with very few, if any, journalists willing to look at the story from a different perspective. Simply put, it is much more common for the political media to all tell the same story, and democracy is the loser.
I wrote recently about the success Alice Workman from Buzzfeed had in questioning the facts behind the AFP’s raids on the AWU, and how her reporting blew a hole in the media’s usual ‘unions are corrupt’ narrative, simply by investigating how it came to be that the media arrived at the scene ahead of the police. This type of brave, swimming-against-the-narrative-tide reporting is the exception, not the rule, in the Australian political media. Usually, political stories follow a far more uniform pattern of characterising the ‘facts’ of events as a ‘given’, in what I call the ‘train track narrative’ – as if the train only has one option – following the other trains ahead of it, instead of weaving its own path.
The train track media narrative was exemplified this week by the media’s reporting of the ongoing parliamentary citizenship saga. There seem to be some train tracks which are particularly popular, used as templates in media reporting, like a train set to auto-pilot. For example, there is the ‘they’re just as bad as each-other’ template. It appeared to be a relief to most journalists last week when Labor finally had some citizenship problems of their own. David Feeney’s lost paperwork and five others who claim to have taken reasonable steps to renounce their citizenship, who didn’t receive a response to their correspondence in time to tick that box before the commencement of a new parliament, have been a gift to this template narrative.
As the results of the audit came in, immediately it was the Labor MPs under a cloud who were the focus of the media’s attention. Just to name a few, we had Katharine Murphy at the Guardian making the story all about Labor. The ABC also did their best to paint Labor as the losers in the story, framing Labor’s cross-bench-supported bid to send all un-confirmed citizenship cases to the High Court as a ‘failure’, right there in the headline. Adam Gartrell and James Massola for Fairfax wrote a similar story under the heading ‘More Labor referrals loom as Bill Shorten’s horror fortnight ends with infighting’. David Speers, in the Daily Telegraph, reported Turnbull’s week as ‘the best for this year’, while labelling Shorten’s week a ‘shocker’. And so on and so forth.
To a casual observer of this story, it would seem that Shorten’s Labor opposition were the only party in parliament last week who had any issues with citizenship uncovered in the audit and that Shorten was mismanaging those issues by refusing to sort them out via the High Court. This narrative, however, doesn’t reflect the true reality of the situation.
Let’s look at some of the big things missing from this ‘thank goodness Labor can now be bashed about citizenship problems too’ narrative. Not only is Turnbull facing a by-election this weekend over his own citizenship problems with John Alexander in Bennelong, a by-election which could undermine his government’s numbers on the floor of the parliament (you would think this was a huge story, remember Craig Thomson?), he also has more citizenship problems uncovered through his pathetic attempt at an audit which looked more like a rabble of scant paperwork and disorganisation by the Liberal Party, who clearly have never had a proper process to deal with the requirements of Section 44 of the Constitution.
A reminder at this point that the Liberals and Nationals are in GOVERNMENT. The political stakes are higher for government than opposition I would have thought. The audit showed there are at least four Liberal MPs who still haven’t lifted the cloud of citizenship-doubts through their statements, who need to be referred to ensure they met the requirements the same as everyone else.
Even if you want to leave Josh Frydenberg out because his mother was a Jewish refugee, which Labor have chosen to do (as sympathetic as we all feel towards Jewish refugees, I’m not sure what this element of the story has to do with Frydenberg fulfilling the requirements of the Australian Constitution), there are still four who definitely need to be referred, as argued by Labor and the cross benchers – including Julia Banks, Nola Marino, Jason Falinski and Alex Hawke.
Falinksi has been named in the Daily Telegraph today as being ‘snared’ in the saga – a fact that was obvious last week as soon as the audit was released. All four of these Liberals aren’t arguing that they’ve taken ‘reasonable steps’, as the Labor MPs are, but rather are claiming not to be dual citizens of their respective ancestors’ birth nations, ignoring the fact that S44 requires that dual citizenry AND rights to dual citizenry be denounced.
So have their rights been denounced or not? The High Court are the only ones who can decide this. But even a non-lawyer like me, whose only education in S44 has been to follow the citizenship drama since June, can see that these four have a problem, just by looking at the paperwork they’ve submitted through the audit. Anyone reading media stories, however, this week would think these four MPs were being unfairly targeted by mean-big-bad-bully-Labor, who apparently coerced the cross-benchers into believing their conspiracy against the Liberals for political point scoring. That’s how the ‘they’re just as bad as each other’ story was old last week.
The fact is, Turnbull is shit-scared to send these four Liberals to the High Court because he knows that they are on shaky ground, and if even one or two of them was forced to a by-election, his government’s wafer-thin majority is at risk. So, why do journalists not report from this angle – from the angle that Turnbull blocked a bid by Labor to check both their own and Liberal citizenship cases – to get it all sorted at once – when it is clear that Turnbull would only fight to block the referral if he himself had doubts about his MP’s eligibility? If he thinks they are fine, as the journalists seem to agree, why not let the High Court lift the cloud and everyone can move on, starting 2018 afresh?
The media narrative straight out of the blocks in reporting the citizenship dramas unfolding last week was to rush for the ‘Labor are now on the bad-guy scoreboard and just as bad as the Libs’. But it is Turnbull, not Labor, who has the most to lose, and it is Turnbull’s MPs, not Labor’s, who can’t claim to have taken reasonable steps to renounce their citizenship. This is the crux of the story.
It stuns and frustrates me in equal measure that the political journalists are so quick to all write the same story, that they misrepresent the truth of the citizenship saga, and fall into unquestioning line with each other, leaving the public in the dark about what is really going on. There are many sides to every story, and when journalists all choose to go along the same track, the lack of diverse opinion is not just a bad look for their professionalism, but is also detrimental to democracy. We all lose when journalists don’t do their jobs well.
This week we have learned a lot about the way that the political media operates. That’s not to say any of us were surprised to see behind the curtain and find journalists complicit in a union-bashing charade. The surprise is the way these journalists have responded to the one amongst them who had the integrity to do the right thing: Alice Workman from BuzzFeed. The surprise is that they can argue with a straight face that their priority is always to protect their sources, and that this two-dimensional moral code is how they have been doing their jobs for so long, they’ve lost the ability to look at it objectively and ask if it’s really in the public interest. The surprise is that they’re willing to defend themselves speaking un-truths on behalf of power, instead of doing their jobs, the jobs they no doubt expected themselves to do as idealistic 22-year-olds: speaking truth to power. The surprise is the total lack of self-reflection and the hostility towards Workman, when Workman has done them all a favour. Have they ever wondered why they are at the bottom of the trust scale, trusted only slightly more than their political allies; the politicians they receive leaks from?
The natural state of affairs would have unravelled as it usually does, had Workman not had the bravery to smash the racket. Allegedly a media staffer working for the Liberal Minister for Employment (I say allegedly as Minister Cash claims the staffer acted without her knowledge), tipped off journalists to be on the ready when the offices of the Australian Workers Union were raided by the Australian Federal Police on behalf of the Minister’s latest publicly-funded-union-bashing organisation, the Registered Organisations Commission.
The plan was to have plenty of juicy footage of union staff looking nervous, while grave-faced AFP officers carried ‘evidence’ out of the union. And of course the political journalists delivered this in spades, being their usual obedient little selves when it comes to helping with any campaign of union bashing, or Labor bashing, that drops in their lap through their speed-dial tip-off-line.
No doubt the vast majority of news-watching public, as journalists are aware, aren’t across the intricate details, nor willing to do the follow up necessary to see what this raid was actually about. If journalists had chosen to frame the raid not as an allegation towards the union (allegations on the nightly news equate to guilt in the minds of the public), and instead a political witch-hunt against a union who has done nothing wrong, the story would have looked very different. Would the public mind that the union helped fund the establishment of GetUp? In fact, the AWU’s association with GetUp, I believe, works in their favour. GetUp is a grassroots organisation that the public have embraced, and continued to fund through small donations over ten years, counting on them to expose political wrong-doing and to educate the electorate about policies during election campaigns. Ironically, GetUp fills the void left by political journalists who would prefer not to embarrass the hands-that-feed-them-tipoffs. And is it really news to anyone that the union donates to the Labor party? I’ll give you a hint: unions are labour movement organisations, Labor is the political arm of the labour movement, so, um, yeah, that seems fairly legit to me!
But this isn’t the angle the journalists went with. Even when, the next day, an ROC spokesman admitted he might have mistook AWU for a different organisation, as AWU hadn’t refused to hand over documents, which the union said they would happily email through if asked. Even when it was revealed that the ROC apparently acted from an anonymous tipoff about AWU documents being destroyed, even though these documents had already been provided to the other publicly funded union witch hunt Royal Commission. So, the union was actually the victim here – raided because someone at ROC has a bad memory and can’t do their job properly (apparently). The union is left with their reputation in tatters, with most journalists unwilling to correct the record.
The point is, Alice Workman saw this situation is wrong. It’s not a complicated moral argument to explain why some sources should be protected, and others should be exposed as the opportunistic conspirators that they are. Sources who are without power, who are taking on those with more power (such as Ministers in the government), who are at risk of being punished for this bravery, should of course be protected. Whistle-blowers. For instance, staffers in the political system who see something unethical occurring and believe the public have a right to know. Again, ironically, in this case I would call Alice Workman a whistle-blower. Don’t believe me? Here’s a former insider saying the same thing. Workman knows the conventional operations of the Press Gallery, the daily modus operandi, is to use leaks from within the political establishment and to report them in a way that damages the opponents of those groups. By questioning this, by outing where the AFP raid came from, Alice was speaking truth to power. Truth to the powerful editors of the mainstream news media who dictate that unions and Labor should be bashed, workers should be hurt because of it, and that the Minister for Employment can weaponise the news cycle to help her political fortunes, and most of the time, can feel safe in the knowledge she won’t be caught out.
It’s time journalists in the political media asked themselves what their job really is. Is their job to help the powerful political establishment build campaigns of mistruth against their rivals? Or, is it their job to work in the little-guy’s interest, in this case in the interest of the workers the union represents, and to speak truth to power? This is a wakeup call. The members of outlets struggling to convince the public of their value, struggling to make enough money to sustain their operations, would be wise to listen.
Amongst credible economists and political leaders (so, not including Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison), it is universally accepted that Australia, like most other developed economies, has a wealth and income inequality problem. There are books and essays being written and read every minute about why this problem exists, but let me simplify in the words of a writer, not an economist: the people who own the capital (the business owners, shareholders and executives) are keeping profit from their investments for themselves, rather than dividing it amongst the people whose labour contributed to the return. This behaviour explains why company profits were up 40% to March this year, yet wages were only up 0.9%.
Before I go on, just a quick word about the behaviour that led to this outcome. You will often hear company executives and business journalists using passive language when talking about company profits and the way they are distributed amongst shareholders, executives and workers. Investments apparently ‘flow’, like water from a tap, as if nature intended shareholders to get a better deal than the workers who created the wealth. Anat Shenker-Osario makes the excellent point that this language erases responsibility for the actual decisions that led to these outcomes. Business owners and executives don’t stand in the hallway of their office and watch money flow to various stakeholders in imbalanced proportion, coincidentally, much of it into their bank accounts. They choose to make this happen.
If we, workers, are concerned about this situation of growing wealth inequality, we need to do something about the culture of what is accepted behaviour amongst business owners. We need to reassess our own language and culture around the relationship between what we do for a living, and with those in control of how much we get paid.
Another caveat here. The business owners should also be concerned with flat-lining wages and the resulting growth in inequality. Who is going to buy their products if no one has any money left after necessities? As this article points out, 60% of Australia’s economic growth is consumer based. Those consumers are, for the most part, the very same people who work for a living – who sell their labour and who haven’t had a meaningful pay rise in four years. Business owners and leaders don’t seem to fully understand this fact; no doubt they hope everyone else gives their workers a pay rise, but they’re safe not to do the same. In the long term, this selfishness is clearly to everyone’s detriment.
So what is a worker? It’s time we talked about this question, because I fear there are far too many of us who don’t fully comprehend what it means to sell our labour. I know a union secretary who has been told by members of his union that they don’t want a pay rise as they’ll be priced out of the market. These are workers who are qualified and experienced trades people. Yet, they have drunk the neoliberal-kool-aid that their bosses have been serving up forever which makes them fear that more pay will make them a bigger liability for their boss and they might be got rid of.
Let’s just get something straight right now. The boss doesn’t hire someone to do work for them out of the goodness of their charitable heart, and they don’t keep them employed because they’re nice people. I’m not saying aren’t good person, and are purposely trying to screw over their workers. But what I am saying is that people who are paid to do a job need to understand that without them doing that job, their boss couldn’t run their business, couldn’t produce profit, and would have no return to show for their investment of time and money. The boss needs the worker just as much as the worker needs the boss. The resulting compact between a worker and a business owner goes something like this: the business owner invests in setting up a business, contributing capital such as an innovative idea, market knowledge, physical resources and money. If they can’t create profit with their own two hands, they need people to do work for them to co-create profit from this investment. It really is as simple as that in pretty much every boss/worker relationship. Yet, somehow workers have become so brow-beaten by economic and job-insecurity, and so convinced by the neoliberal trickle-down promise, that they have been made to feel like they should feel lucky to provide their labour to a business owner, and that they do anything to displease the giver of luck, such as expecting to be fairly compensated for the labour they provide that contributes to the profits of the business owner, their luck might be taken away.
Workers need to stop believing their boss when they say tell them they can’t afford a pay rise. Workers also need to start demanding more from their boss, such as requiring that they be told how much profit a company has made. If the boss wants to deny a pay rise year in and year out, they need to look the worker in the eye and tell them how much the business owner, executives and shareholders have received for their input into the business (investment), so that workers can compare this to how much they have got for their input; their labour. Workers need to understand what we are and what our role is in profit creation. You saw it coming and here it is: to do any of this effectively, takes collective effort. Workers need to unite together in their demands to have their labour input respectfully remunerated. And the best way to do this is to join together IN A UNION. IN SOLIDARITY.
To be a right winger these days, you have to be good at playing the victim. Victim-playing defines the behaviour of right wingers from the Prime Minister and his in-fighting colleagues, throughout the right-wing business world, all the way down to the rank and file right-wing-trolls on social media. This is not just an Australian right-winger thing – but rather a worldwide movement. Play the victim. Take responsibility for nothing. Zero self-awareness. Here are some examples:
Men’s rights activists. I’ve watched The Red Pill. The men in this documentary claim that men are victims of society, more so than women. They provide evidence for these claims that include that men undertake more dangerous professions, and when there is a plane crash, women and children get saved ahead of men. They say this is evidence of society treating men as dispensable, a form of discrimination against poor, weak, underprivileged men. These men have massive gripes about family court custody decisions (which last time I checked are designed to benefit the children) and obsess about the problem of male suicide. I’ve got no issue, by the way, with men campaigning for more attention to be paid to male suicide. But I don’t see why they need to talk-over, and put down, feminists campaigning for less sex-discrimination, more gender equity, and less violence against women by claiming MEN are the victims of society. Ever tried to talk about domestic violence and had the discussion railroaded by men who claim that ‘not all men are violent’ and therefore they are the victim of any action to stop women being hurt and killed? Clearly women have much more reason, overall, to fight societal status quos which keep us from achieving life-equity with men. If this situation changes in the future, I’ll be the first to celebrate.
Speaking of male suicide, this issue was also used to back up Liberal Mark Paton’s bizarre claims of victimhood for ‘heterosexual, white men over 30 with jobs’, who are apparently victims because ‘they’re not included in anything’. The ‘anything’ Paton is speaking of referred to policies such as the one being discussed in the ACT Assembly when Paton made his outrageous claims – programs to improve inclusion of women, gay and lesbian people, refugees, Indigenous Australians and vulnerable members of the community. Not content to agree that these groups are the victims of marginalisation, discrimination, inequality and systemic disadvantage, Paton wanted the subject changed to talk about his preferred group of victims who apparently don’t get enough of the victimhood pie: middle aged, economically comfortable, white men. The men who dominate and run every institution in the country. What the fuck? So desperate to be the victim, and to reject any claims of privilege, right wingers are resorting to satirising themselves. And by the way, since when is victimhood a pie? Can’t men be disproportionally the victims of mental illness leading to suicide, and not have to take this victimhood away from other just-as-worthy discussions of other victimised groups in society?
Let’s look at Malcolm Turnbull. Have you noticed how he can’t talk about any policy for which his government is responsible, a government that has been in power for four years, without blaming all his obvious problems, contradictions, failures and inadequacies on the previous Labor government? That’s right – Turnbull, the man who threw in over a million dollars of his own pocket money to help himself get the top job, plays the victim card at every possible opportunity. It’s revolting really. And all his colleagues do it too. Whether it be energy and climate change policies (who exactly did cancel the Carbon Price which was working to cut emissions?), school funding (the Liberals have adopted a less-good version of Labor’s Gonski policy), employment (let’s not forget who told the car manufactures to leave the country) and any other policy you can think of – nothing is Turnbull’s responsibility. No, he will whinge and whine and cry and play a tiny violin as he begs to be the victim.
This behaviour has become endemic in right-wing politics. Donald Trump is the master of the victim card. Look at his Twitter feed and see all the things he complains about; painting himself as the poor-hapless-victim-of-other-people’s-nastiness. Recently he complained that people were writing books about him who didn’t know him. The President of the United States. Everyone in the media (except his friends at Fox) are out to get him and are making things up about him – poor little down trodden him. And, just like Malcolm, anything that is wrong with America is NOT HIS FAULT – it’s all Obama’s fault. But, conveniently, everything that is going well is all thanks to him. Amazing how he takes responsibility for only one side of the ledger. Typical card-carrying-victim, teaching all his followers how it is done.
The loony right in Australia make a living out of victimhood. Recent examples abound, but include Cory Bernardi claiming a charity drive where school students wear school tunics to raise awareness of the importance of female education is, apparently, evidence of a plot to do away with gender. You seriously couldn’t make this shit up. Pauline Hanson wearing a burqa to parliament to raise awareness of how she feels victimised by multiculturalism, in an act of religious intolerance and blatant bigotry, is my new definition of hypocrisy. The strange thing in all this is that those doing the discriminating – those exhibiting text-book racist, bigoted, homophobic, intolerant, aggressive, freedom-squashing discriminatory behaviour – are painting themselves as the victim. The victims, obviously, are those being discriminated against. Not the villains doing the discriminating. Apparently, this is not obvious enough to right wingers.
Same goes for those voting ‘no’ to marriage equality – who are all over social media grabbing every victim card in site – who claim to be the ones suffering from the yes campaign. Tony Abbott’s alleged headbutting is just one example. The Trolls are on-message, claiming to be bullied about their discriminating ideas. Poor, silenced Lyle Shelton, head-spokesmen for the no campaign, who has been given more media opportunities than the three leading yes campaigners put together, claims that no campaigners like him are being bullied and intimidated.
My message to these people, who are literally campaigning to encourage no voters to reject the rights of gay people to do what non-gay people are allowed to do, and are campaigning against gay peoples’ rights in unrelated areas, such as their right to have children, and their right to feel safe in educational environments, is this: you are not the victim. The victims are gay people. And there’s more. Those blocking the rights of gay people are the villains of this story. If you don’t like being called the villain, if you don’t like being called homophobic, racist or bigoted, stop being these things. And stop claiming to be the victim, claiming to be bullied, when it’s pointed out to you that your behaviour is bad. The person in the wrong, like any 5 year old knows, is not being bullied when they’re told to stop misbehaving. This is a very simple idea which seems to be so easily muddied by right wingers, you’d swear their holding training workshops to show people how it’s done.
The business community. Those people who have managed to achieve a 40% increase in their profits over the last four years, while, coincidentally, also managing not to give their workers a pay rise, are represented by the chief whingers, otherwise knowns as business lobbyists. This week the Business Council of Australia were whinging that they want stability in energy and climate policy because uncertainty is bad for business. That’s right. The very same lobbyists who refused to accept Labor’s Carbon Price policy, who campaigned against it alongside the Liberals and a complicit media for three years, are now say they are the victim of instability in climate policy. Seriously folks, you couldn’t make this shit up. Have the business owners and ridiculously over-paid executives ever wondered how their workers cope with huge household power bills when their household incomes have remained stagnant for years. Have they considered the victims of climate change? I get it – there’s no time for sympathy when you’re busy playing the victim yourself.
I’m fed up with the lot of them. Right wingers need to grow a spine, stop whinging and trying to find ways that they are the victim, when, in almost every case, it just so happens that they are not an innocent bystander, but are actively engaging in villainous behaviour. Progressives need to get better at calling out right winger’s false claims of victimhood as we go about our core business of making things better for the real victims in society. Victim-playing is a potent strategy of right wingers to deflect blame away from their actions, and it’s time we stopped letting them get away with it.
In my study of the stories told by the media about industrial disputes, I’ve discovered workers are surprisingly absent from the plot. The reason this is surprising is because industrial disputes are all about workers. So how can it be that they are missing from the story? To explain what is going on here, and what could be going on instead, I will use a neat Games of Thrones analogy. If you’re not familiar with Game of Thrones, read on, as I’ll provide explainers. If you are familiar with the show, and haven’t finished watching the latest season, I won’t be including any spoilers, so you’re also safe to keep reading.
For those who haven’t been following along with my PhD research at home, the case study I am analysing is the industrial dispute over stalled EBA negotiations between paid firefighters in the CFA and the CFA bosses which played out in mid-2016 during the last Federal election campaign. You would think, since the EBA is at its essence an agreement between a group of workers and their employer, that this group of workers and their employer would be front and centre of the cast of characters in the media’s reporting of the dispute. You would think. But, what I am finding, overwhelmingly, is that the workers are almost invisible in stories about EBA negotiations.
Instead, the democratically elected worker representative is the key character who takes centre stage. Yes, I’m talking about the union leader; in this case, Peter Marshall, secretary of the United Firefighters Union. And sadly, but unsurprisingly I need to report that my research is finding Marshall framed in the vast majority of stories covering the dispute as the villain of the story. The employer, who doesn’t show up all that often either, in this case the CFA, is framed as the victim in the dispute. And oddly enough, a particular quirk of this case, the main hero and victim of the story about an EBA for paid firefighters, are volunteer firefighters, who are not covered in any way shape or form by the EBA.
There is obviously a lot more to be said about my findings, which are a work in progress, and eventually will contribute to an 80,000 word thesis containing more theoretical layers than this single blog post. But one last finding that is worth noting at this point is that anyone who takes the side of the villain is, like in any narrative plot, also framed as a villain. And you guessed it, in this case this side-kick villain in cahoots with the union leader, and beholden to this king-of-all-villains is the Victorian Labor government (represented by Dan Andrews) and the Federal Labor Opposition (represented by Bill Shorten).
So, how does this representation of the big bad union boss, his co-conspirators in the Labor Party and the practically voiceless paid firefighters turn into a Game of Thrones analogy?
Peter Marshall is framed as the Night King. The Night King is the leader of the White Walkers, who represent the role of the paid firefighters in this story. The White Walkers are literally zombies and make up a massive Army of the Dead. They have no voice, except to snarl and gnash their teeth at their next victim. They don’t have much flesh, they are really just skin and bones, and like all good zombies, they blindly follow their leader with the goal of converting more humans to zombies, who then join their ranks, giving the Night King more power over his enemies. The Night King has special powers to turn huge numbers of innocent humans into zombies much more efficiently than individual White Walkers can, such as by shooting ice at them from his wand. Sort of like the way Marshall presumably is assumed to have more power to ‘unionise’ unsuspecting workers than individual union members do, turning them into pawns in his army.
At this point I want to bring in the key role that motive plays in the framing of any villain, whether it be in a fictional story, or in a political story. I am finding that the supposedly villainous Marshall is framed as behaving in evil ways due to his quest for more power. The EBA Marshall is negotiating on behalf of his zombie-voiceless-workers is not reported as a contract that seeks to improve the salaries and safety conditions for the CFA’s paid firefighters. No, the EBA is a weapon Marshall is apparently using, with the help of his beholden Labor co-conspirators, to help the United Firefighters Union take over the CFA.
Why would the union want to take over the CFA? So far I haven’t seen a journalist ask, or answer this question, but they still assume this to be the overriding motive of Marshall’s villainous actions. Similarly, in Game of Thrones, why is the Night King hell bent on increasing the size of his Army of the Dead and marching ominously towards confrontation with the humans south of the wall? Because his motive, unspoken, but obvious, is to take over, to seize more power, to grow his power base to help him get even more power. Remember the show is called Game of Thrones, and is based on a constant battle between different groups for ultimate power and control of the people.
If you don’t believe me that the industrial dispute story framed Marshall as villainously working towards his ultimate goal of taking control of the CFA on his non-stop quest to take over the world, look at this quote by The Australian’s Rick Wallace on June 3, during the heart of the dispute:
‘Premier Daniel Andrews is facing an unprecedented revolt from 60,000 volunteer firefighters and growing internal alarm after refusing to back down over the push to unionise the Country Fire Authority’.
That’s right, those poor volunteer firefighters at the CFA are being threatened with unionisation – a fate worse than death!
As part of this plot to grab power, Marshall is accused of various wicked actions, such as including a clause in the EBA which required seven paid firefighters to be dispatched to structural fires. This was a safety clause, and in reality would have no impact on volunteer firefighters, but that didn’t stop the media framing the clause as evidence of Marshall’s evil intent in his power grab of the CFA. Here is a quote from Liberal Wendy Lovell in Victorian Parliament to give you a taste of how this accusation against Marshall, and in turn the Labor Party, played out:
‘In many of our country towns this would mean houses would burn to the ground while CFA volunteers would have to sit in a truck and watch them burning as they waited for career firefighters to attend… This is no doubt a desperate measure by the UFU to have an increase in the number of paid firefighters on the ground, which will mean more union dues will be paid back to the UFU so it can then direct that back to the Labor Party in contributions’.
That’s right. Marshall is willing to let houses burn down to help the Labor Party win power. It sounds ridiculous and over the top, but remember, every single journalist who reported that this clause was ‘contentious’ had to assume that this was Marshall’s motive in including it in the EBA. A grab for power. Nothing to do with the safety of firefighters battling structural fires. That was never discussed, even when Marshall implored journalists to better understand why the clause was there. Nothing to do with the safety of the people those seven firefighters bravely pull out of a burning building. The Night King is evil because he is evil, and he wants power because he wants to be powerful. And he’ll stop at nothing to get his way, working to grow his army of zombies to help him achieve his villainous goals.
There is actually an analogy from Game of Thrones which represents an alternative narrative frame the media could use to report an industrial dispute. They’re not going to, but it’s there if they ever change their mind. And, by the by, the union movement could consider this story when trying to convince workers to join their ranks. Peter Marshall, or maybe it works better in this case to say Sally McManus, could represent the democratically elected people’s hero: Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons.
Daenerys is fighting to take her rightful place on the Iron Throne, giving her control of the Seven Kingdoms, but is currently distracted from this goal by having to fight the Night King and the Army of the Dead. For those who don’t watch the show, that’s control over everyone. As well as having dragons as children, who are very useful in fighting battles, you’ll notice in Daenerys’s title that she is Breaker of Chains. This is because she has built her army by freeing slaves (workers who aren’t paid, and are treated poorly, such as having their genitals removed!). She became Queen of the Andals and the First Men by convincing groups of people to ‘bend their knee’ to her, which means to democratically elect her as leader. Workers acting as a collective army are far more effective in having a say in their working conditions than lone soldiers. Armies need a general, a hero like Daenerys. An army like the trade union movement, a hero like Sally McManus.
Daenerys’s main opponent in Game of Thrones is the not-democratically-elected-there-by-birth-right current Queen, who is as evil as evil gets, Cersei Lannister. The Lannister family is obsessed with gold, nepotistic and cruel. I see them as representing neoliberal leaders such as Malcolm Turnbull and his big-business-backers. The Lannisters are deeply threatened by the popular Daenerys. Bring on the battle, bring on the election!
Game of Thrones might just be a fictional show, but think about the implications of the media framing the union leader as villain, and ignoring the plight of the workers in their storytelling of industrial disputes. I can tell you one thing. Zombies don’t live happily ever after. Their opponents always find a way to kill them and their leaders in the end.
The marriage equality ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps are establishing their campaign narratives. If the ‘yes’ campaign is to win, it’s important that they understand what the ‘no’ camp is doing, and fight back against their strategy at every opportunity.
No political campaign can offer everything to everyone, so messaging must be targeted towards specific groups at the most relevant times. There are three groups that the ‘yes’ campaign need to be aware of. As per Essential Media’s latest poll, there are the ‘committed yes’ group, which make up 57% of the population. Then there are the ‘committed nos’ at 32%. And the ‘don’t knows’ at 11%.
The ‘yes’ camp has speedily mobilised an impressive grass roots campaign to get voters on the electoral roll. The narrative of this enrol campaign is spot on to encourage those in the ‘committed yes’ group who weren’t previously on the roll, or who needed to update their details, to make sure they can place the yes vote they are clearly committed to placing. Correctly, the narrative of this campaign is to invite the ‘committed yes’ voters to be part of something big, to stand up for equality, to do the right thing and to feel good about the part they have played in a big outcome. It is entirely appropriate that this narrative expand the question of marriage equality to the larger issue of standing up for human rights, and for valuing love above all else.
However, now that the enrolment deadline has passed, as much as it might go against the yes camp’s natural affinity with this enlarged ‘this is a big deal’ narrative, it’s time to turn attention away from the ‘committed yes’, and focus on the 11% of ‘don’t knows’. In order to target this group effectively, the yes narrative needs to reduce the issue of marriage equality to a smaller, less momentous decision, rather than make it the earth-changing story that the yes camp has been using in the enrolment period.
The yes camp should understand the game plan the ‘no’ camp are using, and why they’re using it. They are not targeting the ‘committed nos’, because they already have them in the bag. If people are voting no because of religious beliefs, or because of a range of ideological beliefs; everything from intolerance of diversity, to bigotry, homophobia, to conservative views of marriage, a fear of the ‘slippery slope’ outcome and unisex toilets, the no camp would be wasting their dollars preaching to the choir, and the yes camp would be wasting their effort trying to change their stuck-in-the-mud minds. The no camp, instead, have latched onto the understanding that human beings fear uncertainty. They are therefore trying to scare the ‘don’t knows’ over into the ‘committed nos’ group by expanding the question of marriage equality into an ever-growing list of scary, threatening, uncertain outcomes. That way, if people aren’t sure what the outcome of a ‘yes’ vote would be, they will be sucked into the ‘no’ narrative, believing that marriage equality will somehow threaten their mixed-gender marriages, threaten Australian values, threaten their family, threaten their right to religious freedom, to free speech, will threaten the children of gay parents, and will get its scary tentacles into a range of never-properly-explained-vague-threats to every aspect of the community. The more uncertain the no camp can make the outcome of marriage equality, the more likely the ‘I don’t knows’ will tend towards ticking ‘no’, out of a fear of not understanding what a ‘yes’ vote will mean.
This is why the yes camp need to avoid expanding the outcome of marriage equality into a bigger moment for the country than simply allowing LGBTI people to get married. I understand why some campaigners in the yes camp will find this a difficult suggestion; many of them have been fighting their whole lives to have the right to marry their beloved partner, and for them it is a huge outcome to finally be allowed to do that. For them it means acceptance, normalcy, the end of out-dated discrimination and it means being able to legally join in union with their partner. It’s an outcome as big as their whole world. But even so, the ‘don’t knows’ need to be convinced back from the ‘no’ dark side with the narrative of certainty. And this certainty needs to reduce the magnitude of the decision to its literal outcome: that everyone in the community, no matter their sexuality and gender orientation, is free to get married. A situation which will have zero impact on anyone but the people able to get married, and of course their loved ones who can celebrate with them. In fact, the more every-day, common-sense the yes camp can make this outcome, the better. So, perhaps an advertisement that shows a gay couple negotiating difficult pre-wedding plans, such as where to seat crazy aunt Linda and deciding who gets to choose which cars they arrive in. The narrative here is: we are just like you, and you are allowed to get married, so why shouldn’t we have the chance too?
This yes narrative can also be used to fight back against the tentacles-in-every-aspect-of-your-lives threat from the no camp through the simple statement of: ‘no, marriage equality is not going to change everything. It actually has a very certain outcome. All it means is that everyone can get married, just like you can’. This means not getting into debates with no campaigners about free speech, about freedom of religion, about the impact of gay marriage on the children of gay parents. It means being firm and repetitive with the promise that marriage equality impacts no one but those who currently can’t get married. Just like the mistake climate change activists have been making for years (including me) in trying to argue with deniers, by arguing with the garbage from the no campaign, you give their position legitimacy and imbed the idea that there are uncertain outcomes from marriage equality. Instead, keep it simple. Keep it small. Rinse and repeat. Celebrate when the yes vote wins. And then the battle begins to get the yes vote through parliament.
Shorten used a speech on Friday to set Labor’s economic agenda for the next Labor government. This agenda states clearly that inequality is hurting the economy, and that anything you do to reduce inequality is good for the economy. This is not just an economic announcement. It is a social one too. And it is a huge step in the right direction for Labor.
I saw this agenda coming as it’s been clear for many months that Shorten, and his Labor colleagues, have been united in their appraisal of the problem of inequality. Just to get things straight – it’s a very big moment for Australia to have our major progressive party outline how they will respond to the problem of growing inequality, and to say loudly and clearly that the answer looks nothing like neoliberal-trickle-down ‘let the market decide’ ideology. I am amongst many left-wingers who have been supporting Labor in this direction for years and so I couldn’t be happier that Labor is putting the ills of inequality at the heart of its pitch to win the next election.
But, I am both unsurprised and disappointed that the mainstream political media have not only completely missed the significance of Shorten’s agenda, but have also missed the key point. Perhaps Shorten needs to make this point more forcefully, repeat it more often, or explain to the journalists exactly why the moment is so huge. Perhaps they will get there eventually. Let’s hope so. Because otherwise what hope do voters have of understanding what Labor is saying, if the journalists don’t understand it for themselves?
Before I give examples of the failings of the political media’s coverage of Shorten’s announcement, I will make clear why Shorten’s inequality agenda is such a big deal. For my whole lifetime, Labor has been arguing against Liberal economic ideology using the same frame as the Liberals: that government intervention in the market is bad for economic growth, even when it is socially responsible. This neoliberal consensus, which is shared by the vast majority of political journalists, has meant that government spending, debt and deficit, taxation and ‘government intervention’ has become the villain. Conversely, reducing taxes, reducing spending, even when it hurts people, is congratulated as the economically responsible and heroic thing to do. So, with this frame as the context for all political discussions, politicians are assumed to be doing the ‘right thing by the economy’ and to be ‘good economic managers’ when they are slashing and burning. And they are ‘a hand-break on growth’ when they do anything but, such as introducing new taxes, regulations, social programs, spending on health and education, and anything else in the Labor Party stable. It therefore follows that the Liberals are assumed to be better economic managers, following the neoliberal playbook, whereas Labor are assumed to be bad economic managers, as they push back against the neoliberal playbook, whilst still accepting they have been playing within the rules of this playbook, and having everything they do reported from this perspective by the media. Therefore, the Liberals, Labor and the media have been reinforcing the neoliberal economic frame within the culture of Australian political commentary for a very long time. Finally Shorten has changed this. The significance of this moment can’t be overstated.
Shorten has proclaimed that trickle-down economics is bad for the economy. This means, rather than deserving the praise of being better economic managers, the Liberals are, and always have been, hurting the economy by supporting cuts to wages, by giving tax cuts only to high income earners and leaving middle and lower income earners with less money to spend in the economy. Cuts to health care, cuts to education, cuts to any social program which increases inequality, whether that be wealth inequality generally, or gender, race, disability, access to services, regional versus cities, digital connectivity, infrastructure, access to secure employment, is bad for the economic. Pretty much every element of an Australian’s life leaves them open to having to compete on a less-even playing field because of inequality. This is because the market, the neoliberal God-like decider, is terrible at distributing wealth in an equal way. Government intervention, however, can help fix this problem.
We live in a capitalist society, sure, but what Labor is saying is that big-government is not a dirty word. Government can make sure infrastructure programs are targeted to areas where employment is most needed. Government can defend wages, such as not cancelling penalty rates, and ensuring industrial laws don’t lock unions out of their representative role for workers. Government policies can ensure lower income earners have access to a comfortable and secure standard of living. Government can make sure quality education and healthcare is available to everyone, no matter their bank balance, to give every child the chance to meet their potential, rather than relying on privilege buying life outcomes, where only those who can afford to get their children ahead are entitled to climb the ladder of life-success.
There are, of course, very simple ways to help the public understand the difference between Labor’s economic argument, and the Liberals’ neoliberal agenda. Take the example of a young man who does an apprenticeship and then gets a job as a carpenter. He gets work on a construction site. His income allows him to secure a mortgage to build his family a home. He can then afford to furnish that home, so he brings income to the local furniture store. The furniture store owner gets more business, and can possibly hire a retail assistant to take over her work on weekends. That retail assistant puts money in the pocket of the local car yard by buying her first car, and she eventually moves out of home. And so on and so forth. This is how consumer demand works – not by giving the furniture store owner, and the car yard conglomerate a tax cut, which takes money out of the economy, but by growing demand in the economy through people having money to spend. Then they have money to spend and save, they can make plans in their lives, they can build homes, and be confident to live a little, to go out to cafes and restaurants, and use annual leave to go on holidays. They only feel confident to do this when they have secure, stable employment, and their effort at work is compensated with wages reflecting their contribution to the success of the business. This compact is the story Labor is now telling. It’s important to note that the carpenter needed the apprenticeship in order to kick-start this equation, and yet the Liberals have been gutting vocational education and TAFE. Repeat this breaking of the compact throughout the Liberal’s terms in government and it’s obvious why Liberal ideology is so bad for the economy and why Labor now needs to mend much of what they have broken.
So, how have journalists misunderstood this story? Predictably, News Ltd got it most wrong with the Herald Sun’s Tom Minear writing ‘Shorten has ratcheted up class-warfare rhetoric’. So it’s all spin and it’s pitting the rich against the poor? This is on a different planet level of wrong-wrong-wrong. Barrie Cassidy, in his interview with Shorten on Insiders, wasn’t far from calling the equality agenda shallow-election-spin. Or worse, ripping-off populist strategy from Corbyn and Sanders. Eye-roll. Mark Kenny’s SMH analysis wasn’t quite as narrow, but he still fell into the old frame of describing the Labor ‘heart’ battle versus the Liberal ‘head’ message, which means Labor is addressing inequality not because it’s hard-headed and good for the economy (because Liberals own that ground), but because they have a heart – they want to be nice to people. This is wrong, and Labor should correct the record on such an obvious misunderstanding of their policy platform.
The closest I’ve seen a writer get to showing they see the significance, and understand the economic thinking behind the story, is The Guardian’s Greg Jericho, who wrote: ‘The economic debate for too long was based in the old canard that there is a trade off between growth and equality’. As I’ve written recently, the old neoliberal frame which the ‘establishment’ have been using for decades – politicians and journalists alike – is that there is a choice between economic growth and social spending. No. There is not a choice. Or, as Jericho calls it, a trade-off between growth and equality. In fact it’s simpler than that. You can’t have growth without tackling inequality. This is where the heart of Labor’s story lies, and why Labor deserves congratulations not just for doing what is kind, or right, or caring, or fair. But for also doing what is economically responsible – what is best for the economy AND the people who make up that economy. I guess Shorten just needs to keep saying it until they all catch up.