It was the #climateelection. People clearly do care about climate action, Indigenous justice, bringing refugees here, raising Newstart. So what went wrong?
As usual, it was a mix of things. And not all the fault of Queenslanders.
Here I’m giving my early reflections, with input from my Common Cause colleagues Angela Rutter and Mark Chenery, from the perspective of values and frames. It’s my perspective as a Common Cause practitioner based in Queensland, that I’d like to contribute alongside all the others.
Overall, while Scott Morrison had a clear central message, Labor didn’t. For years, the Coalition’s has been security and “jobs and growth”. Here’s the 2019 version:
The detail was the same as always, centred around individualism, reward for effort and “tax breaks”.
Few would argue with Labor’s “fair go”:
What it lacked was a strong central narrative about creating a society and economy that were different, better, than Morrison’s, because they are built on different values: on our connection with nature and collective responsibility for each other. At the detailed end of the spectrum, Labor struggled to tie each of its seemingly disparate policies back to a central narrative, back to core values, as George Lakoff advocates. How does Labor’s “fair go for Australia” square with removing franking credits and negative gearing? Of course it can, it just wasn’t made clear in the election campaign.
In the absence of a central narrative about collective responsibility and connection, and therefore tax as our contribution to all things good in society, it was easy for the Murdoch press to frame the franking credits and negative gearing proposals as a tax “grab”, effectively stealing individuals’ rightfully earned money. To add to this narrative was a spate of outright lies on social media, fanned by the Coalition and Clive Palmer’s $60 million advertising campaign, about Labor’s (non-existent) plans for a “death tax” and “car tax”. In the Coalition’s campaign, Shorten became “the Bill we can’t afford”. This message was amplified by the Murdoch-owned News Limited, which holds a monopoly or near monopoly in many parts of the country including regional Queensland.
A final word on tax. The above examples form part of a well-worn Coalition strategy to reframe moral issues about the environment and about equity (e.g. funding social services instead of franking credits), purely in individualistic financial terms - the hip pocket.
A reminder of Peta Credlin’s frank admission:
Along comes a carbon tax. It wasn’t a carbon tax, as you know. It was many other things in nomenclature terms but we made it a carbon tax. We made it a fight about the hip pocket and not about the environment. That was brutal retail politics and it took Abbott about six months to cut through and when he cut through, Gillard was gone.
And in Tony Abbott’s concession speech, speaking more broadly about the Coalition win: “Where climate change is a moral issue, we Liberals do it tough. Where climate change is an economic issue, as tonight shows, we do very, very well.”
And so to climate change and Labor’s self-described “bipolar” position on coal. Labor member for Rockhampton: "I think Labor really needs to come out with a very clear message one way or the other." Unfortunately, that way may not match what’s needed to deal with the climate emergency:
"We had a great policy on climate change - we said that we believed in reforestation, we said that we believed in renewables and we wanted to get ahead of that market. But then we forgot to say to people that by the way, we believe in coal.”
Clearly, a lot of work needs to be done with affected communities on just transitions for workers whose actual or promised livelihoods are being taken away, so that they see a viable coal-free future. Labor’s policy covers coal-fired power stations, not export coal. Yes, the Greens’ just transition plan includes coal miners, but in the heat of an election campaign, the public conversation descended into binaries: “stop Adani” vs jobs. Environment vs jobs. There was a sense that in the absence of alternative livelihoods, Adani is the bitter pill we have to take. As always, the facts around the drastic reduction in forecast jobs in the project and $900 million of public funding required to support it, bounce off the frame.
So the huge swings against Labor in regional Queensland and surge in support for pro-coal minor parties, flowing to the Coalition, were not surprising. However, this goes beyond coal. While Labor’s vote actually increased in central, white-collar areas of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, there were strong swings to the Coalition in the mostly working class outer suburbs. Voters heard: “When Labor runs out of money, they come for yours”. With many fewer jobs than people wanting them, it’s high time for a bigger narrative and plan to transition to a new economy, and to be clear about how we collectively ensure everyone’s needs are met, through paid employment or other means. This also provides a golden opportunity for Labor and other progressives to connect their policy to people’s lives. We saw some rare (and beautiful) examples of this in Shorten’s tribute to Hawke: “Every Australian carries a monument to Bob Hawke with them, their Medicare card. A green-and-gold promise that the health of any one of us, matters to all of us.”
Overall, playing “spot the values”, we see that the campaigns run by the Coalition, Palmer and Murdoch press were likely to engage people’s Security values as well as the neighbouring extrinsic values of Power and Achievement. As an example, in just one speech, Morrison described himself and his audience as “aspirational” no fewer than 12 times, used in extrinsic terms relating to house, car, high-status job. Based on the community’s response, and in the absence of positive alternatives, the “stop Adani convoy” also likely engaged Security values. When people’s Security values are activated, this provides fertile ground for a powerful authority figure (Morrison) to come to the rescue and restore the status quo.
Rather than debating whether Australians are inherently more community-minded and compassionate or more greedy and selfish, or asserting that this election proves we’ve shifted irrevocably to the latter, let’s remind ourselves that we are capable of both. The point is, we are what we choose to feed.
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So, what next? While it’s not my intent to lay out a grand plan, I’d like to suggest a few things to give you some well-founded hope and practical actions:
1. Doing, not just saying
As Farmers for Climate Action’s Anna Rose reminds us: “most humans do care about the suffering of others and we can work together to solve big problems - and we just need to build systems and movements that allow people to see past the fear propagated by the Murdoch press, the fossil fuel lobby, and the hard-right of the LNP.”
Beyond comms, beyond formal politics, is the hard work that needs to be done on the ground with communities. The work of creating the next economy, including just transitions for everyone from coal miners to manufacturing workers in the city fringes. There’s also much work to do in reforming or redesigning democracy so that it serves everyone, not just the rich and powerful.
I would like to suggest this is the next step required in community organising and community engagement. Many organisations and movements have made great strides in engaging and empowering members and supporters. Now it’s time to extend that to broader communities and help people translate “climate action” and “new economy” into their own lived experience, so they can see and create the alternatives for themselves. Here we can build on the work of organisations like The Next Economy, SEED, Community Power Agency, Climate for Change, Lock the Gate and Farmers for Climate Action.
I also suggest that this challenging but rewarding work calls for us to gently pull open and re-examine our relationship to the land, to the Indigenous owners and stewards of this land, and to each other.
Finally, it seems clearer than ever before that elections “cannot save us in the absence of popular pressure, resilience and creativity.” This is what we need to build, together. It’s ‘bottom up’ grassroots, to compliment the ‘top town’ inside track of working within politics and policymaking circles (more on grassroots participation below in no. 3 & 4).
2. Tell our big story
Importantly, the above work needs to be brought together in a whole, in a compelling narrative that ties together our common causes, and ties individual policies back to values. We need to do this in our advocacy every day of the year, not just at election time.
For many years, people have spoken about the need to more clearly articulate our progressive vision and solutions. One such vision is Australia reMADE, which my colleague Mark and I are honoured to have been part of from early days. But to bring to life the words on a page requires ongoing work to help people translate the concepts into their own lived experiences. We need everyone to build on and adapt these words, to share and repeat them in all kinds of workplaces and forums and neighbourhoods, so that they become common sense. So the words roll off our tongues, just like the neoliberal phrase “jobs and growth”. Let’s instead talk about creative work; work providing clean energy; care work in all its paid and unpaid forms; regenerative agriculture as care work. And how we make sure everyone’s needs are met.
3. Celebrate and learn from election successes
For now we can take heart from a few very firmly values-based and community-based campaigns. In Indi, north-eastern Victoria, Independent Helen Haines’ historic win was driven by 1700 volunteers, all of whom signed a values pledge, including local Common Cause practitioner Trudi Ryan who advised on values-based messaging.
In Canberra, Tim Hollo, with support from Common Cause co-Director Mark Chenery, won more than 24.5% of first preference votes, representing a 5.5% swing and one of the highest Greens primary votes in the country. Mark also supported the ACT Senate campaign for Dr Penny Kyburz who achieved the highest Greens Senate vote in the country, currently at 18% and expected to rise on absent and declaration votes.
And behind Zali Steggall’s unseating of Tony Abbott is the little-told story of People of Warringah, Voices of Warringah, Vote Tony Out and North Shore Environmental Stewards. Drawing on the Voices for Indi model of kitchen table conversations, they ran a hugely effective grassroots campaign based on what they value in their community and beyond.
The take home? Methods and messengers are just as important as the message.
4. Build people power through participation
This one’s up to you, with support from progressive organisations. Get active in a NENA sectoral or geographic Hub and come to the Conference 4-7 October in Perth. Join a local group or start your own (as an example, the Australian Conservation Foundation supports 27 community groups around the country and is keen to support many more). Start conversations beyond the “quinoa curtain” - with your friends, family, neighbours, colleagues, taxi drivers and corner store owners. Join 1700 fellow changemakers at the hub of inspiration and learning that is Progress on 20-21 June in Melbourne. If you’re able to make it, we’d love to have you at our session on Principles for systems change, co-hosted by Millie Rooney, National Coordinator of Australia reMADE. For fellow Brisbanites and others able to join us, I’m teaming up with QCOSS to organise a cross-issue, cross-sector strategy session, asking: how can we implement Australia reMADE? Please let me know if you’d like to be involved in organising or participating - or if you’d like to hold a similar forum elsewhere.
Until then, remember: we are the ones we have been waiting for.
Common Cause Australia is loudly and proudly progressive but apolitical within that spectrum. Over the years, we have welcomed Labor, Greens and Independent staff and volunteers to our workshops.