Anti-politics 6: Delegitimizing the Abbott government

This is the final part of a series about the Australian “anti-politics” attitude and how the green left should respond to it. Part 1 lays out evidence for the attitude and speculates on its causes. Part 2 argues the green left needs to distance itself from political elites. Part 3 discusses how we should communicate about climate change and what policies we should demand. Part 4 discusses debunking the neoliberal ideology of the political elites. Part 5 considers how to communicate climate change to conservatives. This part discusses how the Greens can run a strong campaign by undermining the legitimacy of the Abbott government, creating memorable slogans, and mobilizing the community.

The winning election campaign by Tony Abbott’s Liberal/National Coalition showed that an Australian government’s legitimacy is determined more by voter perceptions than constitutionality. Abbott refused to accept the legitimacy of the Gillard Labor government and ran a tireless negative campaign against it through an entire term of Parliament, ensuring a lot of voters also came to see it as illegitimate. In doing so Abbott both got the Liberals elected, and shifted the Overton window rightward.

If delegitimization worked for the right, maybe it’ll work for the left too. Therefore Christine Milne’s Greens should refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Abbott government, and campaign strongly against it in much the same way Abbott campaigned.

The Abbott blueprint to destroy a government

After the election, Peter Hartcher for once wrote something I agree with – that Abbott’s campaign was effectively a blueprint for “how to destroy a government”:

Rule No. 1: Don’t give the government a thing. Fight it up hill, down dale, day in day out. Be strident, be angry, be unreasonable. Apply maximum pressure and see what cracks.

Rule No. 2: Don’t allow the government to control the narrative. Make a lot of noise. Fill the airwaves with angry dissent and maximum outrage. Generate an impression of disorder. If you control the narrative, you control the psychological battlespace.

Rule No. 3: Exploit the deadliest of all contemporary policy issues, the one that was central to the downfall of the last three prime ministers: climate change.

Hartcher suggests this strategy be copied by the Labor opposition, but Labor has no principles left to defend. With Labor down and out, the Greens could become a much more effective opposition by following the Abbott playbook.


Greens may baulk at the suggestion they should behave the same way as Abbott, but it cannot be denied that his approach has been very effective, and it is possible to be ruthless without being heartless. I am certainly not suggesting the Greens copy the dishonest aspects of the Liberals’ campaign style, such as lying, misleading, hiding policies and information from the public, and attempting to silence critics.

Another caveat is that Abbott’s strategy delivered him surprisingly few primary votes. Despite his great success at delegitimizing the Labor government, most of the swing was unexpectedly picked up by Palmer United. The Greens must be careful not to overuse delegitimization to the point where they make themselves unpopular. Therefore the Greens’ delegitimization campaign must be more principled than opportunistic. Also in contrast to Abbott, the Greens must be careful to direct their “anti-politics” campaign in the ideological direction of Occupy (anti-corporate-controlled-government), not the Tea Party (anti-government).

To be clear, I am advocating negativity as a message, not as a policy position per se. I am not saying we should be mindlessly and dogmatically opposed to anything Abbott says and does – absolute negativity is as uncritical as absolute positivity. If Abbott gets something right, by all means we should acknowledge that, but we must accentuate the negative to give citizens a reason to change their vote. Abbott has proven that negativity works.

Finally, we must avoid the trap into which the climate movement fell during the Howard Liberal government: a widespread assumption that the Prime Minister is the main villain. It’s not enough to campaign only against a Liberal Prime Minister, because it creates the impression that electing a Labor government will result in action on climate change. In reality, the real villain was always the fossil fuel lobby who have long controlled both major parties: some of Howard’s policies had roots in the Keating Labor government, and Rudd Labor did little more than shift Australia to a second phase of greenwash. In 2007, the climate movement succeeded in getting rid of Howard but failed to get meaningful action. This time around, the climate movement and the Greens should campaign strongly for real action as I outlined in Part 3, and we should criticize both of the establishment parties.

Delegitimizing arguments

With all this in mind, what sort of arguments should the Greens make to cast the Abbott government as illegitimate? Here are some ideas:

  • Hammer the Liberals (and to a lesser extent Labor) for representing corporate interests, not the interests of the majority. Speak out in favour of those who are being disadvantaged by neoliberalism, the fossil fuel economy, and climate change (another reason why Milne’s intention of reaching out to rural voters makes sense).
  • Hammer the Liberals because, despite claiming a strong mandate, many of its policies are not supported by the majority of Australians.
  • Hammer the Liberals for hiding major policies until the last minute of the election campaign.
  • Hammer the Liberals for trying to shut down government communications and independent sources of information (eg. the Climate Commission, research grants, senior public servants, press releases about boats).
  • Hammer the Liberals for denying or downplaying the science of climate change. Speak out about the scientific evidence and present impacts including extreme weather.
  • Hammer the Liberals for the ineffectiveness of their climate policies.
  • Hammer Abbott for helping to create a hotter world for his daughters to live in.
  • Hammer Abbott for having allegedly set up a slush fund for a legal case against One Nation.
  • Hammer the Liberals for taking their voters for granted.
  • Hammer the Nationals for not acting in the interests of the rural voters who elected them (eg. on coal seam gas).
  • Hammer the Liberals for political appointments. There have already been plenty of these, such as appointing Business Council of Australia Tony Shepherd to the Commission of Audit.
  • Hammer the Liberals for scandals, particularly any which help to expose the power of the fossil fuel lobby or broader business lobby. Already we have the scandal of taxpayer-funded attendance of weddings, including that of Gina Rinehart’s business partner.
  • Hammer Abbott for broken promises (remembering that by Abbott’s standards it’s fair game to call a broken promise a “lie”). After having politically killed Gillard for arguably breaking a single promise in three years, Abbott has already broken multiple promises in his first month in office (some examples are listed here). We should focus particularly on any broken promises which conflict with green left ideology, a message that would help to move the Overton window in our direction for a change. Particularly important will be any failure to be on track to the promised emissions target or implement climate policies.
  • Hammer Abbott for negotiating with a hung Senate. Just as the right has attacked the Greens and their deals with Labor, the green left must attack Palmer and the Liberal Democrats and their deals with the Liberals. Palmer is Australia’s first billionaire politician and the Liberal Democrats our first taste of American-style right-wing libertarianism; we don’t want Australians to like either. If we don’t fight back, the government and the Senate will together drag Australian politics further to the right. Get ready to call Clive Palmer the unofficial Deputy Prime Minister.
  • Hammer Abbott for any unanticipated right-wing economic policies, for example from the Commission of Audit (a key message here being that the Abbott government is not really “conservative” because it supports radical policies).
  • Hammer the Liberals for any leadership changes (the message being that the new Prime Minister is illegitimate because they did not attain the position through a general election).

Core messages make ideas stick

I think another key to Abbott’s success has been his uncanny ability to reduce complex issues to memorable slogans which concisely convey his core message. His campaign was based around a handful of central messages on both policy and process, which were expressed in a few words and repeated endlessly. It seemed to matter little that he constantly contradicted himself and his colleagues on matters of detail, because it was his constantly repeated simple slogans that got across to voters. They’ve been so successful that we all know their slogans off by heart; I don’t even need to list them here.

We need to figure out how to do the same for climate change. The modern media increasingly favors simple ideas over complex ones. Until now, the climate movement has poured its efforts into advocating half-measures (eg. signing the Kyoto Protocol, introducing a carbon price), and those half-measures have tended to become conflated with climate action in the public mind. Instead, we must find messages that cut through, but also confer sufficient understanding to know the basics of what is required to solve the climate crisis.

What makes Abbott’s slogans so effective? Chip and Dan Heath argue in their book, Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck, that ideas that are “sticky” (make a lasting impact) tend to have the following characteristics:

  1. Simplicity: The idea must be stripped down to a core message, and communicated in a compact but profound soundbite.
  2. Unexpectedness: The idea must violate people’s expectations to grab their attention. For a longer presentation to hold interest, it must arouse curiosity about a question and then answer it.
  3. Concreteness: The idea must be explained in terms of tangible human actions or sensory experience, to ensure everyone in the audience understands and remembers, and coordinates to meet the overall goal. Concrete elements are “memory hooks”, so the more the better.
  4. Credibility: The idea will be more likely to be believed if it comes from either an expert or a neutral “real person”. Other ways to make an idea credible include mentioning irrelevant details, making a statistic accessible through comparison to something on a human scale, showing the idea works even in an extreme situation, or allowing listeners to test it for themselves.
  5. Emotions: The idea must make people feel something in order to explain why they should care about it. It must tap into the group identity and values of the target audience; these are better vote-winners than self-interest.
  6. Stories: Accounts of actions that others have taken help inspire people to act on an idea.

The narrative I discussed in Part 3 meets pretty much all of the Heaths’ criteria. Identifying and opposing the fossil fuel industry as the enemy makes the complex simple, the predetermined shocking, the abstract concrete, the radical credible, the technical emotional, and the seemingly hopeless inspirational. As for sticky slogans, “leave fossil fuels in the ground” is a simple, unexpected, and concrete way of expressing the core message about what needs to be done.

We can even turn some of the Liberals’ slogans back onto them. We can campaign for “real direct action”. Because of the Emissions Reduction Fund’s budget cap, we can adopt Greg Hunt’s slogan that “Emissions will go up, not down.” And remember Abbott’s insistence that we must reduce emissions “the right way, not the wrong way”? We could adopt a similar slogan to discredit Abbott’s soil carbon plan: “Tony Abbott is trying to cut carbon in the wrong place.”

Schemas and values

The Liberals have a handful of simplistic words and phrases (eg. “tax”, “waste”, “red tape”, “green tape”), which they use to frame almost any issue no matter how complex. This works because most people have a conceptual schema of, for example, a “tax”, which includes negative connotations constantly reinforced by neoliberals. After the Liberals have called up these negative schemas in people’s minds, their opponents are powerless to dispel them. This partly explains why Gillard’s admission that the carbon price could be called a “tax” proved so disastrous (the other part of the explanation being her supposed “lie”, another important schema).

People hold multiple contradictory values in their minds, which can be activated by different rhetorical frames. For example, “green tape” or “great big new tax” activate right-wing schemas in the minds of citizens, but other messages, for example about the need for corporations to be held accountable to the voting public through government regulation, might activate values more helpful for talking about climate action. This is why it is unwise to focus too much on the short-term economic benefits of climate action – because as soon as we start talking about short-term economics, we’re fighting on enemy territory.

Whenever the right wing objects strongly to a particular word, phrase, topic, or message about climate change, it might be an indication they know it is an effective frame and therefore we should use it. Examples include acknowledgement of the scientific consensus, discussion of extreme weather in relation to climate change, emphasis on possible catastrophic future impacts, use of the word “pollution” to refer to greenhouse gas emissions, and description of high-emitting companies as “big polluters”.

Spreading the word

The Greens may have relied too much on the mainstream media to spread their message, given it is heavily biased against them. They need to think about alternative ways to get their message out. They already have a significant internet presence, but need to find ways to connect with older voters who are not online, and audiences who are either apathetic or conservative. These might include seeking more frequent appearances on talkback radio and non-political media. And at the next election, they can repeat the strategy of Adam Bandt’s successful campaign in Melbourne, which centred around door knocking by volunteers.

In these times of personality-focused campaigns, Milne needs to increase her personal visibility both on the national stage and in each local region. Perhaps she could emulate Abbott’s daily visits to businesses supposedly threatened by the carbon tax, by frequently visiting, say, the sites of local environmental battles against mining companies?

Mobilizing the community

Playing the game of parliamentary politics delivered disappointing policy outcomes during the last Parliament, and is likely to achieve even less in the present one. Instead, the Greens must do more to mobilize and empower ordinary citizens.

One reason why people are disillusioned with politics is that we rightly feel we have no way to participate in the political process. In the carbon price debate of 2011, Labor and the Greens made little attempt to consult the public on the design of the policy. Consequently the “tax” was perceived as an attack on ordinary Australians and the Liberals were seen as standing up to a ham-fisted government.

Instead, the Greens should attempt to build democratic support for their top-down goal through bottom-up organization. For example, they could experiment with community forums on climate change. In formulating policies and political strategy they can listen to and account for the concerns of local people on the ground, as long as they don’t compromise the overall objective of transitioning to a zero-carbon economy. As for climate change denialism in the community, we must keep trying to educate people as outlined in Part 3. Also, some denial may be rooted in fear of economic change, so if people’s fears are addressed then acceptance of science may follow in many cases.

Labor’s present weakness is partly because it no longer has a strong base in trade unions. The Greens can take advantage of this in two ways. Firstly, the Greens must form alliances with environmental activist and other civil society groups around the country. Secondly, the Greens may want to seek alliances with trade unions, emphasizing the need to support workers through the economic transition. (However, such a tactic is only worthwhile if said unions acknowledge the necessity of an urgent transition away from fossil fuels.) If they can form such alliances it will help to build their own base and further erode Labor’s.


Although sometimes it may not seem like it, climate change has been the defining issue of modern Australian politics. It has contributed to the demise of four Prime Ministers, due to the ire of either the fossil fuel lobby or the climate movement. Hawke was toppled partly because he introduced an emissions target and blocked a proposed mine, mobilizing the mining lobby. Howard was defeated partly because he refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. Rudd was knifed partly because he backflipped on emissions trading. And Gillard was beaten partly because she introduced a carbon tax. So it is not too much of a stretch to imagine the climate movement could yet bring down a fifth Prime Minister, Tony Abbott.

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