It’s remarkable how badly things are going for Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The Coalition won ninety seats at the last election, while Labor recorded their lowest primary vote since 1931. People certainly didn’t want the ALP to govern the country for another three years, and the Coalition was the beneficiary of that sentiment. Only a few short years after knifing Malcolm Turnbull, after facing down Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott had finally got what he wanted: the big man seat.
Yet suddenly it all seems to be going wrong. This is perhaps predictable when you treat election promises as if they were just drunken slurs you whispered in the ears of the electorate, ignoring them and instead cutting education funding, limiting access to healthcare, and meddling with pensions. Not to mention the rather categorical promise-breaking around proposed new taxes. It seems a long time ago now but there were also all the diplomatic embarrassments with Indonesia, as well as the selective neglect of the jobs of workers at Holden and QANTAS. On reflection, it may be no surprise that polls on Abbott’s first 100 days were “the worst in polling history”, and that March saw tens of thousands of Australians, including many who voted for the Coalition, coming out in solidarity against the sheer awfulness of Tony Abbott’s Government.
Sadly, none of this makes much difference. Plenty of Governments start badly, then get re-elected regardless. A week is a long time in politics – and there’s more than a hundred weeks left before the next election. So while the electorate is currently fighting Abbott like white blood cells against an infection, while the polls are encouraging, we shouldn’t forget that there’s only one poll with the potential to make “one term Tony” a glorious reality.
What we have to do now is make sure that this contemporary resentment and distrust isn’t forgotten, that it grows and strengthens like tributaries flowing downhill into a stream that becomes a Herculean torrent that will, in 2016, sweep Tony Abbott from the Parliament House like excrement from the Augean stables.
This post is about how.
The one term to remember: narrative
The how is this: narrative. We need to tell a story about Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership that becomes the story about Tony Abbott’s Prime Ministership. When people think of Tony Abbott, they shouldn’t think of his fighting fires, making tough budget decisions, or posing with his daughters. Instead, the association with Tony Abbott should be faces of the people from Holden now looking for work, the child care workers denied their pay rise, the 24-year-old struggling to feed herself, the pensioner who can’t afford to see the GP and dies unnecessarily.
The right story should supply a mental model that will explain observations. People like to understand things, and they want a story that makes sense of what Abbott is up to. So it has to not only fit what we’ve seen so far, but have the potential to fit what we can expect in the future: it should be “plausible, and explain all observed features” . Then, every future gaffe, backflip, or mis-step, becomes yet another chapter in the same story. Once a story is established, and accepted by people, it becomes powerfully entrenched, resistant to refutation by contrary facts: “The frames are in the synapses of our brains, physically present in the form of neural circuitry,” writes linguist George Lakoff in Don’t Think of an Elephant, “…When the facts don’t fit the frames, the frames are kept and the facts are ignored.” It’s like:
(Alleged) fact: Tony Abott inherited a budget in disarray and had to make tough decisions to bring us back to surplus.
The brusque, intemperate part of the brain: nah yiz can get fucked ay.
With that in mind, the themes in the story should be:
- Abbott can’t be trusted: “Tony Abbott lied to you. He made promises to get your vote, knowing that he wouldn’t live up to them. Do you think he should get away with that?”
Most people don’t vote self-interestedly for policies that advantage them. Instead, subconsciously, they use decision-making shortcuts: do I trust him? do I like him? is he like me?  Attacking Tony Abbott’s integrity, making him seem dishonest and manipulative, is more potent than talking about his actual policy decisions.
- Abbott doesn’t care about you: “Abbott’s only looking out for the big end of town. You know how he cut pensions because ‘budget emergency’? He somehow managed to find money to give people earning over $150,000 a year tax breaks, and billions of dollars for some of the richest corporations in the country.”
Simply, this is a very important frame that’s true of most right-wing politicians, and that will become more and more evident. Voters need to stop seeing Abbott as like them or on their side, and instead see him as the friend of people unlike them: people who don’t even work for a living, and who’ll lay off thousands of workers if that’s what it takes to keep costs down.
- Abbott is incompetent: “The only thing Abbott knows how to do is get elected: he’s just not very competent. He’s pissed off Indonesia and let jobs go off shore.”
Even before getting elected, Tony Abbott didn’t exactly seem to have his finger on the pulse. He was described by members of his own party as “innumerate” and an “economic simpleton”. His three-word slogans were eviscerated by Leigh Sales on the 7:30 Report. Not to mention his awkwardly long speechlessness when faced with his own words regarding the death in Afghanistan of Australian soldiers. This frame fits him like a glove and is an argument against his leadership that is agnostic on issues of ideology or policy.
It’s important thought to characterise him as selectively incompetent: “The only thing [he] knows how to do is get elected”, not generally incompetent. This is consistent with his being an uncaring liar, which implies a degree of cunning which would be at odds with a simple fool. (Something the US Democrats got wrong with Bush in 2004 )
One term Tony, every time
With the themes set, crafting the story simply requires the consistent activation of the themes in association with Abbott’s words and actions. When he proposes a deficit levy: “Yet another broken promise”. When he wants to make health care more expensive: “Abbott is spending billions on fancy jets while making it more expensive for you to take your children to the doctor.” When he wants to re-instate knighthoods: “Honestly? Tony Abbott is like a dog chasing a car that eventually catches it and doesn’t know what to do with it. He spent all his energy lying in order to get elected, and now his only plan for the country is to hand out a few titles.” When such commentary fits the negative narrative, the commentary is more believable, the story gets stronger, and counter-narratives shrink in relevancy.
TL;DR: current dissatisfaction with Tony Abbott won’t affect the outcome of the next Federal Election unless it’s woven into a tapestry that integrates the various frustrations – his lies, his oligarchism, his sheer inability – into a coherent fabric. If that is done, however, then every moment in the Abbott catastrophe becomes another thread to strengthen the garment, while any contravening arguments fall apart at the seams. Whenever Tony Abbott breaks a promise, whenever he puts jobs or schools or GPs on the altar so that bankers can keep getting bonuses, whenever he offends any Head of State or a commits diplomatic faux pas, let’s make sure that it becomes part of the one true story of one term Tony: the story of a Government that lied its way into power, betrayed its supporters, couldn’t handle its responsibilities, and suffered the consequences.
A week’s a long time in politics. But a well-made fabric will last years. Let’s start weaving.
 On the importance of mental models in combating misinformation, see John Cook’s and Stephan Lewandowsky’s, The Debunking Handbook, available at Skeptical Science.
 Language Intelligence, by Joseph Romm, Chapter Seven: “Extended Metaphor: Framing a picture-perfect speech”