Saturday 22nd of June 2024

Framing the debate

I wrote an article last night for I thought i'd repost here:

It's time we the Left take a good look at the language we use when trying to communicate
by lewisa Monday March 21, 2005 at 12:57 AM

The Left in America are rediscovering the language they previously used that has now been captured by the Right to distract people from voting for their own economic interests. Its time we in Australia relearnt the art of FRAMING THE DEBATE.

For the past forty years or so the Left in America have been losing ground to Republican Right in their core constituency: the average American. Ever since Keating, the same has been happening in Australia with regards to the Labor Party being the traditional party of the working class now holding less federal seats than the Liberal Party alone.

What went wrong? the language of Framing. The simplest way to explain language is basically to set the terms of the debate on an issue. For example, in America the Republicans introduced a bill into Congress to ban what they called 'Partial Birth Abortion'. When the average person hears that, they more than likely imagine a gruesome image of a baby being killed whilst half born. The term was a frame and was another word for 'late term abortion'. However because every Conservative media outlet kept repeating it along with all the Republican Congressmen, it soon became mainstream and replaced late term abortion. Unfortunately our side, the Democrats, failed to realise this and started using the term 'partial birth abortion' when they were trying to argue for a woman's right to choose.

To the average person watching the Left arguing against a ban on 'partial birth abortion', the left come across as complete monsters. Even the average pro-choice person saw it that way because most people did not know what the term meant.

When John Howard began framing Paul Keating as an 'elitist' and won over the majority of those on the bottom of the economic ladder, he reframed the debate away from economics and onto social issues, and our side unfortunately plaid right into it. By taking economics off the table in terms of what differentiated us with the Liberals, and only seemingly remaining different on Social Issues, we took away the major reason for these people to vote for us.

Given that most people on the lower end of the economic scale are economically left and socially conservative, the Liberals now became a match made in heaven for the conservative 'working class'.

John Howard is a master at framing and reframing. When Mark Latham had him cornered as untrustworthy due to being caught out as a lier, Howard REFRAMED the issue of trust to associate it with his 'record' on interest rates. This is exactly how he launched his campaign when he called the election.

One recent major mistake the Student Unions have made in their campain against Voluntary Student Unionism is accepting the frame of the government - introducing VOLUNTARY Student Unionism. When our side argues against VOLUNTARY Student Unionism, we are implying that students should be forced into it. No one likes to be 'forced' into anything. Every time we used the term VOLUNTARY Student Unionism we were arguing against ourselves and kicking our own goals. What we perhaps should have done was
to frame it as 'dismembering student choice'. "We are against DSC".

This article is by no means proposing that Labor and the general Left go back to the old days and forget how much many of the reforms gave the nation the prosperity it is enjoying today, but what it is proposing is that we need to be careful with our language.

Other frames which we could benefit from:

>'Australia's Taliban' and 'Taliban Tony'. This isn't a frame against the average moderate Christians, this is for the feral, foaming at the mouth types which wish to impose their opinions on how we should live our private lives onto us. Taliban Tony is a reference to Tony Abbott. This frame hurts the Right because it associates them with the Taliban in Afghanistan who also forced people to live their personal lives according to their rules.

>With the Senate falling into Conservative hands for the first time in a long time, John Howard is going to push through MANY measures which will harm the average Australian. Everytime the Howard government tries anything slightly controversial, the Progressives can be their and label the government "arrogant and elitist". "Now that the Howard government has got control of the Senate for the first time ever, they've stopped listening to the people and doing whatever they want. They've become arrogant and elitist".

To see how the grass roots of the Left in the States are reframing visit here or google 'framing'.

Highly recommended book: "Don't think of an elephant! Know your values and frame the debate" By George Lakoff.

Other recommended links:

* - Australia's grassroots web based activism.

* - The Premiere source for American news from a lefty perspective.


Please note: This article is free for non-commercial reuse, reprint, and rebroadcast, on the net and elsewhere. However please advise the author if you are planning to reproduce it. Thanks.

Good example of reframing from Kevin Rudd

I heard a good example of reframing this evening on ABC radio. The story was about Howard/Downer refusing to sign the ASEAN non-aggression pact. There was a piece with Downer dismissing New Zealand's lead because we constantly beat them at cricket (good to see our Minister for Foreign Affairs is such an expert diplomat!).

Then a piece from Rudd where he referred to the document as the "Friendship Treaty." As good a piece of reframing as I've heard and leaves the impression that Howard/Downer are little more than sulking schoolboys.

Framing is what we Allow.

Hi all.

I'm wondering what all the hoo-haa is about this "framing" topic. Are we all falling into the trap of allowing the journalists and politicians to change the way we think by the way they talk? I think the government loved the debate over wether or not there were children thown from boats, or not thrown from boats or who told who there were children thrown from boats as it completely avoided the core issue, which should have been wether or not it was constitutional to mandatorily imprison people arriving on our shores seeking political asylum.

I would suggest that it is legal to imprison those people, until such time that their claim to political asylum is evaluated in accordance with UN conventions. It may be inhumane and immoral, but legal. If there had been as much effort put into changing that part of our Law which permits the mandatory detention, the debate would have at least headed in the right direction.

Lewisa tries to make a point about re-framing the debate on Student unionism. Again, the debate is not about student unions, but about a source of funding. Universities need to charge up-front student fees over and above what the Federal Government allows for under HECS scheme. Change the law to allow them to charge fees. That way there would be a system to set the fees and control the use of funds along with a properly scrutinised account of what the funds are used for.

Framing is mostly about irrelevant side issues where the issues of Law and Legislation, which the political system is in place to manage, are ignored.

You obviously don't get it

"Framing is mostly about irrelevant side issues where the issues of Law and Legislation, which the political system is in place to manage, are ignored."



I've just joined and I have little or no knowledge of most of the sites and views referred to here, in the article and most of the replies.

I don't have the time to dig through all those sites, read all the information, and then make decisions on what I think of their sites and views.

I'm not sure what the point of this article is other than to state what we all really know. That is that Howard in particular simply turns any issue to his advantage / against the Opposition. Howard is simply a pedant with no ability to change unless he sees advantage in it. In other words he is a politician. Beattie does the same in QLD.

We all know this don't we? If we don't then what are we doing on this site?

Are we discussing the past or trying to do something about the future? History teaches us much but it seems we learn little from it. There's nothing new, it's all been done before.

It seems to me our task is to decide what we want, how we plan for that and then how we set about achieving whatever it is we agree on (which could be very little). Naturally history should be part of any such planning but let's not get bogged down in disagreeing about what happened as we all have different perspectives of the past.

I have no notion of Left and Right in Australia as I think that disappeared when Hawke move Labor into Liberal territory forcing the Libs further over. As such I don't believe there is any traditional Left in Australia at all. Simply Right, More Right and Middle.

I prefer not to use any of those terms as there are people in each group who dislike what is happening today in our country. Unless the interested people in all these groups combine there will only ever be what we have now, a two party boys club. A few token females are put into jobs but mainly ignored. Is that what anyone here wants?

By the way, I'm male.

I'm glad to see this as one of the first posts on this site

American progressives have been talking extensively about how to reframe the debate to start taking back ground lost to the right wing of the country.

On it is a frequent subject, and contributors to the site hold frequent 'frameshops' on important topics - eg 'frameshop: Iraq'; 'frameshop: social security'. It would be good to do the same here.

I think a glaring omission from your otherwise excellent article is the right wing framing of the issue of asylum seekers. To hide the absolutely legal right of a person to arrive on Australian shores without a visa and request asylum, they have been reframed as 'queue jumpers' and 'illegals'.

This is certainly an issue that we could frameshop - what do you think Lewisa? As you've obviously done your homework, it would be great if you could a lead on this.

I have yet to read Lakoff's book, but it's high on my list.

Great to meet you hear, and great article. :-)

With regards to Asylum Seekers

, with regards to asylum seekers what is the "the absolutely legal right " of same?

Could you frame it against Australian law?

Julian Burnside on language

I'm not a lawyer, but Julian Burnside is, so I refer you to his recent publication regarding 'doublespeak' - as I think it fits very well with the issue of framing and claiming back the language. Link:

I'm sorry Myriad but if you a

I'm sorry Myriad but if you are not a lawyer you should refrain from giving legal opinion.

The link that you gave does not answer the question as to what the "absolute legal right" is, its more an essay on legal jargon. I was hoping for a reference to a known Law.

politely, poppycock

It sounds to me Ms. Wife like you are too lazy to do your own research, and apparently too dismissive to realise that when a QC no less writes a piece in which he says:

"They [asylum seekers] commit no offence under Australian or international law by arriving here without an invitation, in order to seek protection. Nonetheless the Australian Government refers to them as “illegals

Which Law is that Myriad?

Which Law is that Myriad? I am well aware of the power of language as used by legal advocates, but it hardly is an "absolute".

International Law

Doctor's Wife, Try the UN Declaration of Human Rights of which we are are a signatory; several articles are relevant. Or the UN Convention on Refugees - to which we are also a signatory. Check out the report by the Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission of 2000, which found that Australia is in breach of its international legal obligations. Subsequently the Australian Government has denied any relevant UN body entry to inspect our detention facilities. And in terms of the law, the UN Declaration of Human Rights is an absolute.

But you know, mainly what is clear to me is that you don't give a flyink f*ck about the reality of these issues at hand, and are simply trying to derail the discussion on this page.


Thanks for this Lewisa. This discussion of how to communicate and effectively engage is a strong theme for many people at the moment. I reviewed Don't Think Of An Elephant for Webdiary and was surprised at the pot that it stirred up. Under the review there is a large extract from the book.

More on Framing

Thanks for the positive feedback Myriad and Hamish.

In framing is a frequent subject, and contributors to the site hold frequent
'frameshops' on important topics - eg 'frameshop: Iraq'; 'frameshop:
social security'. It would be good to do the same here. and are great.

I think frameshops would work great if they were part of a bigger picture of attracting media attention. I think once we can do that for our campaigns, the framing is the easy part. (I think Margo could come as a great help in terms of giving us tips on getting our issues heard etc.)

Speaking of which, some people have suggested that the site become like - I think that sounds like a great idea - what do you guys think?

Especially if we could use similar campaigns against the 'corporate media' (a frame we can push).

I think it'd be especially useful if we could write to advertisers in the Daily Terror and the Herald Scum here in Melbourne and ask them not to advertise in the papers on the days that Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt write.

This has been effective in the US as companies do not want to get publicly involved in politics, especially if we label those two as racists - I don't know if Piers is as feral, but Bolt certainly is. If we can get people to write/email to these companies (and possibly get involved with their big alertee list) it could be as succesful as moveon's campaign against Sinclair radio's advertisers: (part of I don't know how legal it would be in Australia though, because we don't have the same legal rights as they do.

Just my 2c!

Hey Lewisa

Checked out moveon. It's a good site, but not geared to building a community, more to directing action for its constituents.

I think we can do that here, and discuss, ie build a progressive community. At least I humbly hope so.

Thanks again for a great article, and see you around here often, I hope.

not so familiar with moveon

  • I'm not so familiar with moveon but very familiar with Kos. The Kos community also ran a campaign against Sinclair. Between them, moveon & no doubt other progressive blogs (eg Eschaton's Atrios & Kos usually work closely together, along with MyDD etc.) they dropped Sinclair's share value by 20%.
  • I'd love to see us doing actions like this, reframing debates, and targetting aspects of the right wing noise machine like the Murdoch press via their advertisers to start making a concerted dent in it. The left in this country really needs empowering; and someone has to start doing it outside the parties because for far too long they have dictated the position of the 'other half' of the country to us - and I don't know about you, but I'm damned sick of hearing (for eg) the Labor spokesperson on Immigration parroting virtually the same line as the Liberals. They sure as hell aren't representing my views, and I want to take back my political representation.
  • Ok, I'm ranting, apologies.
  • In sum - I'm with you. I want to be proactive, constructive, on the front foot, setting the agenda, not being dictated to and left powerless. To do this I think we need a site that offers a combination of space to discuss in depth and solidify the diverse opinions on the 'left' into an agreed progressive agenda for action, and a place to identify and drive said actions.
  • I'll go check out the moveon site.
  • resorting to bulleting to try and make this remotely legible

Hi Myriad,

Myriad, I'm not all that familiar with DailyKos, only go there when link to it. But i've read some great stuff like 'fencing' on there. Perhaps you could help us set up a frameshop? I'm not sure how they operate exactly - maybe a chat session?

I thought we could do one for the pro-choice group in Victoria as i've recieved feedback from one of their members about my article.

We could invite them to watch and participate. What do people think?


For those who are interested in learning framing George Lakoff has created a simple how-to page.

sounds good.

I'll get back to you Lewisa. Check out kos right now - there's a frameshop happening in a recommended diary on the right hand side on protest activity. Alas, not a standard Kossian frameshop, but I'll check out some past ones.

haven't tried the chat function on here yet, will let you know tomorrow (it might not work on this computer - firewalls etc.)

Otherwise feel free to drop me an email - presume you get it if you click on my name, if not let me know.

Reframing the debate

Seems to me you've taken whole passages from Lakoff's work and substituted Australian terms for American ones, and passed the work off as your own. How very Churchillian of you.

How about we look at the term 'voluntary' shall we? Exactly how can you reframe this to anything other than a good thing. Doesn't compulsory unionism contravene the UN's charter regards not compelling people into association?

Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 20 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
2. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

Civic awareness

This whole debate about re-framing group values is happening in the natural resource management field as well. The answer seems to lie in over-turning the present single-minded emphasis of decision-makers on 'things' that can be measured and giving equal weight and attention to whatever is necessary to develop co-operative relationships between the 'people' who are trying to manage the things.

We as a nation can't be a 'we' without knowing we share some value or goal in common.

Bring Back Civic Education!
Revitalise the debate about social 'value'.
Help us all become more aware of our rights - and our responsibilities - as social beings.

Happy Easter to us all.

Framing Student Unionism

No it doesn't, unless you are going to argue by the same token that Australia's mandatory voting laws are also a breach, because they compel us to belong to an assocition - ie the Australian democracy.

In reality, no one is compelled to be a member of the student union; what they are obliged to do at present is to pay a fair tithe towards the multitude of services on campus that the unions have been made responsible for. How that came about is pretty chicken and egg - it has grown naturally from the fact that in order to ensure that the services offered are what students want, and that the University support them, a body to speak for student needs is necessary. Hence a union. Any argument that this organic entiwining of the two - advocacy and services - is entirely undermined when you realise that the unions provide services for every student - there is no innate bias against any particular group, which is what Howard et al. is trying to suggest by playing the 'voluntary' card - slyly implying that students are being forced to belong to a political body of particular persuasion. Not so.

They are also deliberately ignoring the ramifications of the actual service loss that is going to occur. In fact, so severe is the affect expected to be that I heard this morning on RN that *liberal* students involved on campus in sports are now frantically trying to work out what their position is, because Nelson's bill will see them lose all funding for their sports facilities! There is even a leaked document that has suggested Nelson's move will result in undermining nationally the standard and recruitment of international-level sportspeople in events such as rowing that rely heavily on universities to recruit from.

But at the heart of this is the Howard government's almost fanatical hatred of unionism, and determination to remove any student advocay, which causes them so much trouble every time they move Australia towards an up-front user pays tertiary education system. Not to mention breeds new opposition leaders. You only have to go and look at Liberal Party spending and maneovering to realise that they have been pouring resources into building up the young liberal movement on campuses, because they have every intention of undercutting any other nascent political persuasions at our universities.

So I would say there is plenty of room to reframe away from the 'voluntary' word, towards 'the Howard government doesn't want students to have a voice, or any minimum level of guaranteed campus facilities and services' - off the top of my head.

Hi Myriad

Hi Myriad,
Don't bother replying to the right winger on student unionism, clearly he/she's a troll and is trying to derail the conversation.

Anyhow, I had a look at the frameshop and it looks interesting. my favourite piece was this:

"...The religious right tends to focus on specific cases featuring specific people. The get the nation whipped into a frenzy over a particular horror story and then right wing talk radio connects the story of the day to their larger world view. They do this in the positive and in the negative. Either they are crusading to save Terry Schiavo from the liberal 'culture of death' or Elian Gonzales from the 'Hate America crowd' - or they are going on endlessly about a school somewhere in California that took a Christmas song out of its winter pageant or a college professor in Colorado who said some things they didn't like. It is all about specifics..."

So its about 'personalising the suffering' it seems. People can relate to personal suffering of other people more than if its just words.

Hamish, if we have a frameshop on the issue of abortion, would it be possible to make like a mini library of frameshop results in the right hand column where we could put the summaries of our results? Because if we just left them in the forum, their is so much other info, it'd get forgotten.

Hi Lewisa

I think your suggestions on all fronts are sound ones.

Apologies for not getting back to you sooner; I haven't forgotten about this, just been a bit distracted. I've also been talking to Jeff Feldman who runs the frameshops over at Kos, and maintains his own frameshop site. He hasn't done anything on abortion yet, but told me he is about to hold a frameshop on the 'culture of life' - so I'm on his mailing list.

I really feel the need to unashamedly learn (rip off!) from him as much as possible, because I think it's important that our first frameshop is successful. I also think that working directly from a progressive American frame on this issue could be very useful to:

1. highlight just how much the extreme right wing are learning from their American counterparts down here (think the recent Franklim Graham tour); and

2. help us quickly and easily look at how the context - flavour if you like - of progressive framing should differ for Australia.

What do you think?

I've also been reading & searching around a fair bit on The Rockridge Institute. I feel like I've yet to have the "aha" moment on just how to run a discussion on framing, even though I understand the concept well.

If you are feeling equipped and champing at the bit, please feel free to take the lead. Don't feel you have to wait for me, there'll be no offense taken. But if you are content to wait, and agree, let's see what we can learn from our American friends.