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Changing the story: Narration and framing in regulation and governance

5th November 2019

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Mark Kenny came to the Australian National University after a high-profile journalistic career culminating in 6 years as chief political correspondent and national affairs editor of The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, and The Canberra Times. He is a fixture on the ABC's Insiders program, Sky News Agenda, and is a sought after commentator on radio programs across the country. Before Fairfax, Kenny was political editor at The Advertiser having moved across from the ABC.

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by Mark Kenny

In the once separate fields of politics and governance, the narrative is everything. Perhaps more. Mark Kenny from the Australian Studies Institute looks how the government controls the storyline across Newstart, refugees and the Uluru Statement from the Heart and concludes it is the ‘back story’ that lends the government legitimacy.

Armed with the right story, taxes can be cut for the wealthy, soldiers deployed in far flung lands, schools and hospitals shut or expanded, and carbon taxes levied or axed. For governments the narrative line is at once key and crow bar.

Key, because it can unlock the chains of public resistance to a particular policy or initiative, and can even help to build majority support among voters.

And crow bar, because it can be also used to bash the opposition, to render opponents, stupid, stubborn, self-interested, and even unpatriotic.

Examples abound.

Momentum towards an increase in the Newstart allowance (the dole) has come from across the political spectrum with the Business Council of Australia joining welfare groups, market economists, and political parties of left and right (Labor, Greens, and some Nationals) in urging the increase.

On the face of it, that breadth portends real power. It is quite uncommon to see the business lobby actively engaging in the political fray and doing so on the other side from the government.

Even during the Turnbull Government’s ill-fated fight to convince the parliament to cut company taxes, the biggest direct beneficiaries of the proposal – large companies – were muted in their public positioning, perhaps worried about appearing too self-interested, but also no doubt, keeping their powder dry in order to maintain some kind of relationship with the other side of politics.

This drove then Treasurer Scott Morrison to distraction – as it has when firms have soft-pedalled their support for industrial relations reforms from which they might also directly benefit.

The company tax cuts campaign – and indeed the government’s Colonel Custer-like last stand to defend the banks against a royal commission – are examples of the narrative line failing to support government policy.

The argument that big companies - who most voters believe already avoid paying their fair share of tax - should actually be given a big financial break and that this cash would somehow wind up in ordinary peoples’ wallets, was unconvincing – or perhaps better described as uncompetitive given the pre-existing and dominant narrative of company greed and the Liberal Party’s historical support for capital over labour.

Back to the dole.

Read the full blog post on The Power to Persuade.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet