The influence of that little worm Australians were introduced to when the Nine Network started televising political leadership debates is growing. Measuring the immediate public reaction to words is now beginning to dominate the public debate as our leaders embark on their triennial effort to confuse and obfuscate the Australian voting public. We can gauge the findings by listening to the daily grabs on television and for the Liberals the latest in word is fanaticism.

Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull started using it during television interviews on Sunday as in this description of climate change:

Labor is verging on becoming fanatical about this issue in the sense that they do not care how poor we have to become as long as we become pure. I think religion is a very poor guide to public policy.

Mr Turnbull was repeating it again this morning on ABC Radio National:

The problem with Labor is that they have locked themselves into essentially an ideological exercise … Now Kevin Rudd is so determined, he and …Peter Garrett are bordering on fanaticism now. Because they are blind and a fanatic is someone who is obsessed with a particular goal and pays no regard to any of the facts or any other distracting things like reality.

We can expect to hear a lot more about the fanatical Messrs Rudd and Garrett in the weeks ahead, and all thanks to Frank Luntz, the American Republican Party guru famous for stressing the importance of emotional words.

Luntz, a great believer in the power of repetition, is the pollster credited with getting the Bush administration to stop talking about global warming, because the term is frightening to people, and speak instead of climate change which is far less threatening. He described his technique in an interview on PBS television:

I’ve got a certain rule that I always teach my staff: It’s not what you say; it’s what people hear that matters. I may respond to you effectively, but if you edit it in such a way that they only hear the negativity of what I do, then that’s all they’re going to know. And so they’re going to conclude that my profession isn’t an honorable profession. And that’s why how I say it has as much of an impact on what people think of me as what I say.

[Regarding consistency,] there’s a simple rule: You say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and you say it again, and then again and again and again and again, and about the time that you’re absolutely sick of saying it is about the time that your target audience has heard it for the first time. And it is so hard, but you’ve just got to keep repeating, because we hear so many different things — the noises from outside, the sounds, all the things that are coming into our head, the 200 cable channels and the satellite versus cable, and what we hear from our friends. We as Americans and as humans have very selective hearing and very selective memory. We only hear what we want to hear and disregard the rest.

Kevin Rudd has not quite got the Luntzian message though. There was nothing simple this morning when he spoke of climate change being the first ”post-partisan” political issue. Most people would not have a clue what he was talking about with that expression and for a party trying to scare people in to believing that new policies are needed, global warming should be the description of choice. Climate change is for those who want us to believe that things are not really all that serious.

What Mr Rudd might like to appropriate is the phrase ”Healthy Forests” that Mr Luntz tested as being a wonderful way of describing a policy that allows the clear felling of native forests. Labor will surely need something clever if it’s to appease the workers of Tasmania while attracting the environmentalists of the cities.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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