In his recently released book, The Assault on Reason, Al Gore pinpoints the rise of television as underpinning the eclipse of reasoned debate in politics. Symbolism and soundbites trump complex arguments.
This has no doubt been one of the reasons why the science on climate change took so long to cut through to public awareness – climate change is neither a simple phenomenon nor are the solutions lacking in complexity.
Gore writes that he himself found it useful to employ striking visual images to illustrate the dimensions of the danger facing the world. It’s only been since films such as The Inconvenient Truth have gripped the public mind, and since people have been able to experience different weather patterns that the issue has gained political salience and now, urgency.
It’s interesting, then, to consider how the televisual politics of the climate change response is playing out in an election year. While acres of newsprint will be sacrificed to debating the intricacies of carbon trading and the PM’s report, swinging voters, as research shows they always do, will get most of their information from TV news.
In light of this, it was astonishing that John Howard chose a partisan forum, the Liberal Federal Council, to launch his climate-change message. Back in the day, Liberal strategists knew that vision of Paul Keating shouting in Parliament played very negatively on the nightly news.
Addressing a large meeting inevitably makes a pollie sound shrill on TV. Howard looked, and sounded, every inch the politician on the news last night. And it didn’t help that his message was wrapped up in attacks on Labor, and then diluted by reported rumblings about his own leadership.
Queensland viewers immediately saw Peter Beattie talking conversationally in a university seminar room, promising $400 million towards climate-change research and emissions reduction. The contrast with the PM couldn’t have been greater. Beattie spoke calmly, and referred to immediate and concrete steps his Government would take. Howard looked like a politician in trouble, asking voters to trust him.
Much of the residue of trust he played on in 2004 has been lost through WorkChoices and four interest-rate rises.
Howard may argue that it’s more reasonable to announce targets after the election. But when voters hear 2008 and 2012 it only reinforces the “too little, too late” message of his opponents. And the permanent campaign visuals undercut the argument.
Rudd’s use of TV demonstrates a much more voter-friendly approach. His soundbites are usually conversational in style, and the venue is usually a park or a lake or some other suburban spot. He presents as a leader wanting to engage ordinary folk, not as a politician delivering a desperate campaign message. Perhaps, Howard has all his climate-change TV eggs in the advertising basket?