Modelling Successful Environment Campaigning – The Lessons of the 2010 Tasmanian Election

May 28, 2010

The Tasmanian election in March created history. For the first time the Greens polled over 20% of the vote in a state wide lower house election and as a result Australia has its first Greens Minister in the new ALP/Greens government.

While the media wallowed in superficial explanations – the Greens had an ‘articulate and electable leader’ and appealed to the mythical ‘middle ground’ they completely ignored the impact of the third party ‘Our Common Ground’ campaign run by Environment Tasmania and The Wilderness Society (ET/TWS) and other community organisations.

In doing so they failed to understand the strategy behind the first environment campaign since the WA Election in 2001 that has influenced the outcome of an election. Before that you have to go back to the 1990 Federal Election. In between times environmental election campaigns have generally failed to gain traction or worse backfired harming the party supporting the environment.

So what made the difference this time?

Without going into the intricacies of the communications planning there are four positive lessons to be drawn from this successful campaign that have relevance to environmental campaigns in the future.

1. Own the Future & Destroy ‘the Wedge’.

The main reason most environmental campaigns have failed in the last 15 years has been ‘the Wedge’ of environment versus jobs splitting progressive voting blocs (blue collar equity voters and university educated post-materialist voters).

‘The Wedge’ is in essence a ‘false choice’ and Australian voters now expect governments to protect jobs AND the environment.

EMC has polled this very question. We asked ‘which of the following statements is closest to your view?

People & Jobs come before the environment and animals (14%)

OR

A strong economy depends on a healthy environment (73%)

The campaign decided from the outset that it wanted to sell a positive message about the future – it wanted a sustainable timber industry that created jobs AND protected Tasmania’s unique native forests.

This appealed to a much wider group of people than the often apocalyptic vision of the future painted by most environment campaigns that the planet will be destroyed.

The success of the labour movement in the twentieth century was predicated on its vision of a better future. Its vision of equality and material prosperity energised its activists and organisations that won government and enacted change. It owned the future and therefore set the political agenda. If the vigour of the labour movement has waned in the last two decades it is because of its success not its failure – it has enacted through legislation or through industrial agreements most of its program.

The green movement has correctly identified the big issues facing the world in the twenty-first century but has failed as yet to convert its thinking on the big issues into a positive vision of the future that embraces and energises the mass of people.

The campaign in Tasmania took the first steps in doing that in a community that had been deeply divided by ‘the wedge.’ If its possible to beat ‘the wedge’ on environment issues in Tasmania its possible anywhere.

2. Set the Agenda and Create the Narrative

Third party campaigns don’t advocate for political parties they advocate for issues. The task is to put the issue on the agenda so that it determines voting intention. This means three things: –

  • Frame the issue in way that has personal relevance for your target voter
  • Develop a problem/solution narrative for the debate
  • Start your campaign early because you can’t set the issues agenda 6 weeks from polling day

‘Our Common Ground’ wanted to end native forest logging. However the wedge of environment versus jobs was so entrenched that we couldn’t campaign on that issue directly.

Nor could we campaign for or against the pulp mill, unpopular as that project was in many parts of the state for the same reason.

But we could campaign on the process of approval for the pulp mill because everyone (even those who support a pulp mill) knew about it and were opposed to it. More than that it allowed the campaign to run on the themes of favours for special interests  (the disliked Gunn’s timber company) and corruption.

This set the agenda around corruption and created our narrative – Tasmania could have its native forests protected and a viable timber industry with secure jobs based on plantation timber. The only thing stopping this was the politicians’ of the major parties who favoured powerful special interests (the timber company logging native forests) at the expense of ordinary Tasmanians and their rights.

As a result of special interest politics and other policy and program stuff-ups the ALP was losing votes. The aim was to tie the Liberals to those policies (which they supported and voted for) so that by default the Labor votes didn’t all travel to the Liberals.

The result was that 5.1% of 12% of votes lost by Labor went to the Greens

3. Build & Run a Professional Campaign

Successful third party campaigning needs to incorporate four elements.

  • Proper voter research to identify issues, frames, narrative and messages
  • A Communications Strategy that clearly establishes target audiences and the frame, narrative and messages to be used by the campaign
  • A budget for both free and paid media that has both the reach and frequency of message delivery to shift votes
  • Internal discipline to stick to the narrative and messages throughout the campaign

These four elements means the starting point for the campaign will be what the voters’ know and think and how they relate to our issues.

To shift voters towards our position we have to understand their starting point and then plot a path to our preferred position

The research ideally needs to be done at 12 months before polling day and the campaign run over that period. It takes that amount of time to engage with voters and put our issues on the agenda

Raising money over a 3 or 4 year period to fight the election campaign is necessary to have enough money to have a significant paid media component to the campaign. Often it is enough for the political parties to know that you have that capability to get movement on policy issues.

The key elements of professional campaigning should be applied to ALL campaigns anyway regardless of whether the goal is an electoral outcome or a policy change that occurs outside of an election campaign.

The Tasmanian campaign had the strategy, the frame, the narrative and the messages and although discipline occasionally wobbled it stuck to the strategy in its paid and free media.

The campaign had also raised sufficient funds to ensure it had the capacity to run an ‘air war’ with TV advertising as well as a free media ‘ground war’.

4. Communicate to the 70% That Support Environmental Protection

National polling indicates that 70-80% of Australians will support campaigns by environment organisations all our key issues. Half of those people regard themselves as ‘strong supporters’.

Unfortunately most environment campaigns use frames and language that appeal to only the tertiary educated group within that support base that make up only  % of the ‘strong supporters’ and % of all supporters.

The Tasmanian campaign strongly targeted the seat of Braddon that has well below the national average of tertiary educated voters. Braddon was the electorate that voted in the extra Green MP at the election.

Activating our strong supporters and keeping our broad supporters onside should not only be the goal of most campaigns it should be the strategic goal of the environment movement.

In the Tasmanian election the ‘us & them’ division was not ‘hippy protestors’ versus ‘ordinary working Tasmanians’ trying to do their job in the face of illegal protests as it had been portrayed in past elections.

It was the ‘the old-style politicians’ doing the bidding of ‘the big timber company’ at the expense of ‘ordinary Tasmanians and their rights.

The campaign thus enlarged the ‘us’ to nearly all Tasmanians and shrunk the ‘them’ to a privileged, out of tough and disliked elite.

In making the tough decision to end the forest protests the campaign made sure that ‘ long-haired greenies’ weren’t the issue during the election campaign. Rather it was our opponents the ‘old-style politicians of the major parties’ doing the bidding of powerful special interests.

Tony Douglas, Director EMC

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