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How a brochure risked alienating voters

A lesson about messaging from Tasmania’s 2021 state election stresses the importance of avoiding polarisation in your campaign communications…

What is wrong with this message?

CONSIDER THIS. You work for an influential environmental advocacy organisation. An election is coming up. You produce a brochure to convince people to vote for the party you support. You think it offers a stark choice but what it does is position undecided electors as part of the problem. There’s no middle ground, no grey zone between the black and white polarities, no space for those undecided.

Yes or no. For or against. Good or bad. Them or us. Solution or problem. It’s a simplistic binary choice. If you are an undecided voter, how would you feel at being told that if you don’t ‘green your vote’ then you are a problem? A bit insulted?

This is what the Bob Brown Foundation did in its campaign for the 2021 Tasmanian state election in trying to convince people to vote green. ‘Green your vote or be part of the problem’ was the choice in big bold text over a photo of an unlogged forest and a contrasting forest that had been logged.

The Foundation is a respected advocacy with a long and successful track record. It has the support of Tasmanians who want to change how forestry is done in the state. It has political influence. Its encouraging people to vote green implies a vote for the Tasmanian Greens. That is another organisation with a long track record. It is the world’s first green party.

Flip the brochure over and we find what could have been a more convincing message to voters than the binary choice on the other side:

A different electoral strategy: an alternative to the environment focus

‘Imagine if $1 billion had been spent on Tasmania’s hospitals and schools over the past 30 years. Instead, $1 billion dollars has gone to the job-shredding native forest loggers under Labor and Liberal governments’.

Hospitals would have been a strategic choice to highlight because the state’s hospital system—the system, that is, not the staff—has a poor reputation. Hospitals are even more important given the state’s shortage of general practice doctors and the long wait-times to see one. An increasing number of doctors no longer take new patients, forcing people to travel further to find a medical practice. Unable to access a general practitioner at short notice, some may seek medical services in the hospitals.

Despite the potential political leverage of the hospitals issue the authors of the brochure went with the forests. As a party whose origins lay within the environment movement, that makes sense. Greens voters expect environmental messaging to take prime place during an election. Yet, Greens supporters and also potential hospitals users too. With the Greens needing to grow their support beyond the environmental vote, would not a focus on hospitals have widened its appeal?

Forestry a persistent issue

The text goes on to discuss government subsidy of the forestry industry and its impacts on wildlife. It raises the point that forestry as currently practiced and government handouts to the industry stand in contradiction to maintaining the natural systems that sustain Tasmania’s biggest industry and a lot of the state’s jobs — tourism.

Tasmanians are deeply divided when it comes to the natural environment. Opinion is polarised and there is not much grey space between the extremes. We can trace this back to the emergence of the environment movement in the 1970s when the fate of Lake Pedder was the campaign focus. Other campaigns followed… the Franklin River, the forests… and they pitted a growing environment movement against residents of rural towns fearful of losing their jobs. The movement grew over the decades following the Pedder campaign. The Tasmanian Greens went national with the Australian Greens that offered a voting alternative in the federal sphere when it came to a range of issues. The difference with the Tasmanian situation was the scale of environmental attitude that left a lot of grey space between the extremes where negotiation could take place.

Financial management, jobs and the natural environment are themes that ring bells in the Tasmanian electorate. Jobs, especially in rural areas, are the carrot that successive governments have dangled in front of voters come election time. Perhaps the Foundation could have played up its allegation of how the forestry industry is shedding jobs and promoted its ideas on how the industry could be restructured to yield both jobs and economic benefit to the state without trashing natural environments. Why were those things not concisely encapsulated on the front of the brochure instead of what the Foundation presents voters with — a simple, stark statement telling them that if they don’t vote the way the Foundation says, then they are a problem. That message in big bold text is what people see first, not the message about subsidies and jobs—the substance of the issue. How many people got past the first message to read the smaller text on the flip side? I would have expected a more sophisticated approach by the foundation.

The message here is when it comes to wording advocacy material, try to bring people along with you rather than situate them as a problem. The Tasmanian electorate is already polarised around environmental issues and there is no clear purpose in an environmental organisation engaging in its own polarisation by typecasting voters. The Bob Brown Foundation already has the support of those its message resonates with. Don’t take them for granted. Retain their support and focus on bringing along the undecided. That is how you build your numbers and advocacy power. That is how you win elections.

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Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.