Applying lessons: the way we talk about the TPP

Anyone who knows me in offline life has heard me raving about the awesomeness of Anat Shenker-Osorio this week. She was on Q&A yesterday (video requires Flash, sorry) and she’s been talking to a lot of union folk about how we communicate our ideas and what we need to change.

One of her messages is that facts aren’t enough. Evidence doesn’t work. Consider how the overwhelming evidence, across the world, is leftwing governments = economic prosperity and rightwing governments = economic bad times. If people voted based on evidence, our job would be done. They don’t. There are more factors in play. (And as the left, we really shouldn’t be surprised that people aren’t pure rational economic automata.)

I’ve been thinking about this and reading reactions to the TPP announcement. We’re worried because we don’t know the detail. We’re concerned because the estimated returns are so damn low. We have plenty of evidence that this is going to be bad for New Zealand. So why is it considered inevitable that it’ll be ratified without much fuss?

It illustrates a wider challenge for the left: re-tooling our thinking away from the surety that we’re the good guys and people are rational and therefore telling them the facts about how good we are will work!

will ferrell science

But facts alone don’t sway people. And even if they did, facts aren’t immutable, objective things. We’re all political nerds around here and gods know we love to have arguments about whether mean household income or median weekly wage is the technically-best way to sell the issue that people are underpaid. Your average voter, who doesn’t have time nor inclination to get knee-deep in gritty statistics, won’t engage with that.

Your average voter – who doesn’t understand GDP (*I* don’t understand GDP and I’m way nerdier than average) who doesn’t have perfect recollection of all our previous trade agreements (*I* barely remember any of them) and who probably operates on the basis that our leaders must at least sorta know what they’re doing – isn’t going to erect barricades in the streets over a disappointing Treasury forecast.

The It’s Our Future campaign has done a great job mobilising and organising opposition to the TPP. They’ve done it by saying this is a secret deal which will hurt New Zealand, our environment and Pharmac (I’m willing to bet most people don’t know how Pharmac works either, beyond “it’s a system that pays for my medicine”.) They’ve appealed to our gut – secrecy sounds sneaky; corporations don’t have our best interests at heart; we’re a special little nation and we have to protect our future.

There’s detail in there as well, but the core statements aren’t about plain, arguable facts. Yet a lot of us are hung up on them. And so people see Tim Groser shrugging, “It’s not perfect but we did our best and we’ll make it better down the line” and the opposition replying “Well the devil’s in the detail.”

Saying “the devil’s in the detail” really only reinforces that overall, it’s a good deal. It emphasises that our objections are nitpicking technical weirdo political nerd objections – not important ones which normal people would care about.

30 rock nerd rage

There are probably reasons for that beyond a simple failure to have read everything Anat Shenker-Osorio has ever written. There may be disagreements within the Labour Party which make it impossible for Andrew Little to just stand up and say “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this free trade agreement!” There may be people who actively want to encourage a little ambiguity, or hope this issue will go away if they don’t make too much fuss about it. I don’t know, and unlike certain rightwing folk who get columns in the NBR, I shan’t pretend to know.

taylor swift wink

But it’s an interesting study in how we talk about issues that we do genuinely want people to be engaged with. People need a reason to be engaged – and a big pile of facts or a long technical argument won’t do the trick.

What do you reckon?

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