PM's values platform is a two-pronged attack

IF THE Cold War was a clash of ideologies, the new global conflict is about values. In the US, neo-conservatives argue that Western values are threatened by terrorists and postmodernists. In Australia, the Prime Minister, John Howard, argues that better proficiency in English and a knowledge of history and civics are needed to combat a threat to Australian values.

For some time now Howard has positioned his party as the true inheritor of Australian values, winning the votes of many battlers and other Australians.

On Australia Day this year he argued that cultural diversity must give way to an emphasis on Australian values. He repeats this mantra as if unnamed parties strongly disagree with him. In so doing he has created a framework and political agenda in which he is triumphantly, if banally, right.

This values strategy neatly appeals to our desire for security against terrorism and our desire for a cohesive community. That's why comments about Muslims who refuse to integrate or learn English are symbolically powerful and are a coded appeal to Anglo-Celtic workers fearful of globalisation.

The appeal to Australian values is also a textbook example of a strategy outlined in two books being widely read in political circles. One is George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant. The title relates to an exercise Lakoff sets for students when teaching cognitive science at the University of California. He asks his students to do something and adds, "and don't think of an elephant". Not surprisingly, the first thing many students think of is an elephant.

Lakoff's book is about the ascendancy of the right in American politics, which has set a political agenda by articulating a unified, coded discourse, not just particular policies tailored to interest groups. Lakoff argues that if you simply deny an opponent's claims you adopt his discourse in spite of yourself. So when former US president Richard Nixon said on television "I am not a crook", many people thought, "Nixon is a crook".

Lakoff's point is that political leaders are successful when they use words and concepts that reflect a deeper and persuasive framework of values. If their opponent adapts those words, they fight on foreign territory. The central framework for the American right, Lakoff says, is family values. The right argues its case on everything from welfare to foreign policy using a model of the "strict father" who protects and punishes the nation-family.

The framework of the hard-but-fair strict father resonates with the values of many Americans. Rational argument and facts are not enough. "People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest," Lakoff says, "they vote their identity. They vote their values."

This point is also made by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas? Kansas was the historic home of the Populist Party, which stood for ordinary Americans against the elites, especially the banks, yet in Kansas today fundamentalist Christian groups thrive and the Republicans ride high even though their policies lay waste to manufacturing jobs. Values can trump economic interest, Frank argues.

Howard hopes to make values the new battleground in Australian politics. He hopes to emulate the American right's success by getting Australians to ignore his elimination of their union rights and to endorse his version of Australian values.

This zeroes in on Labor's weakness, since Australian values, defined as mateship and egalitarianism, were once Labor's identity. When large numbers of blue-collar workers voted Labor, they voted their identity. Paradoxically, today Howard speaks the language of class and populism.

If Lakoff is right and values are king and voters "vote their identity", can Labor get back into the debate on values? Applying Lakoff locally needs a moral vision based on a big picture that carves out new frameworks and genuinely resonates with popular feelings. It must set an agenda , not trail behind. It won't be easy. Values politics requires political boldness and risk-taking; articulating it means developing a new populist language. But the hardest thing is to identify issues that resonate with sufficient numbers of voters.

Issues such as time poverty, climate change, family values and commercial values may well emerge as the new ideological battleground.

Time poverty crosses the class divide, affecting not only high-powered lawyers but also working families. Unpressured time is needed to build a work/family balance and local communities. Similarly, climate change highlights the values of conservation and caution.

As for family values, allowing conservatives to claim "family values" was never smart politics. Working families with children are already under pressure and will be more so as the new laws on industrial relations begin to bite.

Finally, commercial values. A strong case can be made that the Government consistently puts the values of corporate Australia above the values of ordinary Australians, and residual scepticism towards big business could be tapped.

This could open the door to a fuller debate about Australian values than the limited one both sides of politics have been carrying on so far.