Australia as a Petri dish for international issues

Anyone who doubts the reach of international issue management need only ask why America’s powerful National Rifle Association is so keen to discredit the effectiveness of gun control 8,000 miles away in Australia.

The NRA has been active in Australia since at least 2000, and just last month they posted a Youtube video attacking Australia’s gun buy-back, which was launched in 1996 after the Port Arthur Massacre in Tasmania, when a lone gunman killed 35 people and wounded another 23.

At the same time Republican Presidential hopeful Ted Cruz was taken to task by the Washington Post’s Fact Checker for falsely claiming that sexual assaults on women in Australia went up significantly after strict gun laws were introduced because they were “unable to defend themselves from being raped.”

So why would Americans care about gun control in Australia and what does it mean for issue managers? One reason is the current US election cycle and the fact that Barrack Obama and Hillary Clinton have both praised Australia’s gun control laws, leading the NRA to argue in its video that introducing an ‘Australian-style gun buy back scheme’ would mean bans and confiscations for American gun owners.

US expert Tim Coombs calls it ‘issue contagion’ – based on the concept that the Internet has the potential to spread issues to new stakeholders and to alter issue prioritisation by affecting perceived risk and likelihood. Coombs says issue managers must employ new methods when diagnosing/prioritising online issue threats. And, as the NRA shows, issue contagion spreads such perceived threats instantly across the world.

Of course gun control is not the only area where Australia is has been the Petri dish for a global issue. Take plain-packaging of cigarettes, which was introduced in Australia in 2012 to reduce smoking rates. Big Tobacco has waged a brutal and relentless campaign around the world to stop the idea spreading, with legal challenges in multiple jurisdictions and funding for four countries – Cuba, Honduras, Indonesia and Dominican Republic – to take Australia the World Trade Organisation.

They argue that plain packaging – which bans flashy logos and attractive colours – is an illegal restraint on trade and an infringement of copyright, although that argument has been rejected by the Australian High Court and very recently by an investment tribunal in Hong Kong. Meantime Britain is due to introduce plain packaging in May, with Ireland and France planning to follow, and other countries keen to reduce smoking reported to be awaiting the WTO decision, due later this year.

Effectiveness is a key plank in any issue management campaign, and that applies to both plain packaging and to gun control. Big tobacco have argued around the world that smoking rates in Australia have not dropped as a result of plain packaging and graphic safety warnings, though local health authorities have a very different view of the data.

However, when it comes to ‘Australian style gun laws’ there is no room at all for debate. In late April this year Australia will mark the 20th anniversary of the Port Arthur Massacre, which led to the buy-back and destruction of over 600,000 guns. There has not been one mass shooting in the subsequent 20 years. Commenting on the prospect of such a policy in the United States, NRA’s Dane Early said: “Americans would go insane with rage. Not going to happen here without a bloodbath.”

Some observers far away from America might think that a ‘mass shooting’ at the rate or more than one every day is already a bloodbath.


About managingoutcomes

Issue and crisis management expert
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