Australia is one of the most multi-ethnic societies on earth. As a result, we are living in a kaleidoscope of different cultures and different languages. Among these is one which has always been around.

Ever since democratic politics emerged, and expanding rapidly in recent years, politicians have developed a distinctive language of their own: pollie-speak. This is especially evident among Ministers, but all politicians have learnt to use it.

It is an unusual language. Other languages have developed as a means for people to communicate with each other, with reasonable clarity. Pollie-speak, however, seems to be designed not to communicate but to obfuscate: to make communication unclear, unintelligible, or bewildering.

There are many aspects to pollie-speak. Spin has become one which is universal: an attempt at presenting information in a way designed to produce a favourable reaction in the minds of the voters.

Another aspect is the increasing use of brief slogans. Think of “working families”, “moving forward”, and “great big new tax”. Constant repetition seems to be necessary for these. But what do they mean? What do they communicate? Essentially an attempt at a positive emotion, which the pollie-speaker hopes will generate the right sort of reaction among the voters.

What can be called back-protecting is a growing component of pollie-speak from Ministers. Increasingly an answer to a question which contains any suggestion that it may be even a tiny bit controversial is prefaced by the statement “My advice is …” or “ I have been advised that…”.

This allows the Minister, if subsequent events turn out in a way which is not favourable to the Minister or the Government, to lay the blame with the advisers, minders and public servants.

An interesting tactic for pollie-speakers is to use whatever means are available to avoid answering a question in a direct way. For example, answer the question with another question. Criticise the reporter who asked.

Increasingly there is a trend for the Pollie-speaker to launch into a monologue which not only evades the question, but ends with the reporter simply giving up.

One recent example was a Minister, who should have been able to give a simple yes or no answer, with no need for embellishments, proceed with an answer which started with “our government has always put the welfare of the Australian people at the forefront”, and went on and on and on. The question was never answered.

A classic case of pollie-speak is when a politician states that he or she was “taken out of context”. There would be less use of this, or a need for it, if the context was made clear from the beginning.

When the former Finance Minister, Lindsay Tanner, produced what seems to have developed into a long line of ministerial post-retirement books, he focused on Dumbing Down Democracy, and leveled most of the blame on the media. This is an unfair claim. Journalists and reporters, faced with pollie-speak, have difficulty in communicating what was said by a politician to the voters as, more often than not, nothing was said.

Voters expect to receive partisan bias from most politicians. Many have learnt to judge the level of bias, and to assess what credibility should be accorded to the speaker. But pollie-speak is a different matter. As this language permeates more and more, the electorate could benefit from a parallel translation service, as occurs in meetings of the United Nations.

If this language trend continues, the day will come when a pollie-speaker begins with the phrase “Let me just say…”, and the audience reacts with a unanimous and ringing answer: “No thank you”.

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37 comments

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    • Simon Black says:

      06:02am | 07/07/11

      Kudos to the reporter in that clip for not cracking up. It must have been hard. I would have been in hysterics after the 12th repetition. And he said everything with the earnest expression of an 8-year-old explaining his love for dinosaurs.

    • acotrel says:

      08:02am | 07/07/11

      I wonder who operated that pollie’s play/record button? ‘Strikes are wrong’ but workers have the right to organise their labour!

    • Thomas Anderson says:

      08:37am | 07/07/11

      You know, we only have ourselves to blame. Kids entering the workforce today quickly learn that to be deemed normal, you have to talk non stop about some idiotic subject or another and answer questions with whatever comes to mind, as long as it is a quick answer.

      If we saw a pollie being asked a question, we wouldn’t like it if he remained quiet for a second, thinking about how to answer it properly, we expect an answer straight away, even if that answer does not say anything material.

    • Tom says:

      01:10pm | 07/07/11

      The loaded judgemental nature of the media’s questioning causes a lot of the problem.
      “Is it true Minister that you hate children?”. “No I love children. My wife .... “. “So, you don’t feel any remorse about putting vulgar dollars ahead of the weakest most vulnerable members of our society.

      Too many reporters are out there trying to shock and overstimulate the public. Then there is media entrapment, “Pollie throws money in middle class welfare.” or “Pollie takes food of children’s tables.” wher both answers are wrong.

      We all laugh at acetrol and chongy’s over the top stuff but they at least know they are hamming it up. The problem starts when a reporter, who should aim to be taken seriously, does this sort of attention seeking stuff but disguises their intent with semi-plausible language.

    • hot tub political machine says:

      02:41pm | 07/07/11

      Thomas Anderson,

      I have to say, where I an MP - I’d probably be boycotting the press by now. I’d ask them if they had any questions about policy, to which they would inevitably say “No. Also, what do you think of Mark Latham?” and then I would leave.

    • Peter says:

      07:28am | 07/07/11

      By giving long-winded, confusing and ambiguous answers, politicians are then able to claim that they were misinterpreted if it turns out that they were lying.
      They have been allowed to get away with this because the vast majority of voters are apathetic.
      Politicians know that the glib catch-phrases are what resonates with voters and remains in their memory.
      The constant repetition of these phrases serves to brainwash the gullible.

    • Fiddler says:

      07:41am | 07/07/11

      To a great extent it is the fault of the media. Tony Abbott made an exceptionally honest comment about if you put me on the spot with a question I may give an answer which isn’t the best and was lampooned as “Phoney Tony” in the media. He should have been applauded for his honesty.
      Reporters need to start saying “Enough of the crap, answer the question”. That would make for far more interesting reporting

    • James Ricketson says:

      08:26am | 07/07/11

      Yes, it may be impolite to interrupt but when a public servant (which is what politicians are) is simply evading a question by whatever means he or she chooses to employ, it is not impolite for a reporter to interrupt and say, “Please answer the question.” If enough journalists do it, perhaps the penny will drop for these chronic obfuscaters!

    • acotrel says:

      09:28am | 07/07/11

      ’ if you put me on the spot with a question I may give an answer which isn’t the best and was lampooned as “Phoney Tony” in the media. He should have been applauded for his honesty.’

      I just checked my calendar to see if today is April the 1st !

    • fml says:

      09:39am | 07/07/11

      So being honest about lying is considered being honest?

      Dont listen to what i say unless its written down? why dont we just muzzle him then?

    • Rose says:

      10:02am | 07/07/11

      How about the expectation that Abbott would know enough about the topic he is discussing to not need to make up bullshit on the spot. What he admitted in that is that if he doesn’t have something concrete to say he’ll say anything. I would much prefer a politician who was honest enough to say “I don’t know the answer but I’ll find out and get back to you” rather than one who is prepared to say whatever is handy at the time. Alternatively a politician who shuts the hell up and lets someone who does know what they’re talking about speak!
      This is applicable to all politicians, not just Abbott. I’m just sick of hearing what they think I want to hear rather than being told the truth!

    • Brian Taylor says:

      07:45am | 07/07/11

      yeah agree with you there Dean, many times have watched a pollie being asked a simple question which a yes or no would have done as an answer only for the pollie to go on and on about nothing, really gets up my nose.
      why don’t all reporters put a stop to it?
      they do have the power to do so, if every reporter refused to even speak with a pollie unless that pollied was upfront about what they wanted to talk about, you just might be able to change the way things have become.
      in saying that, pollies would no doubt come up with another way of not answering the question.
      its no wonder people rate pollies lower than pros.

    • iansand says:

      08:56am | 07/07/11

      You are forgetting the symbiotic relationship between politicians and journalists.  Journalists need access to politicians to produce stories.  Politicians need journalists to get their message out.  If either side goes beyond well understood boundaries vital access may be denied.  So we have the charade of interviews where politicians are allowed to waffle because journalists are afraid that there will be no further access to the politicians of that side of politics.

    • Kath Grant says:

      05:16pm | 07/07/11

      I was listening to a local ABC radio show a few months ago while an MP was being interviewed.  The host pointed out that had not answered the question and asked again, only to get the inevitable ‘well may I just say this ... ‘. 
      I counted seven ‘you haven’t answered the question/well may I just say this’ before I turned the radio off.
      To my mind the politician’s answers translated to ‘None of your listeners have the intelligence to realise that I am bullshitting anyway, so it hardly matters’.
      In this case a simple yes or no would have been appropriate.

    • Australia going backwards says:

      07:55am | 07/07/11

      Of course we have to be moving forward, we wouldn’t want the public to be thinking of all the things this government had stuffed up, from border protection, to its solution, to cattle ban, lies, blown budget, etc

      If people start looking backwards, the primary vote of this government would only include the public servants and dole bludgers

    • acotrel says:

      09:32am | 07/07/11

      Is the next conservative government going to spend on infrastructure?  Won’t that be great? - A great big new first!

    • fml says:

      09:40am | 07/07/11

      You wouldnt happen to be a liberal supporter, no?

    • Australia going backwards says:

      10:44am | 07/07/11

      No I voted for Kevin Rudd, but if you are not partisan, you would have to admit that this government had stuffed up a lot.

      Lying, changing laws and then changing them back, this government probably passed its use by date a year ago, and is heading down the path of the NSW ALP

    • RyaN says:

      10:46am | 07/07/11

      @acotrel: hopefully, once they pay off this record debt that Labor has left with nothing to show for it. Do show us what infrastructure Labor has delivered for that complete waste of our taxpayer dollar, was it the 1 x 2m building that cost 1.2 million dollars to build and is completely useless?
      The opposition when coming to power will have to screw up something unbelievable to even come on par with these Labor dropkicks.

    • Tator says:

      07:50pm | 07/07/11

      Alcotrel,
      http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2011/07/04/3260815.htm sort of indicates that the ALP didn’t get their infrastructure priorities right either.  You also have to remember that the Constitutional responsibility for infrastructure actually lays with the State Governments, which between 2001 and 2008 were all ALP Governments and the majority up until early this year were still ALP with a Federal ALP Government throwing funding around like there is no tomorrow at economically unproductive school halls and gyms and still there is massive infrastructure issues with water and power which in NSW and Queensland are government owned.

    • Danny B says:

      08:35am | 07/07/11

      I’d like to refer to the Yes, Prime Minister season two episode ‘Official Secrets’ in relation to this.  There’s a scene in which the Prime Minister gives his personal secretary, Bernard, six different approaches for dealing with unwanted questions.  I can’t quite remember them off the top of my head, but it was quite instructive at the time.

      Maybe a refresher is in order…

    • BobC says:

      08:38am | 07/07/11

      You only have to watch Questiontime in Parliament to confirm what Dean Jaensch (one of South Australia’s, and Australia’s most respected political commentators) is saying. It has become an exercise in fillibuster and sheer hypocriscy which is reflected in the public’s frustration in the current political climate .

    • jay-ded says:

      08:46am | 07/07/11

      You mean pollies used to be different?  They actually said something in the past that people could understand?  Don’t believe it for a minute.  You can sit down and watch any interview with any politician and listen to them babble on for hours without actually saying anything.  Rudd used to be especially good at it when he was on that silly morning news show with Mel and Koshie.

    • Zach says:

      09:22am | 07/07/11

      Seems Orwell got it wrong, newspeak wont be shorter and more targeted, it will be longer and unreadable

    • Jolanda says:

      09:27am | 07/07/11

      This pollie speak is not just limited to when they are speaking to media or the public.  This is the way that they deal with all issues and formal complaints. 

      They respond to complaints with things like “I have been advised or I understand that the matter has been dealt with and is closed.  I hope this satisfies your enquiry”.  You respond by saying that the person who provided them with the advice that the matter has been dealt with is the person whom is being complained about the information that they are providing us untrue and that you can provide them with evidence to prove it.  They don’t respond because the matter is closed and because you write again the person about whom you complain presents that you have been deemed vexatious and they put you on a list to not be responded to and there is nothing that you seem to be able to do.  Procedural fairness and natural justice doesn’t exist.

      We have a society that is angry and feels cheated because our Government is full of shit.  It is as easy as that and they protect those who bully,  abuse and fail in their duty of care.  They are only interested in protecting their own reputation and position of power.  Until there is somewhere for people to go to fairly and independently get grievances or formal complaints against Government Department dealt with and resolved then we will continue to be fed shit and our Government will continue to treat us with contempt.

      Education – Keeping them Honest
      http://jolandachallita.typepad.com/

    • James Ricketson says:

      08:59pm | 07/07/11

      Jolanda

      I’ve had precisely this same experience with various government departments and presume that there must be a hand-book somewhere that is handed out to public servants that recommends how to deal with questions they do no wish to answer: (1) Ignore all correspondence for as long as possible, (2) If the questioner persists, hand the problem onto someone else who can write a letter along the lines of “the matters to which you refer have been extensively canvassed and, given the limited resources of this department, we feel that there is nothing to be gained from further communication regarding this matter.” I’ve recently received a letter from a senior bureaucrat about whom I wished to make a complaint in which she directed me to that part of the organization’s website relevant to making a complaint. There I discovered that the person who would adjudicate my complaint was the person about whom i was making the complaint - the same person who had directed me to this part of the website. Truly Kafkaesque. Or Monty-Pythonesque. ‘Yes Prime Minister’ was not a comedy. It was an early example of Reality TV!

      I’m writing an article about this sort of thing if anyone has any stories of this kind to share.

      jamesricketson@gmail.com

    • Harquebus says:

      09:33am | 07/07/11

      Let me say this, only wankers use that Flash crap on this site.

    • RyaN says:

      10:48am | 07/07/11

      @Harquebus: no only crApple wankers complain about Flash because their substandard pieces of crap don’t support it.

      Its YOUTUBE harquebus, get a real computer.

    • Dan says:

      09:43am | 07/07/11

      Pollies are doing very well what they have been taught by the so-called ‘media trainers’. The irony is that most of these trainers are themselved ex-journalists, many with Press Gallery experience.

    • Small Al says:

      09:56am | 07/07/11

      I hear that Darren Lockyer has been recently moonlighting as Julia Gillard’s speech writer….

    • Hammond says:

      10:24am | 07/07/11

      Youz gon get culturally enriched! With crime, murder, idiocy and degeneracy!
      You love dat here diversity, Anglosphere?

    • Matt says:

      10:55am | 07/07/11

      And when the pollie-speak does fail there’s always remaining silent while staring and nodding like a maniac.. Just ask Mark Riley.

    • Dazeddazza says:

      12:05pm | 07/07/11

      What about replies to emails?  I have recently sent 5 emails to different politicians, including the prime minister, in relation to the 3 Labor Senators voting against the Fair Indexation Bill in the Senate, thereby depriving ex service men and women pensioners of a little extra, to perhaps equal pensions received by those on the Old Age Pension.  I received one reply, not pollie-speak from a Liberal Senator.

    • The righteous one says:

      12:27pm | 07/07/11

      what did you expect?  Its ok for them to send you into harms way and that you will probably spend the rest of your’s and your families lives trying to deal with the crap you witnessed, but you want support as well.  hang on we will come to your funeral with our cameras if you die on active service.  Isn’t that enough looking after? What you want more?

      Lord knows you all deserve it. I’m sorry the people we elected didnt see it that way. I certainly did.

    • Leigh says:

      12:35pm | 07/07/11

      If we don’t understand them, we shouldn’t be voting for them. Unfortunately, we are a politicaly illiterate people who don’t understand democracy and the power it gives us. Most voters wouldn’t listen critically – if they listen at all – if politicians suddenly started speaking clearly and honestly.

      We deserve the politicians we get: that’s why we have the current lying, secretive and incompetent yobs in Canberra and state capitals.

    • Julia is a Liar says:

      01:50pm | 07/07/11

      Leigh

      We understood Gillard, she said no to a Carbon tax, and look where that got us?

    • graham says:

      06:58pm | 07/07/11

      Dean.. Why do you question that which you have condoned for so many years? I know you. That which you now doubt has been your bread and butter for decades. You know that gillard is right, and you know that Abbott is wrong. Why do you not say so. You were once so loveably believeable. How did they get to you.  Gillard has an answer for which she is prepared to be held accountable.  Abbott has no answers, just criticism. And that is sad, isn’t it ? Probably not, from your new point of view.

 

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