Moving forward, let me say this on working families…
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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