The one super phrase in a budget full of babble
The genius who first used the word “super” to describe the mining profits targeted by the Rudd government in its plan to return the budget to surplus should be given a promotion and a pay rise. Then the government should go out and hire another half dozen people with a similar flair for plain language.
The Resources Super Profits Tax is a rare example of a self-explanatory policy. It not only accurately describes the nature and spirit of the plan, but is infused with political clout. The underlying message is that “super profits” are somehow morally objectionable, compared to the regular kind. The National Health and Hospitals Network, by contrast, is a vague umbrella term for some health reforms.
But just how rare it is to find clarity in government communication is evident from the federal Budget. It is, as usual, filled with technocratic babble. Things aren’t bought, they are procured. Programs don’t end or stop, they are terminated. There is never a cut, but funding is reduced.
Words are not used to explain decisions, but throw a haze around them. This is anti-language.
That this is the hallmark of how modern governments communicate bad news is nothing new. But the clarity and force of the phrase “super profits tax” stands out in the Budget babble.
There it is on the list of government savings. Item one: “Introduction of Resource Super Profits Tax”. Total: $12 billion.
It’s clear and simple. But in government papers, gobbledegook is to clarity what night is to day and sure enough, the anti-language returns on the very next line. “National Health and Hospitals Network - Prevention - increasing the excise and excise-equivalent customs duty on tobacco products.” Total: $4.98 billion.
Three words would have been enough: tobacco tax increase. Somehow it turns into something to do with hospitals and excise-equivalent customs duty.
It seems there is a policy of breaking the second rule of writing in George Orwell’s celebrated essay Politics and the English Language, and always using a long word where a short one would do.
Another saving in the budget is a $1 billion item on Overseas Development Assistance. Under the heading “A good global citizen” the government explains this cut in the Budget Overview paper as follows: “Overseas Development Assistance funding over the forward estimates has increased by $1.3 billion since the 2009-10 Budget. Delayed flow through to ODA of methodology changes for calculating GNI will result in savings to the budget of $1 billion over four years. The Government remains on track to reach an ODA/GNI ratio of 0.5 per cent in 2015-16.”
The detailed entry is even more bewildering. Here it is, exactly as it appears in the Budget papers. Behold:
As a fully literate nation, all adults in Australia are assumed to be able to read and write well enough to cope with the demands of daily life. But if there was a measure of what might be called civic literacy – the percentage of citizens able to understand the flow of execrable tosh that passes as the government’s statement of what it is doing – it could probably be counted on one hand, taking away a thumb.
Anyone who thinks this is an acceptable state of affairs needs to terminate their program of staged ingestion of coffee topped with ungulate excretion and decouple their cranium from their posterior.
Of course some policy is complex and difficult for all but experts to understand, and therefore hard to communicate. But dense language is used tactically too, and becomes about diversion and trickery.
It starts at the top. There are some excellent communicators in the Cabinet like Julia Gillard and Lindsay Tanner. But Rudd hardly sets an example in explaining the government’s plans in simple terms. A recent example is last week’s attempt to explain the super profits tax on WA radio:
Well a Super Profit will be defined as if you’ve got a company which is earning, which is investing a certain amount of money, what you’re then to do is to deduct their expenses, what you’re then to do also is deduct further, the amount of money which would be calculated if, for example, they were investing their funds in long term bond markets. In other words, what would constitute a reasonable rate of return on investment.
What’s puzzling about Rudd is how his language can swing so wildly from folksiness to the combative directness he displayed on the 7.30 Report last night, to kind of babble he slipped into trying to explain the super profit. With his unpredictable language moods, who knows, it could well be Rudd who came up with the “super profits” term one day and failed to explain it the next.
There is a fascinating distinction between Rudd and Tony Abbott in how they use language. Rudd tends to use it as a smokescreen. Abbott wields it like a club.
But in government, would Abbott be any different? Governments become captives of their bureaucracies but also, as the Budget papers show, of their own fear of what it might mean to level with people.
In 2007 when John Howard announced his emissions trading scheme, news.com.au ran the story under a headline that used the term “carbon tax”. There was irate call from Howard’s office. The conversation went something like this.
The headline used the word tax, but the emissions trading scheme was no such thing. It was wrong and should be changed.
I replied that money from the permits would be revenue for the government. Wasn’t this the common definition of a tax?
“It’s not a tax.”
Where does the revenue go then?
“It goes into the cost of running the scheme,” I was told. “It’s not a tax.”
One election and three Liberal leaders later, the ETS is now political road kill, due in large part to its characterisation as a tax by Howard’s successor.
Such are the linguistic swings and roundabouts of public debate. The government calls it a market-based mechanism for reducing carbon emissions. The opposition calls it a Great Big New Tax on Everything.
We know who won that debate.
Selling the super profits tax, as Leo writes today, is a fight Rudd has picked and must now win. He has a good start in its title, but its clarity should be a benchmark for a future with less waffle and more open language from governments.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…