Don’t mention the war
Is it time for the language of battle to be retired from politics?

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Politics has been described as war without blood, and, mercifully, Australian politics has always been blood-free.

This is as it should be; the whole point of politics is to resolve conflicts without spilling gore.

But while the blood is generally avoided, the war is not: politics, along with so many aspects of daily life, is full of it. The vocabulary of that other Australian obsession, sport, is almost entirely devoted to battle, fights, attack and defence, onslaught and massacre.

Two of the favourite (and most misused) words in the lexicon are decimate (which means to kill every tenth soldier) and annihilate (which means to reduce to nothingness).

The war talk in parliament and its commentary is more sparing, and usually more considered.  But during election campaigns, the rules of engagement are stretched: hence the Coalition’s ramping up of what it describes as Bill Shorten’s war on business and growth and jobs and mums and dads, by which they mean that his policy does not include tax cuts for wealthy corporations, preferring to spend the money on health and education. Shock, horror, toxic taxes: it’s not just a war on business and growth, it is more of a war on – well, just about everything.

Under normal circumstances this would be unremarkable: for years we have had similarly hyperbolic claims of war on drugs, war on poverty, war on terrorism, none of which mean anything other than the proponents want the public to take them seriously. But last week there was criticism of this rhetorical belligerence, not so much of the argument itself as of its context.

It was the day the remains of the war dead were, after many long years, being brought back home. It was thought, even expected, that Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten would have broken their campaign schedule to attend the ceremony. They didn’t, and instead Scott Morrison, followed by his prime minister, launched into a tirade abut Shorten and his alleged wars.

The veterans immediately branded the exercise tasteless. They, after all, had been in real wars, and knew what the experience was about, Hence they could do without Morrison and Turnbull indulging in overblown political chatter in the hope of electoral advantage. They felt that a retraction and apology would be appropriate; but they did not get one. Turnbull stuck to his guns, so to speak.  He did not feel the need to explain his references to wars, although both he and Shorten said that they deliberately left the repatriation in the capable of hands of the Governor-General, because they wanted the event not to be politicized – although it is not exactly clear why a bipartisan presence would have caused political turmoil.

The whole skirmish ended in what might be called an armed truce: for a couple of days at least, there was no talk of armed hostilities. But as the interminable campaign wears on, perhaps a little more caution is needed.

It has long been a truism that any mention of Hitler or the Holocaust is strictly taboo, and worse, counterproductive. It may now be time for politicians to heed the advice of that omniscient sage Basil Fawlty: Don’t mention the war.

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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