March 2015


Lost for words

By Don Watson
Our politicians have paltry ideas and express them poorly

A study in the United States has revealed that in the first four years of life children of professional parents will hear 30 million more words than children from families on welfare. Even sadder is the finding that, while on average six encouragements are doled out to the well-off child for each discouragement, the welfare child endures two discouragements for every encouragement. The same research found that these startling discrepancies play out in later years when the children exposed to the extra 30 million words outstrip the others in vocabulary, reading comprehension and language development.

We might wonder if most of our political leaders were not raised in very poor families. Take, for example, the new minister for defence. On 10 February, Kevin Andrews went to the Adelaide shipyards to talk about who would build a new fleet of submarines. A Liberal senator from South Australia had told the media that the prime minister promised him, the night before the Liberal Party vote on a leadership spill, that the contract would be decided by “open tender”. Was it really to be an open tender, asked the press?

Like an old player piano with the day’s PMO-approved roll inserted, the minister came forth: “I am the defence minister. I am deciding the way in which we go forward with this, and the way which we’re going forward with this is a competitive evaluation process.”

Receiving no encouragement for this offering, he could only reprise it: “I have … decided the way in which we should go forward with this … was to ensure that there is an evaluation process and one which is competitive.”

Asked again if by these words he meant a “tender”, the minister replied, “I will use the words I choose to use.”

But he seemed to have so few words to choose from. A real pianola might have played ‘Roamin’ in the Gloamin’’, which has a greater array of words and sprightlier ones than the minister managed, and would have answered the question just as well.

Of course, we have come to expect little more than vapid and impenetrable nonsense from politicians doing doorstops and interviews. “This reflects a change made by the prime minister to reflect feedback that he feels is appropriate in terms of the line-up of personnel,” said Steve Ciobo, a government frontbencher, after the prime minister dismissed Philip Ruddock from his job as government whip. “I think this is a good outcome,” he added, for the sake of clarity. Another poor childhood, no doubt.

But surely a speech prepared by the prime minister to save his own political life would reach a higher standard. Nothing Churchillian. We did not expect to have our hearts impaled by poetic insight or lifted to the spheres, and we rather hoped he wouldn’t try. Just something engaging and coherent that would make clear to us what until now has not been clear: what does Tony Abbott believe, what does he hope for, what does he see on the nation’s horizon, how does he imagine leading us towards it? Would he tell us, or should we ask the Institute of Public Affairs? We wanted to see some evidence of a larger mind, if not a larger person.

More than his own political life was on the line when he got up at the Press Club on 2 February. So was our political life. We needed a hint that it need not be mainly blather punctuated by bouts of not very artful Machiavellianism. If ever Abbott was going to rise above the depressing daily scrimmage, it was at this moment. He would reach inside his deeper self and pull out something special – a big question for us to ask of ourselves, a big answer, even a big ambivalence. We wanted a sign that his aggression served a purpose higher than his prejudices or his determination to stop the wily Turnbull backing gently into the limelight.

But no. It was not just that he pitched it no further than the party room or that he never sounded less than parti pris, that in the repetitions, the platitudes and the messages it was a speech with all the hallmarks of a doorstop. What told most against it was the lack of anything even remotely new –
not an idea, not a phrase, not a beat. It was a mountain of commonplaces.

Again and again we were lectured on the need for a strong economy – as if we don’t know this, as if there is no alternative has not been the relentless theme of every government since Whitlam. We were told about difficult decisions, hard choices, great challenges, no overnight solutions: the very phrases the Hawke government piled into the national conversation more than 30 years ago and conscientious speechwriters have struggled to avoid ever since.

Tony Abbott is not the only recent prime minister to fail in the essential business of storytelling. Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard both struggled to find a story half as good as the one told by Bob Hawke and Paul Keating, the Davy Crockett and Jim Bowie of deregulation. As prime minister, Keating wrote a second chapter of the frontier story: a grand and subtle idea for a country that was not only economically strong but blooming in its polyglot identity and zest for the future. The Hawke–Keating reform story had the great virtue of an endlessly expanding, page-turning plot that could encompass both beautiful and bad sets of figures – even recession figures – without losing the thread. It was the easiest of stories to tell and embellish and layer.

John Howard picked up enough of the economic momentum to carry him along for ten years (a task made simpler when Labor decided to leave him to it, while they rowed up a billabong), and kept the motor fuelled with atavistic pragmatism and the burning rubble he made of the finer points of Keating’s vision.

But Abbott’s speech laid bare a man without a story, or the reach of Keating’s mind or the depth of Howard’s common sense. A formidable stormtrooper for the tribe and his own vanities, maybe, but on that day at the Press Club he also looked a bit like a punch-drunk boxer, the narcissist deprived of his accustomed supply.

The “budget crisis” was meant to be his story’s “there is no alternative” starting point: trouble was, for the plot to go anywhere there is no alternative to breaching public trust. And even if their original “crisis” was a real one, and the one Abbott was wafting around at the Press Club was real as well, it’s a dud of a deus ex machina because it’s also a cliché of our neoliberal times. The people don’t hear it as urgent, or even as real.

It seems possible that the biggest of Tony Abbott’s problems is the one for which he can’t be held responsible. He went to the barrel and could find nothing to scrape from it. After Queensland, not even the ancient ritual of calling up the chaos of previous governments seems to work any more. It is as though the people no longer wish to be governed as the governors assume: they will decide what is true and what is trickery. Any bullying will be treated in kind.

After three decades of variously modified and diluted neoliberalism, probably this should not surprise us. A new kind of economy is bound to mean new kinds of voters. The political parties can easily pursue these people with all kinds of innovative ploys and devices, but it’s on language, imagination and the faculties of empathetic understanding that enchantment depends. And to all these neoliberalism is by its nature hostile.

We do not have to dispute the value of the economic reforms to recognise that in the 30-year course of their implementation, in business, bureaucracy, education, the media and politics, we have been force-fed all manner of cant and claptrap, much of it in a language our grandparents would struggle to understand. Kevin Andrews and Steve Ciobo were not speaking some arcane dialect, but standard management English.

Listen all day to the econocrats, bureaucrats, managers, team leaders, educators, political advisers and media smarties, and you will hear next to nothing that suggests that there is any useful knowledge beyond economic knowledge, business knowledge, management knowledge, or any moral prescription that does not lie within their bounds. These are the maxims by which our lives are governed. Do not expect to hear anything from the Western, or any other, canon that might be called “an illumination of the soul”, as Lord Acton called good history. If you want Montaigne and Kant and that sort of stuff, watch The West Wing or House of Cards, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s real.

The problem with neoliberalism is not the emphasis it puts on the economy but rather that it grinds so much else to dust. It is very good at meeting our need to unburden ourselves of the past and make lives of our own invention, but not so good at giving us the material with which to make them. Something more than fodder for that self-regard which surveys show has grown measurably each year since 2000. A “life vivid and intense enough to have created a wide fellow-feeling with all that is human” was George Eliot’s alternative, but don’t tell anyone in a senior position.

We might, however, send the prime minister’s office a copy of that research about kids with words and kids without them. With a bit of cutting and pasting, they should be able to work it into his next crack at a big speech.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

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