Say it like you mean it
Our leaders need to spend more time considering their words
It is possible, in these seeming end-times, to develop a sense of nostalgia for the formal, boring language of politics as it was once practised, not that long ago.
Donald Trump’s tweets about “Little Rocket Man” – also known as Kim Jong Un – tend to induce in me a sharp yearning for the tedious obfuscations of what has become accepted diplomatic language. Back when other American presidents would condemn in the strongest possible terms the reckless missile tests of North Korea, you knew where you stood. It wasn’t an ideal place to stand – it would be far better if North Korea were not testing anything – and you were liable to be sent to sleep by words you had heard hundreds of times before. But as a citizen, you understood there was a code the politicians were using to signal to each other, and that that code, by delicately masking actual opinions, was doing some of the work of diplomacy. It was keeping catastrophe at bay.
That’s diplomacy, which has raised the art of obliquely expressed intentions to its highest form. But it exists in politics, too. Again, Trump has been doing his best to shatter it, so that whenever an American tragedy or an event of global significance occurs, you find yourself eagerly-slash-nauseously awaiting his jagged-glass response. When Trump responded to Republican Roy Moore’s election loss in Alabama last week by congratulating his rival, Doug Jones, on a “hard fought victory”, saying “a win is a win”, it was jarring, because it reminded us all of the typically anodyne language used by most politicians. It was a brief glimpse of a world just past.
It’s a funny feeling, to be mildly pining for something that, really, is not that great. We find ourselves able to skim over most of the language used by most politicians because we know that it is devoid of thought and personality. Trump’s language is often devoid of thought, but there’s no denying it offers you a window into his personality.
An example of this more traditional approach, with its attendant lack of thought, occurred last night, when Malcolm Turnbull tweeted about the death of Florence Bjelke-Petersen, widow of former Queensland premier Joh. “After her long life of public service we say thanks to Lady Flo. Rest In peace”, tweeted the prime minister. All of which would have been fine – by all means, praise the recently departed – except that it was followed by “Joh and Flo devoted their lives to Queensland and its success and dynamism owes so much to their vision and leadership”.
The PM’s decision to include Flo’s husband, and praise his “vision and leadership”, is the problem here. You can argue over who brought economic success to Queensland, but there is no denying that Joh governed over the most corrupt government Australia has had in modern times (and perhaps ever). In recent years more allegations about his own role in that corruption have been brought to light. And there have been claims of pretty horrific beliefs and behaviours.
This is not a hugely significant moment in Australian politics. I doubt Turnbull has a deep-seated love for Joh. Neither do I think it was some attempt to rewrite history. Far more likely is the explanation that Turnbull, or his office, was simply doing what many politicians do when someone once-important dies: issuing boilerplate prose to note the moment.
You can understand how something like this occurs. Prime ministers are expected to formally mark a million occasions these days, and the ease of communications means that it is hard to excuse a decision not to do so. As such, leaders and their staff have to approve many thousands of words each week. That was always the case, but just as the demand for content is greater throughout the media, the demand that the PM play his role in providing that content is greater, too.
But I’m raising it because the tendency it speaks to, of language tragically disconnected from genuine meaning or feeling, is rife, and not just in tweets. I wrote earlier this week about the fact that both Turnbull and Bill Shorten come across as political above all else, a perception that comes from a dearth of policy right now, as well as the tactical game they are both constantly playing. But there is another reason, and it is the way in which both men communicate.
I watched a Shorten press conference recently, and was struck by a contrast. In the early parts, when he was dealing with questions on the major issues of the day, he appeared stilted. He would deliver his line, then return to it. He would do so speaking fairly slowly, as though trying to remember what he was supposed to say. We’ve all seen this show; I don’t need to describe it further. Towards the end, though, it all changed. He was asked about other issues, way down the news agenda, but with which he was clearly familiar. Suddenly his speech sped up. His sentences acquired the fluency of a man not afraid to make a mistake. He smiled, and looked relaxed.
While Shorten can seem over-prepared, Turnbull has what appears to be the opposite problem. I’ve been saying this since he took the leadership, and I am amazed nobody has been able to get him to correct it. He regularly turns up to interviews and press conferences not having done adequate study. Because he is smart, and knows it, he is liable to compensate by becoming high-handed, or by lecturing from first principles. He ends up over-reaching, or giving an explanation that soon after falls apart.
These are not problems staff can correct. Shorten is given plenty of good lines by his staff, and they often do the work they are supposed to, reaching the evening news and delivering a hit on the PM. Turnbull has been making the mistake so long that it cannot be that he is not being given the necessary information.
I wrote before that Turnbull “appears” to have the opposite problem. That’s because both the apparent over-preparation and under-preparation likely have the same root, and can be fixed in the same way.
The solution might seem difficult in these time-starved days, but it is important. Our leaders must begin to set aside significant periods to work out what it is they want to say, and how they want to say it. That doesn’t have to mean an end to sharp takedowns or attempted soundbites – they’re not going away anytime soon. But it does mean that those lines would be surrounded by full and convincing explanations that sound as though they originated in the mind of the person doing the speaking, for the simple reason that they did originate there.
Putting aside that time isn’t easy. It wasn’t easy when I worked in politics – I wish we’d done it more – and things have sped up since then. But it shouldn’t be avoided.
Remember that most of us consume video of some sort every day. Interviews and press conferences are broadcast on 24-hour news channels. We are exposed to our politicians so much more than we used to be (Laurie Oakes made this point in his final column.) That means that when politicians repeat their lines and avoid saying anything complex or nuanced we quickly learn about it, and stop caring about what they have to say.
This might sound like media advice, just another way of pushing those polling numbers up, but I would argue it’s more fundamental. In a democracy that feels increasingly presidential, we have a right, and a desire, to know our leaders. Too often it feels like we know only a simulacrum of these people we elect to govern our country, a confection of key messages and defensive lines.
I don’t want to go overboard here. There is a role for formal political language. That’s why I began with Donald Trump: it’s possible to go too far in the direction of supposed “authenticity”. But right now we seem stuck in an older model of political communication, one that took hold in the late 1990s, and which does not match the times. A little change would go a long way.
Sean Kelly’s final post for The Monthly Today will be tomorrow The e-newsletter will return, with Paddy Manning, on Monday, 29 January.
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