“Who do you trust to keep the economy strong and protect family living standards? Who do you trust to keep interest rates low? Who do you trust in the fight against international terrorism?”
Familiar words? Malcolm Turnbull’s opening pitch for the July 2 election? Actually, no. These were John Howard’s words, launching his campaign against the hapless Mark Latham in 2004. By my count, Howard used the mantra “Who do you trust?” more than a dozen times. (An old-fashioned pedant like me might have asked: Whom do you trust to use good English grammar? But let’s not quibble over trifles.)
The word trust was considered such a winner for Howard that Malcolm Turnbull lost no time in adopting it for his own purposes. Here he is speaking soon after announcing the election date: “Australians know they can trust the Coalition because we have a record to prove it… Labor can’t be trusted to manage the transition to the post-mining boom economy.” Last year Tony Abbott pitched into Bill Shorten at Question Time, branding him a “smirking phoney” and a “two-time assassin” and adding for good measure: “This is the person who now seeks the trust of the Australian people…” Labor’s shadow treasurer, Chris Bowen, got into the act as well: “It gets down to trust. Mr Turnbull doesn’t even trust people to tell them the cost of the centrepiece of his budget.”
What is it about the word trust that appeals to politicians? Have focus groups told them it’s a word people like for its reassuring overtones – security, honesty, reliability, good faith? Political speech is loaded with comforting words and phrases that no one can quarrel with. Take fairness. Bob Carr used to say that the idea of fairness was fundamental to our character, embedded in traditional Australian speech – phrases like fair dinkum, a fair go, fair crack of the whip. The harshest criticism of an opponent’s policies is not to say that they’re irresponsible, unaffordable, misguided, divisive, or just plain stupid – the worst thing they can be is unfair. It’s why voters have been turned off by Turnbull’s plan for tax cuts skewed to the wealthy and the big end of town. It’s why many Coalition supporters worry about his proposed changes to superannuation – even the rich are being treated unfairly! But none of this matters much. The trouble with modern political discourse is not the overuse of familiar words like trust and fairness but the invention of new ones. Here are a few that need clarification –
Cash splash – A derisory term for any expenditure by one’s opponents. It matters little whether the expenditure is justified or not. According to the Coalition, Bill Shorten’s promise of a multi-billion-dollar boost to education funding is a gigantic cash splash and a waste of money (though the same cannot be said of handouts to wealthy private schools). To rework an old joke, the verb to spend can be conjugated as follows: “He delivers a cash splash, you spend more money than necessary, I make a targeted investment.” By definition, any spending by the Coalition is an investment, and anything that cuts taxes to the rich and powerful is an investment in jobs and growth. I’m reminded of Malcolm Fraser’s obsession with “waste and extravagance” – his three-word slogan back in 1975 for any expenditure by the Whitlam government.
Level playing field – Another term for fairness (see above).
Underdog status – A condition aspired to by both sides during an election campaign regardless of what the polls and bookies are saying. It’s not clear why underdog status is considered so desirable – is it a mark of humility, a plea for sympathy, a pitch to pet-owners, or a fund-raising tactic aimed at true believers? It’s rare for self-proclaimed underdogs to win an election, but sometimes it happens. In 1993 Paul Keating won the “unwinnable” election with a campaign against John Hewson’s GST, despite the fact that Keating himself had been one of the first advocates of a broad-based consumption tax a decade earlier. Fortunately voters have short memories. In 1954, in the aftermath of a horror budget even more unpopular than Joe Hockey’s, the Menzies-Fadden government seemed headed for certain defeat but were saved at the last minute by the Labor leader, Bert Evatt, who fell foul of the Petrov spy revelations and largely destroyed his economic credibility with a promise to abolish the means test.
The optics – A new term for appearances. Instead of saying “This would look bad” we now say, “The optics aren’t good.”
Scare campaign – Any attempt by one party to point to flaws or risks in its opponent’s policies. The Menzies government pioneered the modern scare campaign with strident attempts to link Labor with communism in the 1950s. The slogan “Reds under the bed” was neatly turned against Malcolm Fraser when he ran a scare campaign in 1983 against Labor’s so-called wealth tax, advising everyone that the only safe place for their money was under the bed. As Bon Hawke quipped : “There’s no room under the bed for your money because the Commies are there.” Turnbull’s campaign against Labor on negative gearing (we’ll all be ruined) is in much the same hysterical league. The big mystery is why Turnbull hasn’t run a union-bashing campaign based on Shorten’s union affiliations and Labor’s rejection of the construction industry watchdog. After all, this was the trigger for the double-dissolution and we haven’t heard a word about it since from the prime minister. Not yet.
Going forward – A new term for “in the future” which can be tacked on to any sentence at random. Origin unknown.
Announceables – Statements or policies ready to be publicly announced. Not long ago, party leaders launched their campaigns on day one with a policy speech outlining their plans and spent the next three weeks addressing public meetings. It’s now the accepted practice for the policy launch to be delivered in the last days of the campaign, requiring party leaders to have a store of “announceables” up their sleeves – promises ready for delivery in news bites, sound grabs, media handouts, or whatever, often targeted at local audiences in marginal seats. Bill Shorten is a big fan of announceables. Touring the eastern States in his campaign bus, he’s been coming up with a new announceable every day – scholarships for Indigenous teachers, a breakdown of Gonski funds for each electorate, targeted funds for teaching programs.
Song sheet, singing from the same – (fig.) A requirement that all members of a political party or factional group express identical opinions or attitudes if commenting publicly on a particular policy or issue.
Cards – Political cards come in many forms – among them the race card, the gender card, the religious card, and worst of all, the Nazi card. Playing any of them during a campaign is considered bad form or a sign of desperation. Michael Freelander, Labor’s candidate in the western Sydney seat of Macarthur, was accused of playing the Nazi card when he described the Manus Island and Nauru detention centres as concentration camps. (He had a point, and many Labor MPs agree with him.) Peta Credlin played the wealth card when she referred to Malcolm Turnbull as “Mr Harbourside Mansion”, reviving memories of the Panama Papers. Pauline Hanson played the race card for all it was worth, and Julia Gillard, for all her good qualities, played the gender card when she accused her critics of misogyny, as if that were an excuse for all her government’s misfortunes. Julia emerged as a feminist heroine for attacking Abbott, but she ran a hopelessly dysfunctional government.
Caretaker mode – The period between the announcement of an election and the swearing-in of the new government, during which the old government is bound to make no new appointments or enact significant measures. Christopher Pyne isn’t sure whether the present Government is in caretaker mode or not. A few days after Malcolm Turnbull called the election he insisted the government was still operating normally. I hope someone has since enlightened him.
Car crash (aka, train wreck) – A political disaster (eg, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership turmoil, now closely rivalled by the Turnbull-Abbott-Turnbull unpleasantness).
Out of context – Politicians caught out in a verbal gaffe or gross inaccuracy like to claim that their words were “taken out of context.” It doesn’t much matter what the context was, or whether there was any context at all. Malcolm Turnbull protested in Parliament the other day that his comments on the capital gains tax had been quoted out of context. For the benefit of all politicians I have devised the following form of words for any statement the speaker intends to be unambiguous and impervious to distortion. Anyone wishing to say something that cannot be quoted out of context is free to use it: “When I say that all Muslims should be expelled from Australia forthwith, I intend my words to be taken in their literal meaning, regardless of any qualifying or subsidiary comments preceding or following the words in question.” Is there any way Scott Morrison can be quoted out context for the following comment, which I picked up in a newscast the other night: “We say what we mean and we mean what we say, and we’ll do what we say we’ll do in the way that we say we’ll do it.”
I could go on. Much could be said about zero tolerance, mum and dad investors, summits, punters, three-word slogans, political footballs, bellwether seats, not to mention transparency (and its familiar running mate, accountability). The problem with political speech is that it’s rarely transparent and only with difficulty can anyone be held accountable for it. Its purpose is not to clarify meaning but to obscure it – to leave room for ambiguity, backtracking and qualification. I’m an old hand at political speech-writing myself, so trust me on this.
Evan Williams is a former newspaper editor and Walkley Award-winning journalist. He wrote speeches for Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and a succession of NSW premiers. He headed the NSW Government’s cultural sector from 1977 to 2001, and for 33 years wrote regular film reviews for The Australian. He is a Member of the Order of Australia.