This piece originally appeared on ABC’s The Drum
I have a confession to make: I’m an abuser. A serial abuser. Of language.
I’m a government speechwriter.
If you believe, as I do, that the best sentences of Nabokov or Forster or Didion have a crystal effect—a structural gorgeousness which both captures and reflects light—then, well, I do the opposite.
I perform the linguistic equivalent of filling a brown paper bag with dog scat, lighting it, dumping it on a doorstep, ringing the doorbell and hot stepping it down the street.
If words were children, you would not entrust them to me.
I got into it by accident. A few years back I was involved in the Labor Party and I hosted a small political talk show on radio. An adviser to the Premier, with whom I had mutual friends, called me in for an interview. I became a speechwriter.
My role was simple. On command I would assort key-lines into a vaguely coherent whole. Regardless of the topic, the formula was the same: copy and paste established words, artlessly affix an “interesting” intro and then liberally pepper with dollar figures.
There are probably few people who consider political communications noble, but if there are any let me tell you this: it is where subtlety, eloquence and thoughtfulness go to die. It’s a space defined by rat cunning, the hatching of epithets and an immortal belief in the effectiveness of repetition. It’s a space necessarily given to inverting the Golden Rule of creative writing: Show, Don’t Tell.
Last year the Australian people were insulted by a political campaign of surreal shallowness. We responded by raising our middle fingers. It was, by that point, far from controversial to point out that our national politics was defined by cowardice, internal sclerosis and a paradox peculiar to modern politics: the plummeting popularity that comes when you slavishly devote yourself to polls.
That the instrument of enhancing popularity was the very thing reducing it should have been a point of exquisite embarrassment for ALP hacks but given that no-one was stopping to think no-one saw that the dog was chasing its tail. Except that we did.
Now here’s where I come in. The Government was also ruinously awful at communicating itself. It’s easy to prove. We have a public record of speeches and interview transcripts littered with the ugly, the ineffectual and the tortured.
Speeches which emphasise process over values.
That cloud meaning wilfully or through incompetence.
That replace political philosophy with shopping lists of expenditure.
That assail audiences with dullness and confuse jargon for authority.
We have a sorry record of speeches that do not tell a story. When you fail to tell a story people sense a slackening of purpose.
There are structural impediments to clear, courageous communications, and they don’t all exist in ministers’ offices. For starters, much of the public service is entrusted—I use that term loosely—with writing the bulk of ministerial speeches. The problem is two-fold.
Bureaucrats, funnily enough, write in officialese. Corporate speak has now spread so widely that in a culture of risk aversion it perpetuates itself. Bureaucrats won’t risk writing any other way. Not only is the fear of writing too “politically” crippling, the insidious thing here is that over exposure to corporate babble means that your cognition starts changing—you begin to thinkin corporate speak and writing it becomes the most natural thing in the world. It’s a spooky default.
Writing in the Australian Public Service brings to mind Orwell’s line from his great essay “Politics and the English Language”: “prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house”. Orwell also reminds me that my complaints are not new.
In this environment of cut-and-paste, subjects become shorn of their meaning and emotional content. Horribly, speeches covering teen suicide, say, or road fatalities come to have the same emotional muscularity as a speech on local council rates. All topics are subject to a dampening of spirit—meaning is replaced with platitudes and speeches come to have the appearance of Orwell’s chook-pen.
It’s true that ministers are flanked by media advisers, who will often provide advice and edits on speeches, but here’s the rub: many media advisers, at least the current crop of them, are there to respond, not reflect. Winning the day’s news becomes a never-ending commitment. It leads to the lamentable strategic myopia we saw last year.
There’s no easy solution here. Finding one requires nothing less than examining the entrenched and conflicting priorities and institutionalised habits and stupidities of Leviathan. That’s beyond most of us, particularly when much of our political reportage resembles sports commentary.
There are further complications. If we can crudely categorise our polity into three parts—voters, the media, and politicians—we must understand that we are all entangled. Here’s an example: journalists parrot the doubtful resentments of their readers; politicians, not wanting to appear lofty and dismissive, legitimise the questions, and ‘round and ‘round we go. Pick your topic and apply the calculus: asylum seekers, the deficit, etc. We’ve been living in an echo chamber.
Politicians could, perhaps, attempt the following. Given that stories are important—they’re how we make and share meaning—a political vision should and could be offered as a national story, without distortion.
Ideally, this national story would provide the roof under which individual policies shelter. It would explain the larger and longer values of policy. It might also mitigate against the destructive tug of no-loser politics.
Democracy has a hard time correcting, in the long run, the mess caused by short-termism, principally because it’s politically destructive to remove something from someone once you’ve given it to them. A national story—a clearly, imaginatively and intelligently expressed vision—provides people with a sense of where we’re going and why. This just might encourage a sense of national purpose. It may compel us to think of purposes larger than our own—to forgo something now for a better future.