The shock of the new- telling it like it is

One of the things that came to irritate people about the last Government was the language in which it chose to cloak its intentions.

Well, not so much chose, but in which its top brass allowed those intentions - those issues, some of them dear to people's hearts - to be voiced. And for all its slick, carefully controlled management, this was to become a glaring political failure.

They might have done well to reread Orwell, and in particular his 1946 essay, Politics and the English Language, which he concludes thus: "Political language - and with variations this is true of all political parties, from conservatives to Anarchists - is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind."

The lingering impression of much of the mode of expression of the Labour-led coalition was that it could be cold, was frequently convoluted, sometimes condescending and often well removed from the everyday experience of a proportion of the populace. Some referred to it as the voice of political correctness.

Attitudes escaped direct from the mouths of policy wonks and outriders of the political left, unmediated by the mill of common sense, untouched by the warmth of everyday human speech patterns, and poorly translated into the vernacular of hard-working folk who quickly detected, and resented, a distance between the chic academe of the Wellington professional and the reality of their own daily lives.

In the more extreme of instances, it was as if they were speaking a different language.

I found myself musing on such matters while observing the National Party's championing of a triumvirate of forthright women: Minister of Social Development Paula Bennett, list MP and Mt Albert byelection candidate Melissa Lee, and and now family commissioner Christine Rankin.

It is a reflection of just how far removed from the orbit of ordinary people had "political discourse" become that straight-talking - which often includes engaging the tongue before putting the brain in gear - has become a virtue in its own right.

Thus Melissa Lee can put her foot in her mouth over Mt Albert motorways and south Auckland criminality one day, apologise the next and simply move on, because at least she is prepared to say what she thinks - and within a milieu so tongue-tied by a fear of saying the wrong thing, many evidently find this refreshing.

If, in Ms Lee, National has a candidate prepared to speak her mind, in Paula Bennett it has another. In fact Ms Bennett is a walking, talking compendium of the common touch, that well-known antidote to the PC virus, and in elevating her to such lofty and conspicuous heights National and Prime Minister John Key and his advisers seem to imagine they have mined a political lodestone: the battling single parent from the wrong side of the tracks made good - with a direct line into the hearts and minds of all those hundreds of thousands just like her.

One of the most glaring examples of political mismanagement - particularly with respect to the language deployed - by the last government was the Crimes (Substituted Section 59) Amendment Act 2007.

Never heard of it? You know, the one that removed parenthood as a defence in the serious assault of children. Still confused? OK, then: the "anti-smacking law". (Once opponents came up with that truly tangible moniker the government was on a hiding to nothing.)

And one of the most outspoken opponents of the Act - and the government promoting it - was Christine Rankin, promoted last week by Paula Bennett for a position on the families commission.

Ms Rankin is another who quite happily engages her mouth before the brain is in gear, and in fact from time to time seems possessed of the remarkable ability to talk without input from the brain at all.

What Ms Lee and Ms Bennett and Ms Rankin have in common is the beguiling ability to appear as if they are telling it like it is - and many of us are so bowled over by this very fact we neglect to listen to what they are actually saying.

Sooner or later, the novelty will wear off, and meaning will become as apparent as the language in which it is expressed. For having issued a manifesto for plain speaking and writing, George Orwell also issued a critical proviso: "Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous."

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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