A Land of Flooding Clichés - Bob Carr
17 July, 2021

A Land of Flooding Clichés - Bob Carr

Laying down a view on celebrating January 26, Scott Morrison implied that Indigenous complaint were overstated because it wasn’t “a flash day” for convicts either.

The leader of conservative Australia may have been struggling to recall things half-heard at a dinner of the Menzies Institute. But if in the 1920s, Russian scientists had planted the brain of a dead Bolshevik in the cranium of a Siberian Husky and the parahuman had offered a similarly monosyllabic locution, they would have regarded their experiment as a setback for Soviet science. 

Menzies, Fraser or Howard might have made a better conservative defence of January 26.

My own side might also be doing better at the language of politics.

The politics of the pandemic has got Labor repeating negatives about itself with a half crazed, dogged insistence

After the Upper Hunter by-election, former leader Jodi McKay gave her own party a tongue lashing. It was always a Coalition seat and if you say Labor lost its loyal supporters that just multiplies the damage. Joel Fitzgibbon savages Labor about climate when he could indict- not his own party- but boardrooms like BHP’s for putting profit above jobs as they vacate coal. 

One Labor Senator last year wrote that she was sick of people who look down on those who sent kids to private schools.  The Wizard of Oz didn’t provide a weaker straw man. In 17 years as a Labor leader I never heard anyone scorn constituents for choosing private education. As Premier I talked up the contribution of the low-fee, non-state sector. So have all Labor leaders.

Oppositions also get trapped by defensiveness, stuck with a telltale phrase, pleading “The problem is…”

The problem is the 24 hour news cycle, the problem is media won’t report our policies, the problem is the government is living off Labor reforms…

Drop it. Try a better locution. Begin saying, “The opportunity we have …”

The opportunity we have is parents at the school gate are talking about climate change. The opportunity we have is a block of voters see Morrison as Scotty from Marketing. The opportunity we have is a 24 hour news cycle to put our case.

“Words, words, words,” Hamlet said when asked what he was reading.

Knowing their power, the sainted Labor speechwriter Graham Freudenberg crafted speeches for Gough Whitlam that sent a message: Labor’s leader was better than Holt, Gorton or McMahon. Whitlam’s speeches, including a famous denunciation of the Victorian ALP, branded him future Prime Minister and statesman who might meet royalty and presidents and not present us a nation of “rustic clowns.”

Speeches from both sides these days don’t even aspire to freshness of language or imagery - wearing their flatness as a badge of honour. It’s as if George Orwell never wrote Politics and the English Language, his essay that insisted, “Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”

At the end of the bushfire crisis Josh Frydenberg spoke to an Australia-Canada forum in Melbourne. “As the great Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar said, we are…”

The Federal Treasurer, or his speechwriter, rolled the cliche our way, like a hospital trolly rattling along the corridor.

“…a land of droughts and flooding rains.” 

The image was dead on arrival. Stale as 50 year old potted meat.

Not a “single fresh, arresting phrase,” Orwell said about some writing. That might be applied to the speeches of Labor shadows.

Is anyone telling staffers to junk “rah rah” phrases? To dive deep into history and literature, to surface with sprightly words and concrete images? To search Curtin and Chifley material for something fresher than the catechistic invocation of the “light on the hill”? Just as Frydenberg’s staff should have searched Australian poetry for a keener quote than MacKellar’s. 

Leaders need to be lion and fox, advised Machiavelli - as Paul Keating could be, with the high mindedness of the Redfern address and, as well, a cheeky counterthrust at question time like “…I want to do you slowly.”

Where have the gags gone? Prime Minister Billy McMahon taking a break on the Isle of Capri at Surfers? “Tiberius with a telephone,” riposted Gough Whitlam. McMahon says the 1972 election will be December 2. “Anniversary of Austerlitz,” says Whitlam, when another crushing defeat was inflicted on “a ramshackle, reactionary coalition.”

Mockery should be reinstated in the armoury, deft enough to have the electorate chuckling, even the other side hiding grins. It will make your own team stop griping that “the problem is” something or other and start talking about the opportunities if the other side can be painted as risible buffoons. 

Good words can be transformative. Unleash them.

The Hon Bob Carr is a former Foreign Minister of Australia and was NSW’s longest continuously serving Premier. Bob is a widely published author and currently an Industry Professor of Climate and Business at UTS. @BobJCarr

Publication Information:

ISSN: 2652-9076-02

Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 2

Author: Bob Carr

Year: 2021

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