Words, words, words

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Sunday, 21 September 2014 18:30 by Ken Wolff

Lenore Taylor reported in August that Tony Abbott had told a ministerial meeting that the party had not broken any election promises, not one. My first reaction was that this was the sign of a narcissistic personality, someone who cannot bear to be wrong. On second thought, I pondered that perhaps it is true. After all, as Humpty Dumpty said:

When I use a word, … it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

Was Abbott merely playing Humpty Dumpty in Through the Looking Glass, and using words, words, and more words as he intended them, not as the electorate might understand them?

Take a careful look at Abbott’s and Pyne’s statements regarding education and the Gonski reforms. ‘Gonski reforms’ — what are they? ‘Gonski’ is not mentioned, although the media continued to refer to Abbott’s proposed education funding by the shorthand ‘Gonski’. Why does this make a difference? — because the Gonski funding reform was actually about improving funding for disadvantaged schools and that was a key aspect supported by the electorate.

Thus, when Abbott said he was on a ‘unity ticket’ with Labor on education, people took that to mean that he supported Gonski, but that wasn’t what he said, although it was clearly the impression he meant to leave. Mainly he spoke about funding and implied that there may be changes, by emphasising that an Abbott government would reduce the ‘command and control’ (a military phrase, for which he has a penchant) in Labor’s funding model. So although he spoke about the ‘funding envelope’ and promised no school would be worse off, the media coverage and the public perception continued to relate that to ‘Gonski’ and the (unspoken) issue of educational disadvantage. That led to further problems and the famous double backflip.

On 26 November 2013 Pyne announced that the new government would only honour the Gonski funding model for 2014 and develop a new funding model for subsequent years. He suggested that, as well as Queensland, Western Australia and the Northern Territory not being included, Victoria and Tasmania had also ‘not signed bilateral agreements’ with the federal government. What the premiers of those latter two states quickly pointed out was that they had signed ‘heads of agreement’, or in other words the outline of the agreement, or an in-principle agreement. But according to Pyne, in Humpty Dumpty words, they had not signed the agreement. When does an agreement become an agreement? Even courts recognise that verbal agreements can be legally binding.

Pyne blamed the press gallery for the eruption that followed, suggesting ‘It’s not my fault if some members of the press gallery don’t understand the complicated nature of the school funding model.’ Abbott supported him, saying that ‘Our pre-election commitment was that there will be exactly the same quantum of funding …’ — here we are back to the ‘funding envelope’, perhaps the same envelope on the back of which budget calculations are made.

Eleven days later, Abbott, with a sheepish looking Pyne beside him, announced that the government would provide funding for four years in accord, in dollar terms, with the previous Gonski model. Pyne added:

… no school, state or territory, can be worse off because of the Commonwealth’s actions.

But Abbott was also back onto ‘command and control’, insisting his funding would remove the control that the Canberra bureaucracy would have been able to exercise under the original Labor agreements on funding. What he was saying effectively removed any concept of overcoming educational disadvantage, but that was never reported and perhaps not so easily seen amongst the words he used. That did, however, come back to bite Abbott and Pyne when they were forced to concede that they could not guarantee that no school would be worse off because, in reality, how the money was spent was now a matter for the states — no more ‘command and control’. Pyne’s little addition that no school would be worse off ‘because of the Commonwealth’s actions’ was vital: the fact he phrased it that way suggests that he was already aware that the ‘promise’ of no school being worse off was in tatters.

That announcement came after Pyne had reached ‘in principle’ agreements with the previous non-signatory states. Is an ‘in principle’ agreement the same as a ‘heads of agreement’? While Pyne had earlier claimed that Victoria and Tasmania had not signed up because they had only signed ‘heads of agreement’, now he was claiming validation of his approach because he had an ‘in principle’ agreement. For Pyne, like Abbott, an ‘agreement’ is what he says it means.

Embedded in that debate was whether or not an amount of $1.2 billion actually existed. Labor had initially kept that amount for the states and territory that had not signed up but it was removed in the PEFO prior to the election. That allowed Abbott and Pyne to claim that they were putting an additional $1.2 billion into education. If it was previously foreshadowed, is it an extra amount? In the sense that it had been temporarily removed, perhaps it is, but it was always intended that those jurisdictions should receive some increase in funding. In Humpty Dumpty’s world, our normal understanding of words is not sufficient to clarify when money actually exists, and that also became central to the 2014 budget.

The education debate helped give rise to the classic $80 billion ‘savings’ in education and health in the budget. Labor attacked these as ‘cuts’. What is the difference between a ‘saving’ and a ‘cut’? — or is there a difference?

When Labor attacked it as a ‘cut’ Abbott responded that it did not exist as it was never included in any Labor budget, so nothing had been ‘cut’. The dollar amount certainly wasn’t in Labor budgets but Labor’s funding formulae would have led to increased health and education funding over a ten year period. The deals Labor had negotiated on education lasted up to six years (not just the four that Abbott was then supporting) and were ‘back-loaded’, meaning more money was paid in the later years rather than at the start of the agreements. The details do not really matter because if the money wasn’t there can it be a ‘saving’? It is a little like a game some mates and I used to play when we stayed out too late at Friday night drinks after work: we would calculate how much we had ‘saved’ by each bus that we missed. Abbott avoids the word ‘cut’ but still insists it is a ‘saving’. For the States it is a cut in the sense that they will now not receive, in the future, money that they were expecting, even if that expectation was not set in concrete. It is the same as someone being told they can expect a pay rise and on that basis planning to buy a new car but the pay rise doesn’t eventuate, and so, nor does the new car. For Abbott, that means they haven’t lost anything but he has saved by not giving the pay rise. See what I mean about Humpty Dumpty words. In this context, Abbott is saying that it can only be a ‘cut’ if it is the reduction of something the states already have, ipso facto, if the states don’t yet have it, it’s not a cut!

The changes to health and education also reflect the meaning of ‘agreement’ as used by Pyne. When Abbott was forced to concede that cuts to health funding would occur in the current financial year, and not four years into the future as he originally maintained, that involved scrapping or making unilateral changes to a number of agreements with the states and territories, particularly the national partnership agreement on public hospitals. So even a negotiated and signed agreement may not be an ‘agreement’ when the word is used by Abbott and Pyne.

In defending the budget, Abbott said it was ‘fundamentally honest’. ‘Fundamental’ has a few inter-related meanings:

  • forming a necessary base or core, of central importance
  • relating to the essential nature of something or the crucial point about an issue
  • so basic as to be hard to alter, resolve, or overcome
If used in the first way, it echoes John Howard’s core and non-core promises. Or if used in the second way, is the budget only honest in its ‘essential nature’, perhaps implying there may be parts that are dishonest? Would he dare suggest that the budget is so honest no-one could challenge it (the third meaning)? I would think not but don’t put that beyond Abbott. In fact, in Humpty Dumpty speak, Abbott is using the word in all three ways. It leaves him free to respond to questions in any way that suits him at the time.

He went on to say that ‘the most fundamental commitment I made was to get the budget back under control.’ It is true that the opening promises of his 2013 election launch were:

We’ll build a stronger economy …
We’ll scrap the carbon tax …
We’ll get the budget back under control …
We’ll stop the boats.
And we’ll build the roads of the 21st century …

No mention of health or education, the aged or unemployed, or other welfare recipients, at least not in these opening ‘core’ or ‘fundamental’ promises. If you look at them, they are the promises that he does appear to have done most to keep (even if his view of a strong economy is somewhat at odds with the views of those outside the IPA or those who are not economic rationalists). Given his history of not reading important documents, perhaps he can only remember those opening promises, or perhaps his advisers have not yet gotten past them. Whatever the reasons, it appears that these are Abbott’s ‘fundamental’ promises. Did the electorate understand before they voted that ‘fundamental’ related only to the opening promises of his speech and not to the many other promises made in the subsequent pages? Or was Abbott saving that explanation for later?

Another matter was in March when Abbott and Morrison celebrated that it had been 100 days since an asylum seeker boat had reached Australian shores. Note that it was Australian ‘shores’. What do they mean by ‘shores’? They mean actual landfall because it does seem that at least one boat was in sight of Christmas Island, before it was taken back to Indonesian waters, which would suggest it was in Australian territorial waters (extending 20kms off shore). And perhaps it does not include reefs. Another popular site for people smugglers back in 2000-01 was Ashmore Reef, another Australian territory less than 150kms from the Indonesian island of Rote. We have heard nothing of it under Operation Sovereign Borders. If a boat had landed there, we would no longer be told but they would definitely be on an Australian ‘reef’, though perhaps not a ‘shore’. What may be a ‘shore’ can thus be very flexible — it may depend on whether the tide is in or out! We have also learned in the High Court challenge regarding the boat from India that ‘shores’ also does not include the deck of an Australian vessel, even though that is effectively Australian territory.

Now just a word or two on Abbott’s military phraseology. We have Operation Sovereign Borders and Operation Bring Them Home, which are self-explanatory. When Abbott and Morrison first announced Operation Sovereign Borders at a joint press conference in Brisbane prior to the election, Abbott said of it, ‘we will have the appropriate command and control structures’. Recognise that phrase? In this context, he was using it to highlight his ‘adult’ approach to asylum seeker boats but in the education debate he used it as a pejorative phrase describing Labor’s approach. Is it a positive way to approach policy issues or a negative way? Obviously Abbott can use it as both. ‘Command and control’ is bad if it is Labor but good if it is Liberal. Does that sound like Humpty Dumpty?

Abbott promised an ‘adult’ government. But he has also used that word in a couple of other contexts. When the state governments reacted angrily to the education and health ‘cuts’ in the budget, Abbott said:

… we make no apologies for wanting the states to be grown up, adult governments that take responsibility for the programs that are theirs, for the institutions that they run.

Being an ‘adult’ government, then, is not something that automatically applies to Liberals but only to Abbott’s own government. Even state governments of his own political persuasion are not ‘adult’ if they can’t manage the reduction in future funding, and it is not Abbott’s problem now, it is theirs, so they need to grow up. And he said of the unemployed, who would now not receive unemployment benefits for six months, that ‘Being an adult means taking responsibility for the choices you make and making the best possible choice in the circumstances you face.’ Has Abbott been taking responsibility for his choices? Perhaps not, but that does not matter because the way he uses the word it is his government that is ‘adult’ by definition — everybody else needs to be told when to grow up and how to be ‘adult’.

Abbott promised going into the election that his would be a government of ‘no surprises’. Well, certainly no surprises for Abbott. Like Humpty Dumpty, he was the only one who understood what he meant.

In the end none of this matters. In a quote from Abbott’s swearing in as prime minister, which I have referred to a couple of times in earlier pieces, he said:

We hope to be judged by what we have done rather than by what we have said we will do.

Consider that carefully. He is basically saying ‘all bets are off: as from the day I have become PM, we start afresh, ignoring all I have said before, and only what we actually do from now on counts’. Why wasn’t that statement given more prominence by the media at the time? It is a catch-all statement wiping the slate clean of election promises and starting over: it is a clear statement that his election promises were vacuous.

As with so many of Abbott’s statements, it is easy to find another that is contradictory, unless we understand and accept that he uses words as Humpty Dumpty did — they mean what he chooses them to mean, no more and no less!

What do you think?