Democracy via three-word slogans

Another title might have been Democracy according to Hayne, as it was The Honourable Justice Kenneth Madison Hayne AC, QC, Royal Commissioner in the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry, who in his address to The Melbourne Law School on 26 July 2019, contrasted the features of a Royal Commission: independence, neutrality, publicity and provision of a reasoned report, all characteristics of the judicial processes, to the very different features of everyday political discourse.

He lamented that trust in politics has been destroyed, that reasoned debates about issues of policy are now rare, and that three or four word slogans have taken their place. He continued:
“Political and other commentary focuses on what divides us rather than what unites us. Conflict sells stories; harmony does not. And political rhetoric now resorts to the language of war, seeking to portray opposing views as presenting existential threats to society as we now know it. Trust in all sorts of institutions, governmental and private, has been damaged or destroyed. Our future is often framed as some return to an imaginary glorious past when the issues that now beset us had not arisen.
He went on to contrast the independent and transparent nature of royal commissions with the ‘opaque’ and ‘skewed’ decisions of politicians influenced by those ‘powerful enough to lobby governments behind closed doors’.

All of us can identify with Hayne’s sentiments, especially after living through a decade of three-word slogans.

Of course, slogans are as old as politics. Remember the potency of Whitlam’s winning catchphrase ‘It’s time’, and Don Chipp’s promise to ‘Keep the bastards honest’. Judith Ireland offers an informative account of the use of slogans in the Sydney Morning Herald of May 7, explaining how the effective ones capture the mood of the time. It’s worth a read. You may also enjoy The battle of the slogans by Marcus Phipps from the Department of Management and Marketing at the University of Melbourne.

But do you feel, as I do, that slogans have assaulted us unreasonably during recent elections?

How has it come to this?

If I were to ask you whose name comes to mind when three-word slogans are mentioned, the odds are short that the name would be ‘Tony Abbott’. It was he who used them during the 2013 election to great advantage. Indeed it was his ‘Axe the Tax’, combined with ‘This Toxic Tax’ that broke the back of Julia Gillard’s attempt to introduce carbon pricing in the form of a market-based mechanism, the so-called Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. Abbott thereby set back Australia's emissions reduction efforts for more than a decade, and destroyed Gillard in the process. Abbott’s chief of staff Peta Credlin later admitted: “The climate change policy under Julia Gillard's Labor government was never a carbon tax, but the Coalition used that label to represent it as ‘carbon tax’ and a fight about the hip pocket rather than the environment. That was brutal retail politics, and it took Abbott six months to cut through and when he did Gillard was gone".

There were more. Will you ever forget Abbott’s: ‘Stop the taxes’, ‘Repay the debt’, ‘Stop the boats’ and ‘Stop the waste’?

In the wake of the NSW legislature decriminalizing abortion, Abbott was at it again with another of his telling slogans: ‘Death on Demand’. The man is a genius at creating three-worders! Although no match for Abbott, PM Morrison offered one of his own at the recent COAG meeting in Cairns: ‘’A Cleaner Form of Blue’, creatively worded to capture the notion of reducing plastic pollution in the Pacific.

Look back at the slogans used in the 2109 election. Labor’s ‘A fair go for Australia’ was pitted against the LNP’s ‘Building our economy – securing your future’. Both had a warm fuzzy feel, but clearly the LNP’s appealed more. ‘Securing your future’ had more electoral pull than the less personal ‘A fair go for Australia’.

Bill Shorten thought he had a zinger when he taunted: ‘Everything is going up except your wages’, but Josh Frydenberg quickly countered with ‘The Bill that Australia can’t afford’. Most of all though Frydenberg relished ‘Back in the Black’, to which he added ‘Back on Track’ to put the spotlight on the promised surplus he treasures so.

Only a foolish optimist would believe that politics might rid itself of three-word slogans. They work because their wording is appealing, their message is plausible, and above all, they’re easy to remember. They capture warm sentiments if they are positive, and even if they’re negative the jarring note they echo is soothed by the assurance of relief. Who would not embrace the introduction of something desirable or the removal of something undesirable?

Pithy three-worders are part of our way of life. Faulty Towers, rated as the ‘greatest ever British TV sitcom’ gave us some of the best. Who will ever forget Basil Faulty’s ‘Don’t Mention the War’, and Manuel’s ‘I Know Nothing’? Sadly, Manuel’s words are echoed too often in politics today!

So we are stuck with slogans. Those who engineer the most captivating slogans are likely to succeed. In politics, those whose slogans win the support of the voters win the election!

How can we, the ordinary voter, contribute?

First, we might put our creativity into gear and develop some telling slogans ourselves. There’s a fascinating article in The Guardian by Nick Evershed: Three-word slogan generator: create your own political catchphrase with an in-built ‘slogan generator’. You will enjoy playing with it. You might come up with more telling slogans than do the so-called ‘experts’! And then you could feed them to your preferred political party, both positive ones that advance the cause, and negative ones that counter opponents’ slogans. Frydenberg’s ‘Back in the Black’ might have been countered by ‘The Surplus that Never Was’ or ‘Frydenberg’s Fictitious Surplus’ or simply ‘The Frydenberg Fiction’.

Next, in our discourse with others we can expose slogans for what they are – clever but cheap forms of advertising or promotion, no more worthy than the well-worn commercial advertising slogans that irritate us every day.

Democracy via three-word slogans has replaced reasoned debate, transparent discussion and honest disclosure. The democratic process has been blighted by avoidance of direct answers, aggressive partisan rhetoric, lies, obfuscation and deception, aided and abetted by old-fashioned slogans that persuade, cajole, deceive, soothe, calm, pacify, and reassure even when no reassurance is warranted.

Commissioner Hayne is right. Trust in so many of our institutions had been eroded, even destroyed. Pillars of our society: financial and commercial institutions, educational bodies, religious orders, charitable foundations, and bodies set up to help those in need, such as the NDIS, head the list.

A flawed sense of purpose, lack of direction, indifference, absence of empathy, inefficiency, incompetence, overbearing administration, and carelessness, together with an aura of despair, afflict them. And if this appalling catalogue of misdemeanours is not enough to flush our democracy down the drain, the contemporary deluge of three-word slogans will help it on its way. Oh dear!

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lawrence winder


Drop the Pap?

How many umbrellas are there if I have two in my hand but the wind then blows them away?