Unravelling Polliespeak

This is a sequel to The ugly language of politics, published in November. It endeavours to unpick and describe the many variants of what I have named Polliespeak, the language that politicians use. Sometimes it’s ugly, sometimes it’s simply irritating. 

How often have you fumed as you listened to our politicians answering questions? How often have you shouted: “Answer the question”? How often have you seethed as you have listened to press conferences and ‘door stops’ and murmured: “What on earth are you saying?” or “Why are you repeating yourself?” or “Why are you saying exactly the same, almost word for word, as the last pollie?” How often have you been affronted by the paucity of empathy that pollies too often exhibit?

Pollies use a wide variety of Polliespeak strategies to get their messages across.

George Orwell’s Newspeak
The term ‘Polliespeak’ may bring to mind George Orwell’s ‘Newspeak’, the term he used in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. To refresh your memory, click here to read about Newspeak.

Party Lines
As in Nineteen Eight-Four, in Two Thousand and Seventeen there are ideological positions - an orthodoxy that is reflected in Party Lines, no matter what party: Liberal, Labor, Greens, One Nation, or any other. Click here to remind yourself about Australia’s Party Lines.

Politics Two Thousand and Seventeen
Let’s look then at politics Two Thousand and Seventeen-style to unravel what linguistic strategies pollies are using and what they are intended to achieve.

A Taxonomy of Polliespeak
Here’s how politicians express themselves using their unique language: Polliespeak. There are many variations of the linguistic tricks, tactics and strategies they use: talking incessantly, avoiding answering, answering a different question, giving only part of the answer, using euphemisms, and opportunistically spouting the party line, are but a few.

What follows is an attempt to have a little fun creating a Polliespeak taxonomy. I hope you will come along with me and enjoy the ride.

Following the protocol for classifying microorganisms: genus followed by the species, I will designate ‘Polliespeak’ as the genus, which will be followed by the species, for example: ‘verbosis’ (to describe the outpourings of our verbose pollies). Also, in the interest of brevity, I will abbreviate the genus ‘Polliespeak’ to ‘P'. in the same way as the microorganism Escherichia coli (which is a common cause of gastroenteritis), is abbreviated to E. coli. Let’s begin.

P. verbosis
We all know politicians who go on and on and on. Scott Morrison is a prime example and a repeat offender. He believes the best way of managing awkward questions is to load his verbal machine gun, fire it until his magazine is empty, and talk over any interruption by an interviewer cheeky enough to try. Having the ‘gift of the gab’ he overwhelms his interviewer with a salvo of words, well put together, until the interviewer goes onto another subject or simply gives up exhausted! Even as persistent an interviewer as Leigh Sales is often overpowered, and eventually retreats fatigued. And all the time Morrison wears his characteristic half smile that seems to say – “I’ve got you, haven’t I?”

P. logorrhoea
This is a variant of P. verbosis, where the pollie’s words are not fired like bullets, but flow smoothly and endlessly. The ‘rrhoea’ in P. logorrhoea derives from its medical meaning: ‘profuse flow’, as in diarrhoea. Thus ‘logorrhoea’ means profuse flow of words. I’m sure you will identify the supreme example: Mathias Cormann. Often resembling a Dalek, it is easy to picture him being programmed each morning by his minder, then despatched to regurgitate his message accurately, monotonously, and ever so smoothly, no matter what the subject. He too wears an inscrutable smile that morphs into one of satisfaction when the interviewer finally retreats, well and truly worn out.

Kelly O’Dwyer is another who exhibits P. logorrhoea. She comes, complete with her talking points, and does not stop until she has got them all off her chest. Then there is Michaelia Cash, whose noisy exuberance is legend. Pauline Hanson too suffers from logorrhoea when sufficiently stirred up.

These pollies, like so many others, come armed with the talking points the Party's press secretary has contrived, and repeat them faithfully no matter what the question. Others with the same talking points do the same, to the point of sounding lubricious, occasioning great annoyance among political tragics.

P. prematuris
This variety of Polliespeak is seen when politicians prematurely shoot off their mouth before getting all the facts, or change their rhetoric within hours. After their recent meeting about dual citizenship, Turnbull initially lauded Shorten for a constructive discussion but was soon calling him ‘utterly shameless’, accusing him of exploiting the issue instead of resolving it.

P. interruptus
This variant of Polliespeak often accompanies the previous three. Some pollies excel at interrupting their interviewers. The most classic example of P. interruptus was Joh Bjelke-Petersen. Whenever he appeared on TV to ‘feed the chooks’, he would brush aside the first question with “Don’t you worry about that” and then proceed to expound on his three predetermined ‘talking points’, often on an entirely different subject.

Although not in the same league as Bjelke-Petersen, our PM uses this technique to divert attention from the interviewer’s question towards what he really wants to talk about. Malcolm Turnbull is an accomplished orator, who uses the Pjelke-Petersen technique smoothly, all the time sporting his disarming smile.

P. abruptus is a variant that often accompanies P. interruptus.
The pollie becomes so irritated by the questioning that he or she abruptly changes tack, or simply walks away. Pauline Hanson has a propensity to do this, often becoming emotional as she does. Recall her reaction when questioned pointedly about how she obtained her campaigning aeroplane: ‘I cannot believe you would ask me stupid questions like that.’

Malcolm Turnbull too can be abrupt, but does so without showing emotion, cutting journalists down brutally with studied sarcasm, barrister style.

P. avoidus
A classic technique to avoid awkward questions is to talk about something else, or supply only part of the answer. How many times have you heard a pollie avoid the question with: "Let me say this" or “Let me make this point” or talk about what the pollie has done rather that what hasn’t been done. How often have you heard: "He would say that wouldn't he?" or "He's got questions to answer", but of course the questions are never answered. “Why is the NBN so slow and taking so long to run out?” is countered by “Labor left us a train wreck, but we are making good progress at a lower cost.” No attempt is made to address the poor speeds of the NBN, the dishonesty of providers in advertising fast speeds but not delivering, or why it is taking so long to reach consumers.

Another subtle technique of avoiding answering a question is to annex irrelevant issues to the subject. When questioned about marriage equality, Tony Abbott retorted ‘And I say to you, if you don’t like same-sex marriage, vote no. If you’re worried about religious freedom, and freedom of speech, vote no. If you don’t like political correctness, vote no – because voting no will help to stop political correctness in its tracks.’ The latter three issues have nothing to do with marriage equality, but served to distract people from the core issue, namely whether people who love each other, irrespective of their gender, ought to be allowed to marry. This tactic is designed to create uncertainty, known to be a significant deterrent to a ‘Yes vote’ in any referendum or survey.

A further refinement of P. avoidus is P. opportunis in which the pollie opportunistically advances a related point of view that pushes the pollie’s preferred line of argument. While denying the reality of anthropogenic global warming during a recent overseas address, Abbott opportunistically pushed the line that a warmer climate might be an advantage since more people die of the cold!

P. abrasis
This form of Polliespeak is often seen in Question Time. Opposition spokespeople, usually spokesmen, ask abrasive questions of the PM and government ministers. Bill Shorten is a repeat offender. He seems to think that abrasive questions, accompanied by facial contortions, are the only ones worth asking. The result is that he provokes the one being questioned, and if it is the PM, he knows that Turnbull will return fire with the ferocity for which his legal training has prepared him.

Not long ago, in response to a Shorten question, Turnbull launched a vicious tirade against him, calling him a ‘parasite’ and a ‘social climbing sycophant’ always seeking to get his knees under the table of the rich and powerful. A photo taken at the time, featured at the head of The ugly language of politics , shows Turnbull’s face twisted into a nasty sneer.

More recently, commenting on Shorten’s contribution to the endless debate on how to resolve the dual citizenship dilemma, Turnbull couldn’t resist an abrasive backhander: “Shorten is characteristically confused”.

Instead of indicating that the High Court had decided that certain senators were dual citizens and therefore ineligible to sit in the Senate, they were abrasively described in news bulletins a having been “booted out” or “kicked out” or “turfed out”.

Such abrasiveness is unseemly. It brings pollies into even deeper disrepute.

P. aggressus is sometimes a more suitable label than P. abrasis

P. condemnatus
This form of Polliespeak is endemic. One side is always poised to condemn the other. All parties do it, gratuitously.

Recently, when ask to comment on the response to the same sex marriage survey, Scott Morrison was fulsome in his praise for the process initiated by the Coalition, reminding us of the splendid response of those surveyed. But not satisfied with garnering admiration for the process the Coalition initiated, which resulted in over 12 million voters, over three quarters of those surveyed returning their vote, he could not resist sneeringly condemning Labor by pointing out that it had opposed the plebiscite at every turn.

Richard di Natale condemned the Coalition for its treatment of asylum seekers on Manus Island, along with immigration minister Peter Dutton, upon whom he heaped a torrent of insults, labelling him a ‘terrorist’, hardly language worthy of the leader of a significant party.

More recently, when Kristina Keneally announced she was the Labor candidate in the Bennelong by-election, Greg Hunt was quickly on the airwaves smearing her, talking of her association with Eddie Obeid in an attempt at character assassination. The next day Kelly O’Dwyer was also out there describing skeletons in Keneally’s cupboard.

P. blamus
A variant of P. condemnatus, there’s not a day goes by that one party does not heap blame on another.

Turnbull heaped blame on Labor for the current state of the NBN, although the Coalition has been in charge for four years.

Recently, he heaped blame on Bill Shorten for what he insisted was his obstructionist approach at a meeting to discuss the dual citizenship shemozzle, an accusation denied by Penny Wong who was there at the time. Asked about the meeting, Greg Hunt called Shorten ‘a constitutional vandal’ and ‘a fraud’.

Pauline Hanson blamed the ABC for what she saw as its unfair portrayal of her and One Nation; she wants it punished by severely cutting its funding.

The theme is that things were always worse when the other party was in power.

And should politicians or parties change their mind about a policy, it is always described as a "backflip", or more extravagantly as a "backflip with double pike"!

Putting down opponents is a daily occurrence; the Polliespeak used to do so is unworthy of any elected representative.

P. opposus
This variant of Polliespeak is endemic. Inevitably, when one party suggests an idea, another will oppose it. When did you last hear an opponent say “That’s a good idea; we’ll adopt that too”? No, even when there is some agreement, there is always a caveat. ‘We’ll take a look at it’ is the most generous response. A more common response though is: “There’s no detail”, or “There’s not enough detail”, or more commonly “It won’t work”, and even “That’s a silly (or stupid) idea.” The language pollies use is redolent with words of opposition, some are subtle; most are strident.

P. doctrinus
This form of Polliespeak is used every day as pollies seek to indoctrinate the electorate. How many times have we had the doctrines and the orthodoxy of each party shoved down our throat?

How many times did we hear the PM, Morrison and Cormann thrust the ‘Jobs and Growth’ mantra at the electorate? How many times did you hear them insisting that giving tax cuts to business, even big business and international corporations, would make Australia more competitive, and inspire business to invest, expand, create more jobs and pay higher wages? The fact that this trickle down theory has been debunked for fifty years did not inhibit the Coalition from repeating it’s ‘Jobs and Growth’ mantra over and again.

How often have you heard Dutton insist that any relaxation of the cruel regime in detention centres, and in particular any hint that those incarcerated there might be brought to Australia, or even to New Zealand, would encourage people smugglers to resume business and once more flood this country with boatloads of asylum seekers? In pushing his ‘secure borders’ doctrine, how many times did you hear him sarcastically recite the arrival statistics of the Labor era, and contrast them with the Coalition’s?

You need no reminding of Dutton’s venomous words delivered from a scowling face twisted with hatred for asylum seekers who had the temerity to come by boat. Did you hear him disparage them as ‘economic refugees’ in Armani sunglasses, complete with mobile phones?

How many times did you hear him spit out words of rejection while reiterating his immigration doctrine: that those arriving by boat would never be settled in Australia?

How many times did his condemnatory version of Polliespeak offend you?

P. inhumanus would be a more accurate descriptor of Minister Dutton’s inhumane language.

P. deprivatus
This variety of Polliespeak is heard when a previously prominent politician loses power yet still craves attention, often referred to as ‘relevance deprivation’. The pollie will volunteer to speak to reporters on any subject, no matter how little he or she knows about it, just to be heard. The result is usually uniformed waffle.

P. doublespeak is very common.
It is derived from George Orwell's concept of ‘doublethink’: the ability to hold two completely contradictory thoughts simultaneously while believing both of them to be true. P. doublespeak involves the skill of using words that mean one thing while denoting another. P. doublespeak is not restricted to pollies.

Euphemisms are a convenient form of doublespeak. Here are some examples:

“Collateral damage” in war zones when non-combatants are killed.
"Detainee" for a prisoner of war.
"Pre-emptive strike" instead of an unprovoked attack.
“Take down” instead of killing.
“Enhanced interrogation” instead of torture.
“Ethnic cleansing” instead of genocide.

“Fighting the war on terrorism”.
“We do not want to become a police state. We do not want to transgress peoples’ liberties” – says a minister announcing thumb and iris scans at airports.
“Peace through strength”, is Trump’s latest approach to North Korea.

“Person of interest” instead of a suspect in a crime.
“Capital punishment” instead of the death penalty.

“Downsizing" when employees are sacked.
"Reducing costs" as opposed to cutting peoples' salaries.
“Restructuring” instead of reorganization.

"Ill advised" in place of a very bad idea.
“Well experienced” instead of old.
“Being held back” instead of failing or not doing well.
“Going to greener pastures” instead of leaving.

"Your call is important to us" repeated endlessly, instead of simply answering the phone.

“Senior person” instead of an old person.
“Not doing so well" instead of very sick or injured.
“Crossed over to the other side” instead of dying.

"Substance abuse problem" as opposed to drug addiction.
“Going way over the top” instead of drinking too much.

P. denialis
This form of Polliespeak is distressing. Those who use it disregard facts and eschew logic as they deny what rational people believe.

Malcolm Roberts, no longer a senator, but a One Nation candidate for the seat of Ipswich in the Queensland State election, insisted throughout his short stay in the Senate that ‘There is no empirical evidence to support global warming.’ His leader believes the same. He disregards the mountain of evidence that belies his assertion

Tony Abbott is sceptical about anthropogenic climate change. He is not alone; there are many deniers here in Australia and beyond.

There are sceptics who deny the social benefits of same sex marriage, opposing it at every turn no matter what the public thinks or feels.

While healthy scepticism is part of scientific and social discourse, the depth of denialism we see from many of our legislators is disruptive. The language of the denialists is worrying, even dangerous.

So there it is, a taxonomy of Polliespeak. I hope you have enjoyed the exercise of unravelling it as much as I have enjoyed writing it. When it’s all said and done, there is no other group in society that can match our politicians’ extremes of language, their versatility in using it, and the extraordinary variety of Polliespeak they have mastered. If they are not much good at governing, at least they are skilled in the use and misuse of Polliespeak.

In the Comments section, please tell us of your experiences listening to pollies. Please embellish with examples of Polliespeak. It's time we had some enjoyment making fun of our politicians!

Appendix 1: Newspeak
Newspeak was the language of Oceania in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, a fictional totalitarian state ruled by the Party, which created the language Newspeak to meet the ideological requirements of English Socialism (Ingsoc). It was a controlled language of restricted grammar and limited vocabulary, which was meant to limit the freedom of thought, personal identity, self-expression, and free will that ideologically might threaten the régime of Big Brother and the Party. The Oceania government sought to control not only the speech and actions, but also the thoughts of its subjects. Thus it criminalized ‘thoughtcrime’: the holding of unspoken beliefs or doubts that oppose or question Ingsoc orthodoxy.  

Orwell also introduced the concept of ‘doublethink’: the ability to hold two completely contradictory thoughts simultaneously while believing both of them to be true. Sounds like 2017!

Some writers, but not Orwell, combined the concepts of newspeak and doublethink to create ‘doublespeak’: a language that deliberately obscures, disguises, distorts, or reverses the meaning of words. Doublespeak may take the form of euphemisms, in which case it is primarily meant to make the truth sound more palatable. Sounds like 2017 too.

Click here to return to George Orwell's Newspeak.

Appendix 2: Party Lines
Liberals believe in neoliberal orthodoxy: the economic wisdom of free markets, ‘trickle-down’ economics, free enterprise, and freedom of choice. They operate under George Lakoff’s ‘Strict Father’ model of parenting, which dictates that those who deserve success are those who study and work hard, follow the rules and respect authority. They ought to be able to keep what they earn, unencumbered by a punitive taxation system.

Labor operates under Lakoff’s ‘Nurturant Parent’ model that values progressive policies, care for the less-well-off, robust social support, equality, fairness, equal opportunity for all, and a progressive taxation system that asks those who can to pay most. They question the wisdom of free markets, reject trickle down economics, and believe in a fair industrial relations system that provides a fair wage and congenial working conditions. Labor is supportive of the environment, and eschews exploitation of our natural resources.

The Greens are similar to Labor but even more environmentally conscious and active. Unlike Liberal and Labor they are deeply attuned to the injustices of our immigration system and speak strongly in support of asylum seekers.

One Nation is becoming increasingly anti-immigration, anti-Muslim, anti-ABC, and climate denialist. They speak for those who feel disenfranchised by immigrants, who are angry at losing their jobs and resentful of the advantages they see immigrants receiving.

As each of these parties present themselves to the public, they promote the Party Line and reject that of others. There is little reasoned debate; black and white are the only colours they depict – shades of grey are verboten.

Click here to return to Party Lines.

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How interesting it would be if we could withdraw all the press secretaries and hangers-on who advise and our politicians and then see how they go at interviews and press conferences! The inability or unwillingness of a politician of one persuasion to credit a good idea from another party is incredibly frustrating.  Our politicians are not perfect wow what an understatement, they should be able to admit a mistake or change their mind without being pilloried for it.

I have two politicians and add 17 clowns and 14 chimpanzees; how many clowns are there?