Working families are suffering from the financial crisis in perhaps the most painful way of all. Direct hit to household budgets? Nope. Employment uncertainty? Not yet. No, working families have taken a direct hit where it really hurts — in the Government’s rhetoric.

Being guilty of verballing the Prime Minister on Friday — he really did say “forty five years ago” when referring to Barack Obama and Martin Luther King, and not 25 — we decided to check senior ministers’ language in press releases, interviews and Question Time. “Working families” was of course the Government’s buzzword — or more correctly, its entry for most annoyingly overused phrase since “metrosexual” — for much of the year. But now dire economic times have forced it to give way to “decisive” as the preferred term in the Government’s lexicon.

In short, the Government used to be indecisive, but now it’s damn sure. “Decisive” was used more than 80 times by senior ministers in the week following the Government’s announcement of its deposit guarantee and its plasmas’n’pokies stimulus package. “Tough decisions” has also emerged in the last week as the Government’s parlous fiscal position was made clear in the MYEFO figures.

The Government’s reliance on incessant repetition is revealing of some of its internal workings. Take “tough decisions”. That phrase first emerged in the aftermath of the Gippsland by-election at the end of June, the first time the Government had experienced any sort of political headwind of any kind. The Prime Minister immediately tied it to the Government’s “tough decisions”, although quite what tough decisions the Government had made at that point wasn’t clear.

“The Government has taken tough decisions,” Rudd declared. “The Government remains determined to take tough decisions … It’s our resolve, as the Government, to take these tough decisions … our resolve to take tough decisions in the national interest…”

The Government had “made the really tough decisions” echoed the Treasurer the same morning.

“When it comes to the tough decisions … we’ve taken some tough decisions…” Swan kept it up for several days.

“We have to take the tough decisions,” he told Greg Cary later in the week.

“Preparing the nation for future challenges means that we need to take tough decisions,” joined in Julia Gillard. But thereafter, the phrase locked away until the Budget situation summoned it forth last week.

“Working families” was popular earlier in the year and around the Budget, when there was even a “Working Families” package. But even the punters in the real world started to grow tired of it.

“You keep shoving this working families down our throats as though it’s some mantra from heaven,” one caller told Rudd during an interview with Neil Mitchell on 27 June.

Thereafter, the phrase dropped out of the official lexicon for a couple of weeks. Rudd, as if chastened, almost literally stopped using it, although the Parliamentary recess helped by taking away the main platform for its use, Question Time. But it returned with a vengeance during the first week of September when the Government was pressuring the Opposition and minor parties to pass its budget bills and celebrating the Reserve Bank’s first interest rate cut. In one week, the Prime Minister uttered the phrase a mind-numbing 65 times in Question Time.

Rudd is the biggest user of these keywords by far. Swan and Gillard are the next biggest, and tend to show the same pattern of usage, giving away that they’re sticking to the same script. Interestingly, Lindsay Tanner doesn’t play. He has let rip with the occasional “decisive” in Question Time lately, and has not been entirely innocent of evoking working families, but otherwise seems to almost religiously avoid using them. No wonder he comes across better than Swan.

This is the “Big Lie” technique in action. That’s not to suggest the Government are a bunch of goose-stepping Nazis, but rather that it doesn’t care that smartypants like us know they are relying on incessant repetition of keywords to shape public perceptions. The Government is talking over and through the media to voters, who typically see far less media than you and me.

The target of the Government’s keyword tactic is the voter who probably doesn’t read a newspaper, and who mainly gets his or her news from the evening commercial TV news, from breakfast TV or radio bulletins during the day. They might hear one or two soundbites a day, they might see the briefest of grabs from Question Time on the news, they might hear Kevin Rudd shooting the breeze with “Mel and Kochie” (that’s their official designation in transcripts) in the background while they get the kids ready for school. The Government is hellbent on ensuring they get the message it wants, regardless of how much it bores the rest of us.

Peter Fray

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