There was hope for this campaign when the media pounced on the PM’s over-use of ‘moving forward’ on the day she announced the election date. Surely the reaction would have made the point that the public is sick of being spoken down to by robot-like politicians. But, alas, in this campaign we’re seeing plenty of repetition, as well as many other insidious aspects of pollie speak.
For repetition, take a look at Deputy Prime Minister Wayne Swan’s performance on the 7.30 Report on Wednesday. Throughout the interview he kept repeating Moving Forward’s utterly clichéd cousin ‘going forward’, and in this little excerpt he fell into the nasty habit of repeating himself in the hope of making a mediocre line more memorable:
KERRY O’BRIEN: Well, he’s reducing company tax for all …
WAYNE SWAN: No, it’s policy chaos, Kerry …
O’BRIEN: And increasing company tax for some.
SWAN: No, it is policy chaos…
O’BRIEN: Well, increasing tax for some.
SWAN: It is policy chaos. He claimed he was having a company tax cut of 1.5 per cent, when he’s got a company tax increase for a very large number of companies of 1.7 per cent, Kerry. This is simply policy chaos, and he couldn’t detail to the Australian people how the two mixed, what the net outcome was. It was simply outrageous.
We get it, Wayne. We really do. We heard you the first time.
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Politicians love a bridging phrase — changing the subject away from the question that’s been asked and back to the key messages they want to deliver. Here Swan tried to move away from questions about disunity in the Labor Party affecting voters’ intentions:
O’BRIEN: You have been around politics a very long time, Mr Swan. You don’t think this has any capacity to affect people’s judgements?
SWAN: Kerry, it may. But there’s nothing we can do about the speculation. What we can do is to get out there and campaign and to tell our very good story, particularly about our economic stewardship of this economy, and our plans for the future. That’s what Julia Gillard has been doing and that’s what I’ve been doing throughout the campaign.
“What we can do…” is a classic bridging phrase, like “but let me say…” or “the important thing today is…” The key message is the “very good story” about the government’s economic record. And yes, Swan repeated it several times throughout the interview.
Interestingly, Swan used the technique of initial agreement in order to help him change the topic quickly. I call this the Beattie Manoeuvre — former Queensland Premier Peter Beattie was particularly adept at it.
In other parts of the interview, Swan used another tactic. He achieved the bridging phrase but didn’t follow through with the key message. Have a look at how he did this when O’Brien asked him about Mark Latham’s allegations that Kevin Rudd is a serious leaker:
SWAN: Well I’m not going to buy into that. You can go and interview former Labor leaders; critics of all of us if you’d like. What I want to do is talk about the issues; the important issues that your viewers want to know about in this campaign.
Swan could have easily changed the subject. But instead of going to a key message he saw mileage in making it look like he couldn’t change the subject because of the barrage of unimportant questions about leaks.
Another tactic Swan is adept at is picking the part of the question he wants to answer and leaving out the rest. This is easy to do when the questions are double barrelled or unwieldy. In this exchange, O’Brien might as well have read the first three chapters of War and Peace for all the relevance his question had to the answer Swan finally gave:
O’BRIEN: Kevin Rudd is not just a candidate for Labor in this campaign; Kevin Rudd is aspiring to be a senior minister in the Gillard government. Julia Gillard has made plain on more than one occasion that there is a senior ministry for him. I would suggest to you that it is absolutely relevant to people making their judgements about this government, in whether they vote for or against it, as to how coherent you would be in government, and in doing that I’m asking you whether you have had any contact with Kevin Rudd. You see, you’ve been a friend of Kevin Rudd’s for a long time.
SWAN: That’s right.
O’BRIEN: And when you were asked, I think, a few days after the leadership changed, whether you had seen Kevin Rudd, you said, “No, I haven’t, but I intend to catch up.” Why is it a sensitive issue for you to say whether you’ve even seen him?
SWAN: Because it simply feeds the sort of stories you’re talking about. I have been campaigning right around Australia. In the last four or five days, I’ve been around northern Queensland, I’ve been to Darwin, I’ve been to Perth and now I’m back here. I will run into Kevin Rudd in the course of the campaign and I will be talking to Kevin Rudd in the course of the campaign …
Note how Swan only had to answer the last bit of the question. This is a weakness in O’Brien’s interviewing style. He sometimes resorts to tutorials, as if he thinks we all need the benefit of his analysis. This was on display this week in the interview with Tony Abbott when 14 of his 36 questions were more than 50 words long. In total (not including his introductory script) he used 1604 words, which was very nearly as many as the 1666 words Tony Abbot used for his answers.
I suspect nothing pisses off the public more than the worst of all politician traits; denial of the obvious. Most pollies seem oblivious to the public’s incredulity as they swear the earth is flat or that renovations to a school canteen are cheap at only $2.8 million. On this score, Julia Gillard used to be particularly culpable, although there are signs she’s changing slightly.
As we’ve already seen, Swan did not fall into this trap. He admitted that the ALP has a real problem with leaks and that the instability may hurt. Mind you, he also stretched credibility when he defended Rudd over the leaks and tried to argue that he doesn’t need to confirm that he has spoken to him about them.
For denial of the obvious, take a look at the Minister for Financial Services, Chris Bowen, on Lateline on Wednesday:
TONY JONES: Chris Bowen, we’ll start with you, and on the obvious topic: Julia Gillard is now fighting battles on two fronts, against the Opposition and against rats in Labor’s ranks. Are you starting to lose control of this campaign?
CHRIS BOWEN: Not at all. I thought the Prime Minister put in a first-class performance today explaining her support for two of our landmark policies: paid parental leave and the big increase in the aged pension.
The PM’s performance may have been first class, but without some acknowledgement that the leaks are hurting Labor, the answer lacked credibility.