The creeping barrage of political language

February 12, 2014

By David Hetherington

Nearly 100 years ago, humans invented the creeping barrage. A WWI battlefield innovation, the barrage cleared terrain by raining down artillery immediately in front of one’s own advancing infantry, creeping a hundred yards every few minutes. What remained was a wasteland, primed for occupation but good for little else, a testament to the dark side of human creativity.

Thankfully, the creeping barrage is now obsolete but the theory continues to be applied in another, unexpected setting: the political debate. Over the course of the summer, we have seen the ground prepared for a broad political offensive.

The gunners are the media columnists, interest groups and ex-politicians. The battleground ranges across poverty, fairness, welfare and human rights. And the attacking infantry are Tony Abbott’s Coalition government, determined to push forward its ideological front and occupy the ground cleared by its creeping barrage.

Rather than shells and mortars, the ammunition is now political language. A decade ago, the linguist George Lakoff famously wrote Don’t Think of an Elephant!, which explored the power of conservative linguistic frames and their impact on the 2004 presidential race. Today, the conservative movement in Australia is showing they have learned Lakoff’s lessons well.

The intent of their creeping barrage is to distort the meaning of terms such as poverty and fairness to allow them to be ‘claimed’ by the Abbott Government as it advances its agenda. The co-ordination between the gunners and the infantry is understood, rather than formalised. The columnists know their job; they don’t need to be told what to attack and when. The ministers and MPs are confident their artillery will do its job where it’s needed.

Take poverty. The Government knows it’s not a good look to be bashing poor people directly. But many of its policies have exactly this effect: the removal of super tax concessions for low-income earners, the repeal of pay rises to childcare workers, a mooted new co-payment on Medicare. The trick then is to deny that genuine poverty exists in Australia.

Cue Adam Creighton from The Australian. In a recent column, Mr Creighton asserts that “talk of endemic poverty in Australia is an insult to the millions of people overseas experiencing genuine privation”. Our problem is not poverty, he argues, but addiction to welfare. He disputes ACOSS research showing three million Australians below the poverty line by arguing welfare entitlements make the suggestion of such poverty “farcical”.

Accordingly, no policy can hurt the “genuine” poor because in Australia, they don’t exist. Creighton relies here on a technique philosophers call association fallacy. Since someone claiming full benefits could not possibly be poor, widespread poverty is impossible. This approach excludes, among others, labour hire staff working irregular hours on the minimum wage, who are undoubtedly poor in today’s Australia.

Another technique employed by the barrageistes is old-fashioned Orwellian double-speak. The subject matter here is fairness, and the gunner is Tony Shepherd, president of the BCA and head of Tony Abbott’s Commission of Audit. He told a Senate Committee in January that his Commission would be guided by the principle of “fairness”. Given the commission is expected to propose public service cuts and the sale of public assets to big business, it is reasonable to ask “fairness for whom?”

The essence of fairness is people getting what they reasonably deserve. Does big business deserve the tax cuts they want more than the needy deserve decent public services? Not on any serious examination, but by claiming the mantle of fairness, Shepherd seeks to redefine the impact of the Commission’s work.

A third technique is the classic straw man. In a recent speech, Nick Cater of The Australian attacks what he calls “the fixation with human rights” or more succinctly, “the victimhood club”. The speech was part of a broader effort by Cater and others to lay the groundwork for George Brandis’s controversial changes to Australian racial vilification laws and the Human Rights Commission.

In it, Cater ridicules the case of Cecil, a Santa Claus actor from Adelaide who complained to the Commission after being sacked for wearing glasses and won $600 in compensation. See how ridiculous human rights institutions must be if this is what they spend their time on? Get it?! An example, Cater argues, of how “disability is the growth area in the anti-discrimination industry these days”.

Of course, from behind the creeping barrage comes the ever-present chatter of the propaganda wing. The enemy is uniformly decried as “latte-sipping”, “inner city” elites as though we are multi-millionaires who mix with the nation’s great and good or frequent the cafes around Holt Street in Surry Hills. Sound familiar?