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State Govt buzzwords are killing imagination


Not "vibrant", never "nimble": the tortured language used by South Australian politicians and public servants is damaging our democracy, argues Malcolm King.

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Buzzwords litter government, business and public discourse like losing betting tickets on race day.

Political speeches, media releases and business reports are peppered with vapid words and terms such as ‘innovation’, ‘entrepreneurial’, ‘economic transformation’, ‘collaborative’, ‘consultation’, ‘renewing’, and my favourite, ‘nimble’.

Verbs, the prime movers of English, are being killed by buzzwords and clichés. This mumbo jumbo has crossed generations, as schoolteachers and the education system have embraced managerial language, and perpetrate it on their students.

What we write, we think. Below is a quote from one of the Premier’s articles on his social vision for SA, which appeared in the media before Christmas.

South Australia was planned with conscious purpose. At the heart of wellbeing lies a sense of purpose. We need to build on these historical strengths and unique characteristics with a renewed social policy agenda.

Can one plan a state unconsciously? Replacing the clause, ‘renewed social policy agenda’ with ‘pie warmer’ makes as much sense. If you’re passionate about a person, place or idea, you use strong, direct verbs: strive, build, attack, love.

Has managerial speak so corrupted language that our politicians no longer have the tools to write with conviction? Or have politicians abandoned conviction and now use words that sound like Clag dripping through a sieve?

Deliberate ambiguities, incomprehensible or meaningless words, poison a democracy by leaving us less able to make informed or rational decisions.

The Weatherill government has mastered the language of change without creating change. This verb-less treacle is used as a substitute for action. The words tumble off the tongue and through repetition, are skewered of meaning. The state is environment-rich in new logos and brands as symbols of change but our economy continues to contract.

Jay Weatherill's plan to increase the GST rate would raise billions more than broadening the tax's reach. AAP image

Jay Weatherill’s government has mastered the language of change, without creating change. AAP image

In 2001/02, South Australia made up 7 per cent of Australia’s GDP. It’s now 6.1 per cent and falling. Projected jobs growth in SA is a measly .25 per cent. In the parlance, an economic fightback has been ‘unactioned’.

The state public service is writing such convoluted sentences that the terms ‘nimble’ or ‘innovative’ are laughable. I’ve seen more get up and go in the Egyptian room of the SA Museum.

As the public and private spheres of our lives merge, our thinking is being colonised by ‘stakeholders’, ‘accountability’, ‘wake up calls’ and ‘competitive evaluation processes’.

This is from the Department for Education and Child Development (DECD) website:

Current local and international research and global contexts demand a shift in our teaching from a linear, transactional, industrial approach to a post-industrial approach which is future focused and builds positive learner self-efficacy.

It’s lobotomising stuff. I’m not one of those grammar curmudgeons. Language changes all of the time but the above shrinks our mental horizons. Politicians and their hirelings parrot the ready-made phrases of mediocrity because it’s easier. Want to work in the public service? Welcome to the machine.

If thought corrupts language, then language corrupts thought by suffocating initiative at birth. If we use these leaden phrases and forget the power of verbs, we lose the power of language.

Deliberate ambiguities, incomprehensible or meaningless words, poison a democracy by leaving us less able to make informed or rational decisions. South Australians desperately need politicians and business leaders who are straight shooters.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” George Orwell wrote in Politics and the English Language. “When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.”

A labour force economist says SA's real unemployment rate is close to what it was during Paul Keating's "recession we had to have". AAP image

As Prime Minister and Treasurer, Paul Keating’s language was direct and powerful. AAP image

One of Paul Keating’s best short speeches is relatively unknown. He was talking to Brisbane Girls’ Grammar students about the first skirmishes against the Japanese on the Kokoda Trail. The young women of Year 12 were sitting in the front row.

“And that morning at 6.00 am, with the mist low over the village as it started to clear, young Australian men in shorts and singlets some 18 years of age, fought the best the Japanese Imperial Army could throw at them. Now that is people at Year 12 age, or approaching Year 12, to be sitting there in that tropical environment facing the strongest and the best combat troops the Japanese could throw at our country. So you had to believe in something and you had to have faith in something to carry on and they did and they fought a valiant fight for Australia and the rest is the history we know.”

There are grammatical flaws in this but he was speaking to convince an audience of young women about the bravery of young Australians about their age. There were no lines drawn in the sand and the Australians didn’t facilitate a victory on the Kokoda trail.

By destroying passive thinking and writing, we might find evidence of a mind at work, of ideas and arguments, signs of conscientious effort and with a push, imagination.

Malcolm King works in generational change and is an Adelaide writer. Read more from Malcolm here.


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