An act of political bravery: Speaking plain English



“All we are doing with this bill is allowing two people who love each other to have that relationship recognised by way of marriage. That is all we are doing.”

This video is from last month, when the New Zealand parliament passed a bill amending the definition of marriage. Essentially, they made it legal for same-sex couples to marry.

I am still recovering from this video.

It took me some time to get my head around it, to get some space from the initial emotion. Only then could I reflect on the significance of this MP’s speech to the New Zealand parliament. Maybe it’s because I’m Australian. Maybe it’s because I have lived in our colourless political landscape for so long that any act of political bravery stands out like the Land of Oz. Maybe I just wasn’t thinking about it. (I mean, hey, I just discovered The Voice. I’ve been busy.) But you know what really stands out for me when I watch this video again?

He’s speaking English.

I know, I know, cue Kiwi jokes now. “Fush and chups,” etc. It’s not about accents, or dialects. It’s about clarity of thought. He’s not just speaking English – he’s speaking plain English. The kind of English George Orwell would be proud of. (Or is it the kind of English of which George Orwell would be proud? I dunno, grammar skipped over my generation. And I will continue to use that as an excuse to begin sentences with “and”.)

As Orwell points out in his famous essay, Politics and the English Language, politicians commonly use “bad” English – superfluous words, stale metaphors, meaningless phrases – because it requires little thought and is helpfully vague. If you want to say something without actually saying it, go for vague language every time. But you’ll still want to sound like you’re saying something substantial and you’ll want to fill the press conference with a lot of noises, so add a bunch of syllables. Sound familiar? That’s exactly how our politicians communicate with us. It’s annoying.

But this New Zealand MP, Maurice Williamson – what can I say … He is a legend. That, right there, was an example of a declarative statement with no qualifiers added to soften its impact. These are the kinds of sentences that Williamson used as he stated his position on same-sex marriage. Declarative. Sharp. Strong. He was using these kind of sentences while he was talking about policy … Whaaa? No wonder I needed a couple of weeks to recover.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart recently ran a three-part story on Australia’s success with gun control and the Howard government’s (at the time) controversial legislation. John Oliver, who “reported” on the story (I mean, yes, it is technically reporting, but I find it hard to write “reported” without quote marks given that he takes his pants off and spars with a man in a kangaroo suit) … He paints Australia as a hopeful nation where cynicism has no place in politics and the politicians are philanthropic souls who put governance before personal ambition.

Um. Yeah.

Look, I know we have it good here. I think the public discourse in Australia is far too bitter and hyperbolic. We have it pretty good! Look at Greece! Worse things happen at sea, you know! (Another one of those dead metaphors … What does it even mean? What happens at sea?? One more reason I am unlikely to join the Navy.) From a global perspective, we’ve weathered recent financial crises and wars and social changes quite well. I get annoyed that, amidst our relative prosperity, I have to hear fearful, uninspiring speeches from Tony Abbott and similar.

It would be nice, for a change, to hear our politicians speak in a plain fashion. Particularly the Opposition. The Opposition! Even the name suggests a reactionary position. Imagine, if they tempered their language when speaking about the government – if they found some ground between “toxic” and “dying of shame” … Imagine what it would be like to hear the Opposition acknowledge a success of the government, a job done well. The same goes for the government: What if they respected the Opposition? What if politicians respected us, the public, enough to trust that we won’t suddenly flip our vote to the other party every minute that we’re not hearing something negative about them? Incredible.

Ideally, in a perfect world, this is how I see it: Politicians are motivated by a desire to see the country governed as effectively and fairly as possible. That’s it. They just want to see Australia prosper, its people live happily, its future look bright. They are not fussed about who makes that happen. If they think the current leaders are getting the job done, they are comfortable with that. If the current leaders are neglecting their people, the other politicians step in to provide balance. The needs of the nation come first.

But that is not how it is.

It was refreshing to hear Maurice Williamson state his position so clearly, so certainly, with the light heart of someone who is confident in his assertions. Sir Ken Robinson (oh, Sir Ken) once said, “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original”. Our major political parties are not prepared to be wrong, thus they are too afraid to make a firm statement. Even former Prime Minister John Howard, lauded in the Daily Show sketch as a politician committed to his ideals, used to talk about “non-core promises”. I would like our politicians to be honest about what they can promise, and to be frank when they make a mistake.

And could they please, please, please let gay people get married? Just let them get married. For goodness’ sake.



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