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.


A poem for Kanye


A couple of weeks ago, I was passing through Perth on some interstate travels, and a friend invited me to perform at a poetry night in Freo. I said yes! Thanks! Woo hoo! But then I began to worry: I hadn’t written too many new performance pieces since last time I was in Perth, and this crowd was likely to have heard my stuff before. The last thing you want is an audience rolling their eyes and going, “Not this one again. NEXT.”

So, I scrabbled around for some new stuff I’d written in Brisbane. One was something I wrote for my Dad for his sixtieth birthday, mainly filled with insider references that only my family would get. But I put it in my back pocket. Another was a sort of cutesy, plaintive poem about my posterior, because why not. And I decided to do The Editor’s Rap, even though it’s an oldie, because hell, it’s fun to do. But I still needed another piece, so I decided to write one.

I wrote a poem to Kanye West. Kind of a rap. More like an open letter to Yeezy. I love his music – big fan – but he gets away with saying some pretty messed-up shit about women. It was time for right of reply.

Kanye West, probably yelling about a woman.

I was particularly replying to the track ‘Devil In A New Dress‘ (from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010), and this idea of a woman being dangerous and devil-like because she “has” the “power” to arouse a man. (MEN! Quit getting mad at girls because they gave you “the feelings”. You are the masters of your destiny, the captains of your junk! I believe in you!)

So, this one’s for you, Yeezy.

So you say I’m the devil in a new dress?

Aw, you bet.

All the cash I spent just to make your pants tent.

All the cash I spent, could’ve used on my rent.

All the dress I bought so you’d know what I meant.

What I meant.

Dancin’ in my “root suit”. Riot

coz my dress says yes but I say no

and you don’t buy it.

You won’t listen

unless it’s said with fabric and stitchin’.

Couldn’t attract you by accident,

must’ve been my intention.

Little did I know, tonight, when I was getting all dressed up,

the same hand that sewed this dress was sewing

my mouth shut.

Couldn’t’ve dressed like this because it felt good, NO.

Couldn’t’ve dressed like this because it’s comfy, NO.

Couldn’t’ve dress like this for no reason, NO.

Or coz the shops all have the same damn styles every season … (Am I right, girls?)

Couldn’t attract you by accident –

this is what my dress meant –

must’ve been a plan to torture you by Satan.

Satan, Satan, Satan.

Yeah, must’ve been Satan.

Uh, go and tell it on the mountain, son,

or go and tell Kim Kardashian.

Don’t need to guess what my dress says –

this’ll help you stress less –

focus on my lips and wait ’til I say “yes”.

Don’t need to guess what my dress says –

this’ll help you stress less –

come and make a deal with the “devil in a new dress”.

Big thanks to Perth’s poetry paparazzi, Jamie MacQueen, for recording and posting the video of that performance, embedded at the top there.

Photo of Kanye West from Flickr.