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The rhetoric of trust.

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Thursday 7 October 2004

Neil James, Executive Director, Plain English Foundation


The Rhetoric of Trust  


When John Howard announced the Federal election, he raised more than a few eyebrows with the theme he chose to kick off the campaign. This, he said, was to be an election about trust. Many thought it an odd gambit when polls showed that two thirds of Australians thought he had lied to them about the children overboard affair. 


Yet Howard’s rhetoric was entirely true to form. Taking an analogy from the world of cricket that the Prime Minister loves so well, he was simply playing on the front foot, attacking on the very ground that he ought to defend. This has been essential to his success for the best part of a decade. Howard went to the 1996 election promising that a GST would ‘never ever’ be Coalition policy. Having won an impregnable 44 seat margin, he could not let the opportunity pass. So he went onto the front foot, declaring that because the ‘Australian public are entitled to be told before an election what a government will do after an election’, he was now sharing the ‘great adventure’ of tax reform with them. Never mind the ‘never, ever’ pledge; in the era of the seven-second sound bite, success can be as simple as assuming the mantle of honesty. 


Since 1996, Howard has steadied his long innings as Prime Minister by manipulating the rhetoric of trust. His greatest weapon is his head-high bouncer: the scare campaign. Last time around the good ship Tampa sailed along right on schedule. Only a Howard Government, he argued, could be ‘trusted’ to keep the country secure. This time around, the bouncer has been much harder graft. Elect a Latham government, the Prime Minister claims, and you will return to double digit interest rates, you will ‘add an additional $960 a month to the average mortgage’. Only Howard can be trusted to keep the economy safe.  


Economists everywhere quickly rejected this claim, pointing out that interest rates are likely to remain stable regardless of who wins the poll. Unless he has suddenly lost his grip on basic economics, the Prime Minister knows this as well. Yet throughout the campaign, he has stuck cynically to his short ball strategy, confident that enough voters will take fright and keep their faith in him. 


Of course, there is nothing new in negative rhetoric. Robert Menzies enjoyed years of electoral bliss by kicking the communist can; Malcolm Fraser warned us all to keep our money safely under our beds; Paul Keating won the unwinnable election with the first spectre of the GST; and Bob Hawke gained great mileage from Liberal leadership turmoil. By contrast, Mark Latham’s grasp of political rhetoric appears almost amateur. The closest he comes to sending down a bouncer is observing that the Prime Minister is fast appproaching his use-by date. But don’t be decieved. This is as carefully calculated as Howard’s rhetoric of trust. 



Latham wants to be the fresh new voice of Australian politics—the leader for the next generation. His tactic is to play with the dead straight bat. Only occasionally does he risk a shot over the top. Like Hawke before him, he can’t quite help a taste for hyperbole. Remember the memorable claim that by 1990, no Australian child would be living in poverty? Latham showed something of the same touch at the launch of his family tax policy, claiming that ‘nine out of ten’ families will be better off under Labor. The more modest reality is that seven out of ten families will actually benefit. This in itself would be a solid achievement, so why up the rhetorical ante? 


When pushed to explain his claim, Mark Latham turned to what all politicians have in their strokeplay: the technical defence. This is the elaborate and perfectly correct bat that misses the ball by a mile. Latham stands by his original claim because nine out of ten families would be better off ‘on a fortnightly basis’; that is, until they receive their annual benefit. Technically, Latham is right, but the rest of us are watching the ball sail straight between bat and pad. 


All opposition leaders say they want to restore our trust in government. It’s almost compulsory for them to argue that ‘the Australian people have been misled too often. The Australian people have seen their fundamental trust in the value of commitments given by their leaders slowly erode.’ John Howard said exactly these words in 1996, and trust has been the core of Howard rhetoric ever since. Yet his actual success at rebuilding our trust in the main game has been underwhelming at best. A recent poll showed that close to half of Australian voters believe that neither leader was trustworthy. The major parties will win our votes on Saturday, but until they match rhetoric with reality, they do not deserve our trust.  


Guests on this program:

Neil James  

Executive Director 

Plain English Foundation