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Former speech writer discusses the use of language.
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Thursday, 13 November 2003
Videotape: 1005307 (V03/0822-4-2);\n Online Text: 1005308
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Former speech writer discusses the use of language.
This transcript has been prepared by a source external to the Department of the Parliamentary Library.
It may not have been checked against the broadcast or in any other way. Freedom from error, omissions or misunderstandings cannot be guaranteed.
For the purposes of quoting verbatim from a transcript, it is advisable to verify the transcript against the broadcast.
Thursday 13 November 2003
Don Watson, former speech writer to Paul Keating
DON WATSON, AUTHOR (READING): Given the within year and budget time flexibility accorded to the science agencies and the determination of resource allocation from within their global budget, a multiparameter approach to maintaining the agency's budget in real terms is not appropriate.
JENNY BROCKIE: Don Watson, you say that this language enrage s, depresses, humiliates and confuses us that it leaves us speechless. Why then do so many people use it?
DON WATSON: Well, I think it's probably habit as much as anything else. It's hard to separate the habit from the obligation. I think in many places they're obliged to use it, it's insisted that they use it. You can speak to people who work in public service organisations who say "But we write with verbs, we write whole sentences and we send them upstairs and they come down saying 'Put them in dot points, I don't want any of this and why haven't you mentioned continued improvement going forwards'" and so they put it in. And they put it in dot points. They do a Powerpoint on it. So, I mean really, there is an element of coersion. I think if you think - as the first thing I think to be understood is that the language has evolved in the last 15 or 20 years to suit the needs of modern companies. It's evolved out of marketing in part but it's now become the language is the equivalent in the information age of the assembly line or the machine in the industrial age. It really is a forcing implement. It's a language you implement rather than speak.
JENNY BROCKIE: Is it there for different reasons, in your view? You mention about it putting us into a coma. I wonder if in politics part of the idea is to put us into a coma so we can't ask intelligent questions or make intelligent analysis of what's going on. Whereas in management, sometimes I wonder whether it's part of a struggle for control by people, that they're looking for precise terms to explain change they might not understand themselves.
DON WATSON: Yes, well in looking for precise terms they find the most imprecise terms because I mean management uses words and phrases which are entirely - they're not only imprecise, they're so imprecise they're interchangable. You can put them in any order you like and they come out sounding much the same. I mean, people will tell you that they had jobs in marketing and places like this, they flew around the country and they never knew what it was their brief was saying and they would sit through meetings and they didn't know what was being said at all. And they sat there in terror that one day someone would find them out and they came to the conclusion in the end that no-one knew what was in their briefs. No-one knew what the other person was saying. I'm sure it happens in the public service all the time. It's not an exchange of words, the words conveying ideas, emotions, and whatever, possibilities, it's an exchange of dead things.
(READING): Our procedures in respect of the audit of the concise financial report included testing that the information in the concise financial report is consistent with the full financial report. An examination on a test basis of evidence supporting the amounts, discussion and analysis and other disclosures which were not directly derived from the full financial report.
JENNY BROCKIE: You were a speech writer for Paul Keating, of course. Now is your chance, Don Watson, to confess your crimes, your word crimes.
DON WATSON: Well, I'm sure if I went over them I'd find that there were many. But I was always - anyone who hasn't been infected, and I was relatively uninfected, I think, when I went there, looks with great alarm upon the words that come up from the Depar tment. You can't believe the briefs you get and you can't use them. You might be able to pick the figures out but all the words joining them are useless to you. So you were always conscious of trying to put some life into the words, to breathe some life into the words. It's not just the bureaucratic and it's not just economics, it would even be speeches, draft speeches out of the Department about loss of life, about great battles would be written in the same language, you know, the same vacuous empty language as speeches about the economy.
JENNY BROCKIE: But were there not also times in your job where your job was to obfuscate, was to deliver a speech where you weren't really saying what you meant because you couldn't afford to?
DON WATSON: Yeah, there were times when you were not really wanting to make a splash. But I don't really recall doing too much deliberate obfuscation. In fact, I can't think of any. But there are times when you are obviously - you have to make certain slides or you're trying to create a sort of soft landing. I remember a Press Club speech where six months after the '93 election where the prime minister had to announce that he was only going to pay half the tax cuts that had been promised before the election because the figures made it impossible to pay the full lot. So we wound into that speech in all sorts of ways, you know, get them laughing, relaxed and settle them all down and then just sort of slide it in but it didn't work, of course. We talked about Sam Johnson and Bob Menzies, but you knew in the end what they were poised waiting for was the tax cut and it landed like a brick coming through the roof and there was nothing he could do about it. I get the feeling actually that times were a little tougher in those days. I think journalists were harder on politicians, even seven or eight years ago. Something has happened now where...
JENNY BROCKIE: Why do you think that is? What's happened?
DON WATSON: I don't know. I think maybe certain organisations like possibly the ABC feel under a little pressure and they don't go quite as hard as they used to, maybe. Or a new generation of journalists have come through or the old ones are getting tired. But I always think, I mean, a journalist only needs to say to a politician, if he wants to find the truth or the absence of truth, he wants to discover the weasel worded as opposed to the real word, that's the question he's got to ask, ask what the word means. I think what they've tended to do, you watch them now and you think well, they're just worn out. They become part of the same pattern. They accept the language. They don't expect to get any information.
JENNY BROCKIE: You say in your book that it was not in our breeding as Australians to be eloquent, that we make do with language as we make do with low rainfall, thin soil and bits of wire. But haven't Australians also been very clever in their use of language, particularly laconic humour, laconic Australian humour which is very economic with words?
DON WATSON: No, I wish it was still alive and well. I mean, we have used to have parliamentarians who were funny. We haven't had any for a long while. Name one funny parliamentarian. None. I used to love listening to the parliament when I was young. You got a lot of jokes out of it. You'd pick up the rhythms in Australian language, you'd pick up the provincial differences. But all that's gone. Partly because the parliament no longer serves as a place where people make speeches. It's just question time now, which is a kind of forcing ground for the media. It's a media event. It's not a place where people speak philosophically or with subtlety or describe paradox or whatever. So the avenues for laconic Australian speech are becoming narrower and narrower. See, sport is now managerial. Sport was a great place for laconic speech. The only place that remains is horse racing which seems to be somehow immune to managerialism. Maybe because you can't managerialise a horse, or even a jockey. But that's really what I mean. The best parts of our language are getting ground into the dust by managerial language.
(READING): This is Donald Rumsfeld. As we know, there are no known knowns. There are things we know we know, we also know there are no unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we d on't know we don't know.