Guest Post: “A Time for Questions – Papering over the Cracks”

A guest post by Chris Penk, National MP for Helensville:

“A Time for Questions – Papering over the Cracks”

In any modern government the Prime Minister serves as communicator-in-chief.  That much is perfectly natural, reasonable and inevitable. During the early days of any administration, voters will judge largely according to the PM’s efforts in promoting its policy intentions.  As time goes on, however, focus inevitably turns towards delivery.  In the case of the Labour-NZ First-Green government, this is a development that I’m looking forward to with interest.

For now, Ms Ardern’s communication skills are doing a relatively good job of papering over various coalition policy cracks.  The stardust wears off, however, when you’re prepared to look critically at how she uses language to manipulate meaning.  Put another way: when enough voters decide her government’s talk and walk aren’t ever going to align, the current occupant of the Beehive’s ninth floor will return to earth.

So let’s take the ultimate environment for political posturing – Question Time in Parliament – as an opportunity to lift the lid on some linguistic limbo dancing.  On 20 February, the PM responded to a series of question from the Deputy Leader of the Opposition on the subject of tertiary education; I’ll use extracts from the exchange to illustrate my points.  (Words in quote marks below have been pasted from the draft version of the Parliamentary record and I’ve underlined certain ones for the sake of discussion.)

In the space of just two supplementary questions, Ardern uses a variety of techniques, probably subconsciously in most instances:

  1. Pronoun conflation:

Ardern stated at one point that, “we believe, for instance, that everyone should be able to access secondary education. Anyone […] should acknowledge that if we want to make sure we are a more productive society”.  The word doing all the heavy lifting, in persuasive terms, is the deceptively powerful first person plural pronoun: “we”.

The first occasion that the PM uses it (“we believe”), she’s referring to the Government.  The next couple of times (“we want” and “we are a more productive society”), however, she’s meaning New Zealand at large.  Switching seamlessly between political belief and public betterment is designed to provide a subliminal indication that the priorities of the Government match those of society.  We will see!

  1. Implication:

A question about the cost of a particular policy was met with the following remark: “This side of the House believes education is a public good”.  Clearly Ms Ardern is implying that the other side of the House doesn’t believe that education is a public good.  Of course she’s incorrect on that front but the technique is worth noting.

Loading statements with dubious implication is a common trick of advocacy, a favourite of courtroom lawyers for example, but it’s all the more notable here in relation to an arcane Parliamentary rule.  In answering oral questions, ministers are not allowed to speak on areas outside their portfolio responsibility.  While the PM was technically unable to comment on the Opposition’s (purported) beliefs regarding the value of education, her answer was constructed in such a way as to bury that particular “dig” within a statement seemingly all about her own side’s position.  Using the power of implication in this way makes it very difficult for the Speaker to rule an answer “out of order”.

  1. Presupposition:

Here’s another interesting item: “I point to the fact that, ultimately, our fees-free policy was about making sure that that can ensure that they are work-ready and that they are adaptable in a changing environment” [sic].

Ardern has used the word “fact” to describe a mere assertion.  It presupposes what is not necessarily the case.  Others could quite legitimately have a different view about what Labour’s “fees-free policy was about” (for instance, buying the votes of a particular generation of students) but the PM attempts to preclude that possibility by presenting her own version of events as “fact”.

  1. Redundant verifier / intensifier:

“I’d really love to provide more detail” is another interesting statement, which came in answer to a question about the results of analysis.  In this context, the word “really” could mean a couple of different things.

It could mean “honestly”, which would make the word redundant for a very obvious reason: we should be able to expect honesty without that being highlighted on every occasion.  The other possibility is that the word “really” here simply indicates a stronger version of what the statement would otherwise have been.  But as “love” is already an intense concept it’s hardly meaningful.

Either way, Ardern is trying hard make it look as though she’s wanting to provide as much information as possible but is being thwarted by circumstances beyond her control.  Her tendency to hyperbole will grow tiresome quickly for many voters.

  1. Tautology / repetition to create distance:

Asked a question about expected tertiary student numbers, the PM refers to a “rough estimate” being made.  It’s a classic case of tautology because an estimate is, by very definition, a “rough” figure.  In her uncertainty, Ardern is seeking to avoid responsibility in case the number in question is not actually right.

And in the same segment we can unearth another gem: “My recollection—and I’d have it noted this is simply my recollection […] from memory, 5 percent”.  In addition to recollection” being used twice, it’s followed by the phrase “from memory”, which is of course the same thing.  In repeatedly emphasising that her details are not necessarily accurate, Ardern is trying to avoid having to correct the record later if these are proven to be inaccurate.

Furthermore, for Ardern to say that “I’d have it noted” is meaningless:  every word spoken by a Minister at Question Time is “noted” by Hansard, whether or not they would “have it” that way.  In conjunction with her thrice-emphasised reliance on memory, the PM’s desire to note uncertainty is based on her desire not to be held accountable for inaccuracy … at the same time as avoiding having to confess that she simply does not know the answer.

  1. Qualified absolutes:

Finally, we hear from Ardern her stated desire to ensure that “all New Zealanders, particularly those who have never entered into post-secondary education before, have access to education”.

The phrase “all New Zealanders” is an absolute (as no New Zealander is excluded by it) so it’s pointless going on to mention anyone to whom this “particularly” applies.  Here, the point of the PM’s statement isn’t to impart information efficiently but instead to reach out to “those who haven’t entered into post-secondary education before” for political reasons.  In other words, the point of the exercise is to promote the policy as being equally good for everyone at the same time as saying it’s particularly good for a particular group.  She’s trying to have her cake and eat it, too, suggesting universalism and a targeted approach simultaneously.

I’d conclude by noting that while Ms Ardern linguistic skills make no practical difference to her ability as a legislator.  It will ultimately be works and worth – not words – that voters use as the basis for judging her government.  That day of judgement will come all the sooner if “we, the people” (yes, including “we, the Opposition”) pay careful attention … not only to the things that the PM is saying but also how she’s saying them.

Chris Penk (@christopherpenk) is the National MP for Helensville and a former student of Linguistics at the University of Auckland

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