We appear to have become a nation obsessed with semantics.
Since Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s announcement of her Cabinet line-up on Saturday last week, the commentary has zeroed in on two ‘issues’ – the appointment of Kevin Rudd to the Foreign Ministry, and the absence of the word ‘Education’ in any of the portfolios.
The former is understandable, if a little tiresome. Rudd’s relegation to a subordinate position, when three years ago he was the one making the appointments, was always going to attract attention. Much has been made of his apparently ‘stony’ face and ‘disengaged expression’ during the swearing-in ceremony that took place at Yarralumla yesterday. It seems that no amount of denial or reassurance on his part will stop that, and I suspect it will simply be a matter of time before the media and the Opposition find something else to talk about.
When it comes to the question of portfolio names, however, the arguments get a little silly. Correction – they get very silly.
True, Gillard had not named an Education Minister. What she had done was split up the portfolios between two other Ministries – Schools, Early Childhood and Youth under Peter Garrett; and Jobs, Skills and Workplace Relations under Chris Evans. For a government self-admittedly preoccupied with educational matters, this looked at first glance like a remarkable oversight on her part. Universities were particularly worried; to all intents and purposes, it appeared as though tertiary education was being treated as entirely vocational. The unfortunate result of the initial announcement was that people – perhaps with some justification – thought that education was being devalued.
The Opposition went to town, and pundits everywhere pounced on this disquiet. Instead of evaluating the situation, however, media shook their heads over what a ‘bad look’ it was, and accepted without question whatever they were being told by those with a vested interest in undermining the new government’s reputation.
In perhaps the most obviously example, the Opposition proclaimed that Gillard had actually forgotten to name an Education Minister. One particular sound bite of this was replayed ad nauseam by Sky News – a particularly irresponsible move on their part, since it gave legitimacy to something that was not merely spin, but an outright lie.
The government eventually responded to concerns expressed by universities, and by the time the respective Ministers formally took up their responsibilities, the word ‘Education’ had appeared in their titles. Of course, by this time, the damage was doe, and the Opposition could then argue that the government was playing ‘catch-up’.
All this, because a single word was left out of a Ministerial title.
It can be argued that perceptions matter. That it’s important to have a clear understanding of what a Ministry actually does. In that case, the government’s failure to provide that clarity is an elementary error which will likely prove to be a continuing thorn in its side.
But, you know, it cuts both ways.
Take a look at the Coalition’s Shadow Ministry, for example.
Most positions are still held by their incumbents, although Malcolm Turnbull’s appointment to Communications and Broadband was clearly the opening salvo in what is likely to be a vicious campaign against the NBN. There are a whole slew of new Shadow Parliamentary Secretaries, including the hapless Tony Smith, whose woeful performance during the election campaign saw him banished from the Communications Ministry with lightning speed. There is a good summary, including links to websites, on The Notion Factory.
An initial failure to name a Shadow for Mental Health was quickly corrected, with Concetta Fierravanti-Wells taking on that responsibility in addition to Shadow for Ageing. There are also, apparently, two Ministers for Regional Development; Barnaby Joyce and Bob Baldwin. It’s not clear whether this is an error in the list released to the media, or actual appointments.
Some of the names for the Shadow portfolios, though, are very telling.
Andrew Robb is still the Shadow for Finance and De-regulation. He’s got an additional title now, however, that doesn’t mirror Penny Wong’s Ministry. He’s also responsible for Debt Reduction. Then there’s Scott Morrison, whose pre-election portfolio of Immigration has been expanded to include Productivity. Finally we have Jamie Briggs, who’ll chair the Scrutiny of Government Waste Committee.
See what they did there?
Those three Shadow portfolios are intended to be a constant reminder of Coalition policies and criticisms. You can just bet that any time Robb or Morrison turn up, their staff will insist on the full titles. Every time Robb comments on the ‘massive debt’, his title will be there underscoring the point. Every time Morrison takes on the asylum seeker and immigration issues, his title will underpin the Coalition argument that Australia needs to consider the effect on the economy first, and humanitarian considerations later (if at all).
As for Jamie Briggs – honestly, it’s so ham-fisted I’m embarrassed for them. This committee, linked to a truly crass website called LaborWaste, apparently exists for only one purpose – to discredit the government wherever possible. Apart from semi-regular media releases liberally sprinkled with ‘scare’ words, the website (adorned with a version of Labor’s own logo, something that may not be entirely legal) asks people to provide ‘tip offs’. Yes, that’s right – dob in the government today. You too can send in your complaints (you can even attach documents of up to 10Mb) and help participate in what’s little more than an exercise in muck-raking.
The so-called ‘waste’ claims are not examined, nor is any evidence provided. In fact, the most commonly cited ‘proof’ is a statement allegedly made by a Liberal Senator or MP castigating the government for its ‘mismanagement’. The title of the committee is a dead giveaway – this isn’t about impartial scrutiny at all. It starts with the assumption that any money the government spends is wasteful.
The irony here is unbelievable. Here is a committee, and a website, designed to perpetuate a central pillar of the Opposition’s election campaign and sloganeering – unnecessary expenditure. But back up a second. Running and staffing such committees costs money. Building, maintaining and monitoring websites costs money. Sending out media releases is cheaper than it used to be thanks to email, but someone is still being employed to sit there and write them. Granted, they’ll save a lot of money by not doing any actual scrutiny, but when you get right down to it, the committee is nothing more than an expensive, dirty, propaganda engine.
So if we’re going to point fingers at the government’s failure to include the word ‘Education’ in Ministerial titles, we should probably spend a bit of time looking at the linguistic tactics of the Opposition – which are far more revealing.
In this ‘kinder, gentler’ polity, this ‘collegial’ atmosphere, those tactics make it very clear what the Opposition really plans to do for the next three years. Abbott didn’t even bother to deny it this morning on ABC radio. He made it clear that the Coalition still consider themselves a ‘government-in-waiting’ – and now, they’re just waiting to step in when ‘inevitably’ the government loses the confidence of the Independents. (He doesn’t seem to have considered the possibility that, even if there is a loss of confidence, the Independents won’t automatically turn around and crown him Prime Minister.)
In the meantime, the Opposition appear to be doing everything they can to undermine the government even before the new Parliament sits for the first time – and the use of ‘slogan’ Shadow Ministry title is just another weapon in that attack.