Generational change: a question of language

An important dimension underpinning generation change is political language. Jon Johansson analyses both main party leader's opening addresses and finds scant evidence of any new paradigm emerging.

One of several concepts that underpin the idea of generational change is the degree to which political language matches changes in the thinking of the rising political generation.

A fresh language reflects a growing feeling by those on the rise that the dominant political language of the old order is both unsatisfying and incapable of moving politics forward, reinforcing their attitude that politics is mired in the present.

This was so palpably obvious during our last generational shift, from Robert Muldoon’s Keynesian era to Roger Douglas’ neo-liberal one, that it was one of the standout aspects of the ’84 shift. Douglas, senior Treasury officials, academics, editorial writers and political commentators across the country began talking a new language.

Eventually, so did the rest of us whenever we talked about politics, reacting either for or against it.

Think about just how much our political language changed with Rogernomics. It incorporated new words and phrases such as the market economy, neo-liberalism, deregulation, devaluation, fiscal responsibility, Reserve Bank Act, monetarism, SOEs, privatisation, asset sales, flat-tax, tax shelters, Wine Box, welfare dependency, efficiency, public choice theory, tino rangitiritanga, Treaty settlements, Te Reo, bulk funding, and my personal favourite: There Is No Alternative!

The power of this language has been with us for over two decades and retains its potency. Just look at how defensive National politicians get over words like privatisation and asset sales. They may see themselves as having moved on from this language but, for all practical purposes, remain trapped within it.

Indeed, this financial meltdown is triggering the final corruption of the neo-liberal language, but where is the new language to replace its increasingly sullied words and meanings?

Analysing our two main party leader’s campaign opening addresses supports the proposition that we are not witnessing any vital regeneration of our political vocabulary in 2008.

The only new words employed in Helen Clark’s speech fell under the rhetorical umbrella of the environment. Sustainability, emissions trading scheme, biofuels, and climate change received a good airing, but this language was co-opted from the Greens.

Clark has tried over the past term to broaden the meaning of ‘sustainability,’ to incorporate both fiscal and social policy initiatives, but has not succeeded.

Another phrase from the Greens lexicon, ‘peak oil,’ nicely illustrates my point. In 2004 Jeanette Fitzsimons asked Michael Cullen what he understood by the term ‘peak oil.’ Cullen replied: ‘I have to confess that, for once, the member has floored me; I do not understand what is meant by the term ‘peak oil.’’

Labour has been a fast follower in terms of employing the language of the environmental movement.

The one Labour Party politician who really stands out to me as the exemplar of 21st Century new language is Shane Jones, but in a slightly different way. Jones is in my view parliament’s best orator. His rhetorical imagery is exquisitely vivid but what stands out even more is his seamless transition between English and Te Reo. Jones maximises the power of both.

The increasing fusion of English, Maori and Pasifika within our wider language is a truly vibrant expression of a uniquely indigenous cognition that we are developing, and Jones leads the way in our politics.

Turning to John Key’s opening address, the word ‘fresh’ is invoked nine times, including one frantic burst of six applications in three breathless sentences during his peroration. He threw in another four in one mouthful at the leader’s debate last week.

One senses a recognition that by frequently injecting the word Key’s positioning as a change candidate is enhanced, but it is undermined by the absence of any fresh language – unless we grant Key ‘broadband’ and ‘Kiwisaver’ – elsewhere in his speech.

Key’s language follows the dictates of the post-Rogernomics paradigm. It does not lend support to any idea that Key himself represents a step change forward.

If we are looking for new political language it is to be found in the Greens and the Maori Party. The entire nomenclature of terms the Greens have built around the idea of a finite planet is a local manifestation of a global phenomenon. There is new saliency and force to this language, although in dire economic conditions such as those we face the Greens will be sensitive to the risk of having their preferred language (and electoral ambitions) swamped by voters and their demands for more explanatory (and immediate) economic language.

In Russel Norman the Greens have a leader who most closely approaches talking a new language, one which is underpinned by his qualitatively different Generation X perspective. One picks up a sense around the traps that more established political actors find this unsettling.

A good example of this was in the Alt TV minor leaders' debate last Wednesday night. ACT’s Rodney Hide attempted to condescend to Norman about the economy, employing his purist and conformist Rogernomics language. Norman spanked Hide, answering him in Hide’s own preferred language and then incorporating his Gen X and Green perspectives. Hide reeked of the status quo. Norman did not.

The Maori Party, as befits a political offshoot of the Maori renaissance, also possess a distinct political language. Its kaupapa, which underpins the Maori Party’s principles, provides a rich and challenging addition to our conventional political language. Manaakitanga (hospitality), rangatiratanga (sovereignty), whanaugatanga (kinship), mana tupuna (mana through descent), kotahitanga (unity), wairuatanga (Maori spirituality), mana whenua (indigenous people), and kaitiatitanga (guardianship) adds rhetorical force to every aspect of the Maori Party’s ontology.

This is its core language, from which all else flows, and it will begin to seriously penetrate our senses should the Maori Party feature in any post-election governing arrangements.

The significant point I want to make here is that the substantive language of our main party leaders supports the view that we remain locked in our old paradigm. While there are exciting developments in our political language, some of which I have raised here, there has not been any conscious attempt by either Clark or Key to break free from the dominant political language of our times.

In these circumstances neither co-opting another’s language nor thrashing the word ‘fresh’ quite cuts it.