Tony Abbott is no fast talker. To fix this, he is slowing his speech down. Craftily, he’s turned his natural lack of fluency into a deliberate strategy. He temporises. He repeats himself. He drags things out. Part of this is a running repair job. Abbott has developed a much slower speaking rate because its repetitions and its slower pace gives himself time to think up the next thing to say. It also puts the brakes on the meandering sentences that come naturally. A larger and more worrying part of it, however, is his determination to slow down debate. On the one hand this could be seen as admirable almost heroic if it were not futile. Abbott is trying to slow the flow of information. Canute-like, hand upraised he steps into the path of the information age juggernaut. On the other hand he seems to enjoy the wilful obstruction of the public’s right to know what the government is up to.
Abbott is not gifted at persuasion. Instead, in his set pieces, he sounds like a tabloid headline. With perverse delight, it seems, in annoying the listener, he repeats the same slogans. He’ll wear you out rather than win you over. At base is a crafty evasiveness. Abbottspeak is not about sharing information. It’ s about power and control. It’s about withholding information and obstruction. And it defines his government’s style. Other senior members have quickly picked it up. The long-running surrealist soap opera of Border Security, starring Scott Morrison is a bravura performance of the Abbott government’s house style. Worried about the apparent cruelty, inhumanity or irresponsibility of stopping the boats? We have nothing we can tell you. The message is move along: nothing to see here. We will tell you only what we want you to know. On immigration that’s next to nothing. It’s a tactic that Goebbels would have been proud of. But for a contemporary Australian prime minister and his government it can only ultimately erode both authority and credibility.
Abbott clearly views communication as transmitting a signal. For him, communication is primarily about getting the message out. It’s not an attempt at dialogue. Dialogue entails listening. And mutual respect. And it leads to compromise, the quicksand of the weak-willed. Of course you may ask questions. But voice your question and we will make you sorry you ever asked. The hapless listener feels as if she’s been harangued by uncle at a family gathering . Ear bashed, patronised and held prisoner.
Ultimately, Abbottspeak is less about changing minds than massaging the prejudices of those already converted. Abbott’s glib phrases, simplistic logic and his judgemental approach have more in common with the shock jocks of talkback radio than any more enlightened or elevated discourse. And more than any other prime minister, Abbott is side coaching our transformation from democracy to shock-jock-racy. The nation’s infatuation with echoes of its own popular prejudices and its affection for simplistic, reductive thinking is nurtured, fostered by those who know it yields them power.
Enter Team Australia. A new phrase is not a bad thing in itself. With Abbott, there’s plenty of room for expansion. And a new idea would be welcome. But there’s nothing new about Team Australia. Don’t frighten the horses. Abbott does not in any way a resemble a deep or even an original thinker. Nor is this his intention. Like Howard he understands the need to keep us comfortable if not relaxed. In place of ideas we are given recycled, threadbare hobby horses and clapped out rhetorical clichés of talkback radio. The kindest thing you could say is that in some way the man is representative of the comfortable middle class, and he trots out familiar prejudices as he signals for allies amidst the great unthinking complacent public of his fan club. The most worrying thing is his dog-whistling to conformity and group think, the signal to his audience to exercise their prejudices, let them off the leash.
Is Team Australia a new nag in the race to the bottom? It doesn’t look or sound that new. It’s a cryptic phrase and you won’t find any definition offered by its creator. Nor is one needed. What does Team Australia mean? What does it stand for? The context is instructive. It lies in the demise of Brandis’ proposals for ‘reform’ of the Racial Discrimination Act. For a while, it looked as if bigots would be protected. In Brandis’ notorious phrase, a bigot has a right to be a bigot. Yet, the Abbott Government ultimately and one senses reluctantly backed down. No doubt at some cost of support from Abbott’s right wing power base, proposed changes to Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act were shelved. Ironically, it came at the cost of support from the Muslim community.
With typically jerky timing and co-ordination, Abbott wheeled out a new horse, Team Australia. urging us all to jump aboard. Abbott said changes to 18C had become ‘complicated’. At the same time, however, he unveiled a new anti-terrorism package. Abbott said it was a “leadership call” that aimed to help in “preserving national unity on the essentials”. It was … ‘time for all of us to come together to be part of ‘Team Australia’ in order to combat the threat of terrorism.
The team sounds less like a call to unity than a shrewd attempt to further division and promote intolerance. It boosts fear and anxiety. When he followed up by saying that extremists could be carrying out beheadings here in Australia in future, Abbott clearly signalled that he intends to continue to frighten the electorate into giving increasing power and information to the state whilst at the same time reducing or constricting its citizens’ right to know what their government is up to. Their right to a government that is answerable for its actions and responsible in its conduct. Worthy of their trust.