In every political culture, there’s a favourite construct, a sort of Pavlovian bell that is designed to trigger the immediate cessation of critical thought. In South Africa, it’s “the workers” or “the people”. The workers want, the people demand: appeal to this amorphous entity and people will vote for you.
In America, Dubya likes to talk about “the Iraqi people” or “the American people” (which, coming from the nukiller president sounds a bit like “the merkin people” – and given that a merkin is a pubic wig, this tends to catch one off guard).
In Australia, the politicians all talk about “working families”. The working family is a new phenomenon, the result of a plethora of factors including large numbers of women in the workplace and the high cost of living. Staying at home with the kids is a luxury that most families simply cannot afford.
So it is that “working families” and the impact of the budget on their lifestyle and spending patterns is the big political issue right now. Night after night, television news readers report on new battles faced by working families, a term they report with all the seriousness of lay preacher reading out selected highlights of the gospels.
Everybody worries about working families. Prime minister Kevin Rudd worries about them, but not as much as he should, according to leader of the opposition Brendan Nelson. Working families are battling with high fuel prices. Working families need the baby bonus – but take it away from the rich. Working families can’t afford high property prices in Sydney.
To be seen to do something about working families is as important as actually doing something. Working families, workers, the merkin people: these are all a reminder of the power of words and the way in which politicians frame the terms of debate in order to short-circuit actual thinking. As the old joke goes: how do you know when a politician is lying? His lips are moving.