It's federal budget time again, ''working families'' of Australia brace yourselves.
Some phrases make you angry, some make you cringe and some make you despair. But some make you what you are not. Thank you Kevin Rudd.
Right now, I feel as a forensic scientist might feel, and my target is you. Well, specifically, it’s an appendage of yours. It’s your tongue. For it is from this piece of anatomy that the accursed phrase rolls off into the world. Insistently, repeatedly, unapologetically, defiantly, with no shame or beg pardons.
It is ‘‘working families’’. It also comes in the long player version — ‘‘working families of Australia’’ — or its alternate take — ‘‘working people’’. But here’s the thing Prime Minister, say it often enough — and Lord knows you have — even if you say it with sincerity everytime, the perception from its overuse is one of insincerity. And from such roots does flow cynicism, which is death.
Here you are this week.
Monday, Queensland: ‘‘When I looked at what working people are supposed to retire on to give them comfort and security . . . We need to build on that so working people have a decent amount of money to retire on...’’
Tuesday, NSW: When I look at these workers here today, their concerns are . . . (super and health) . . . These are the things working families are concerned about.’’
Pick any month of the year and it will be there. It’s even attached itself, leechlike, to Rudd’s colleagues. Here’s Greg Combet in February: ‘‘Safety for working families and for workers and for businesses has long been part of my work.’’ Rudd was standing next to him. Combet had been ACTU secretary before going into Parliament, so the sentiment, we may expect, is true enough, but please Combet, stop now. You might perceive it as utilitarian usefulness, but really it is a phrase now hollowed out of meaning.
Working families of Australia. Roll it around in the mouth. It tastes awful: one part saccharine to one part sardonic. You have to spit it out. You would need to believe you’re standing on a soapbox (for it can only be delivered on high) to even consider it in all its superciliousness. You would have to believe it can achieve your aims. Then you would spit it out all the time without even thinking about it.
Because if you did think about it you would realise that using the phrase is not a method of identifying with its subject. It is insidious branding of the language to fit a political purpose. Robotic and as soulful. Say it often enough and it should seep into the collective consciousness: He speaks of working families. We are working families. Therefore, he is of us and we are of him.
Rudd, of course, is not the first to try this on. Before him we were living in the land of the aspirationals, before that the land of the battlers. In each, the context of the phrases’ connotations are all virtuous: you the members of Australia’s working families are just trying to live a good life, honest in endeavour, humble in expectation.
There’s no mongrel bastards in ‘‘working families’’ ‘‘aspirationals’’ or ‘‘battlers’’. You’d be mad to think there were if you went to work each day on the political stage. But there is a trap in taking a phrase as a political prisoner. Sooner or later you become prisoner to it. Then what are you left with?
Sooner or later people will stop listening to the words, not just the one little phrase, but the words either side of it. The deafness will spread like a virus — sentences, paragraphs, pronouncements and policies all eaten away by indifference. Which given the way the people have been treated could be argued is a justifiable revenge.
The federal budget is next week. I’d bet London to a brick, we’ll all be there in the speeches — all of us working families of Australia. Being looked after, being loved and appreciated.
And as the election looms later in the year we’ll be there too: the working families of Australia being beset by volleys of hollow words. Now is the time of the assassins. Now is the time to rise up and shout: We are not part of your machinery. We are not a convenient phrase on which you can fall back when the going gets tough or from which you think you can score points by hammering home a product of domestic dogma you think you invented.
Working families aren’t like that. They aren’t a slogan.
Warwick McFadyen is an Age senior writer.