The age of euphemisms

The age of euphemisms

ESSA Writers
April 20, 2014

With Treasurer Joe Hockey and billionaire Gina Rinehart relentlessly reminding us that the “age of entitlement is over” and that we all have to start “living within our means”, it is an important time to recognise the hypocrisy in the language of those with power.

A large part of the reason why the Abbott government swept into office in September was the fact that they spent much of their time lambasting the Labor government for irresponsibility and timidity in making the ‘tough decisions’ that resulted in a supposedly outlandish budget deficit. Mr Abbott promised, as politicians invariably do, to direct the country towards the fertile valley of prosperity. But what one should realise is that when “tough decisions” include the slashing of social services, these decisions only become tough for the people who have it tough already.

Mr Hockey has given quite a few speeches over the last few years outlining his economic policy. Perhaps the most important one was entitled “The end of the age of entitlement”. In this speech, Hockey questions the viability of certain social programs including education, housing, social safety nets and retirement benefits. Among other things Hockey stresses that spending on these entitlements “undermine our ability to ensue democracy” and that “we cannot have greater government services and more government involvement in our lives coupled with significantly lower taxation”. Seeing as the Liberals have fought vehemently to repeal the carbon tax and mineral resources rent tax, it looks likely that government services will have to be compromised instead of taxation increasing for the wealthy. Hockey says as much in his speech when he states that higher taxes would “compromise growth” and therefore “the clear mandate is to lower expenses”.

The use of the word ‘entitlement’ is very alarming. In his speeches, Mr Hockey does his best to label people receiving government funding as undeserving. What he overlooks is the fact that many of these people are in need of assistance. The unemployment rate falling to 5.8% recently looks impressive at first, but delving further into the data, one is forced to notice the fact that part-time rather than full-time employment is increasing and that the participation rate is decreasing. These are two important signs of an underemployed workforce, and, as a result, the need for a strong safety net is vital for the people who may find themselves, through no fault of their own, in need of income support.

One should also note the strength of the language used. It’s one thing to attack excessive welfare spending, which can be a genuine problem, but to link it to the death of democracy is insanity and shouldn’t leave much to the imagination in regards to the government’s fiscal policy stance.

This becomes all the more serious when wealthy heiresses with extraordinary political influence such as Gina Rinehart decide to lecture us. In an opinion article she wrote recently entitled “The age of entitlement-has consequences” she outlined her distaste for most working and low-income Australians. According to her, we are a nation consisting of mainly low productivity slackers sucking the life out of the government; therefore, we must “work harder”. She also decided to express contempt for the fact that “five million citizens receive income support from the taxpayer” and that “something has to give”. However, when considering the fact that Ms Rinehart has spent much of the previous few years fighting taxes that would have a minimal effect on her wealth while greatly adding to public funds, perhaps it’s us who should be accusing her of sucking life out of the government.

It’s important to note the intertwining of the agendas between these two supposedly separate interests. Ms Rinehart represents herself and her wealth whilst Abbott and Hockey represent the nation; it is very disconcerting that their rhetoric is so much alike. They both reference Margaret Thatcher as an inspiration, a woman who could hardly be positioned as a champion of the middle class, as well as banally referring to Adam Smith, which seems to be compulsory when defending the free market.

They also both cite Hong Kong as an economic utopia and a natural model for Australia to follow. Hockey fawns over the fact that low tax rates and openness to business interests have fuelled growth “without a social safety net”. However, he declines to mention the fact that income inequality is rising in Hong Kong.

It’s worth pointing out the role euphemistic language plays here. The phrases employed by those in power are always going to be tailored to their needs rather than their actions. If a politician wants to slash social services, it is much more agreeable for them to say that they are “ending the age of entitlement”. If a billionaire wants us to work longer hours for less pay, they would rather implore us to start “pulling our weight”. This is what euphemism has always been – nice words for nasty ideas.

There was perhaps no greater writer on politics in the 20th century than George Orwell, who spent much of his time dissecting political language and pointing out the inconsistencies between words and actions. If you read only one of George Orwell’s essays, please let it be “Politics and the English Language”, where he explores the importance of language in brilliant depth. The most relevant quote from the essay is “the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms”. This is exactly what we have here. We have people using repetitive phrases that disguise the truth allowing them to distance themselves from their intentions – while still being able to implement them.

The idea of Mr. Abbott cutting spending on social services when we still have unreasonable underemployment (that is basically a ‘non-issue’ in our discourse) in the midst of an unstable global economy is potentially dangerous for many Australians. I hope that in the forthcoming May budget I am proved wrong, but this euphemistic language is not encouraging optimism.

The usefulness of euphemistic language should be clear enough: it quells outrage. But it is often just as easy for people to take comfort in these lazy phrases as it is for the phrases to be employed in the first place. We often prefer to take comfort in meaningless language than to face unwelcome facts. Euphemism therefore can be just as useful for those who hear it as it is for those who use it. However, it should be clear that although this may be the case, it is undesirable, and therefore, it becomes critically important to take Orwell’s advice and “change one’s own habits” if we are ever going to properly diagnose the character of those in power.

Image: ‘Quentin Bryce with the newly sworn in Abbott Government’ by Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (,