During his long term as Australia’s prime minister (1996-2007), John Howard made a distinction between promises or undertakings that were ‘core’ and those that were ‘non-core’. He made the distinction in response to an accusation that he had gone back on an undertaking. Some undertakings, he said, have to be reversed because of changed circumstances. It seemed an unexceptionable explanation, but the words had hardly passed his lips when a howling of abuse, ridicule and scorn arose from the Left like a cloud of red dust blowing in from the outback. The ABC/Fairfax coalition went to town, confident that such an absurd declaration by a conservative they hated just a touch less than Tony Abbott would give them years of fun. Indeed, their confidence was not misplaced.
The issue of broken promises was one the hottest during Abbott’s term as prime minister. His unrelenting pursuit of Prime Minister Gillard over her broken carbon tax promise enabled the Labor/Greens coalition to get him in an unshakeable hold. Or so they thought. Gillard had promised before the 2010 election that there would be ‘no carbon tax under a government I lead’ but after the election promptly went back on her word to form government with the Greens. If ever there was a naked cynical manoeuvre to gain political power, this was it. Well, if Abbott and his Coalition in opposition could mercilessly hunt Julia Gillard over a broken promise, then so could Labor and the Greens in opposition submit Tony Abbott to the same torture not only over one broken promise but allegedly over many broken promises.
This is an argument from analogy. Now I am not going to deal with the strength or otherwise of this analogical argument here. I will leave that to a subsequent comment in relation to Andrew Bolt’s use of the same argument. I want to stay with an examination of the core and non-core distinction. I will begin with Don Watson’s claim that the phrase ‘non-core promise’ is contradictory.
Don Watson PhD (Monash) has a formidable reputation in the (leftist) literary world. Among his many achievements have been awards for his books Death Sentence (on writing) and Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, a biography of his former mate Paul Keating who trashed the highest political office of the land with his vile unrestrained mouth. Watson was in a good position to write about Paul Keating; he was his speechwriter. One has to admit they make an awesome verbal duo. It is ironic that they fell out over the authorship of Keating’s acclaimed ‘Redfern Park Speech’ about Aboriginal dispossession.
Watson claimed Keating delivered word-for-word the text he wrote; Keating claimed the speech was the fruit of many conversations. It’s ironic because Keating in that speech characterised the Terra Nullius doctrine as a ‘legal lie’. This is a perversion of Terra Nullius understood as a ‘legal fiction’, that is, the assertion that the continental mass we now call Australia was open for settlement, not that nobody existed on that land mass. A legal fiction (or philosophical fiction) is an acceptable explanatory device in intellectual discussion. One of the most famous philosophical fictions is Thomas Hobbes’s ‘state of nature’ in his Leviathan. Academic historian Watson must know that to equate ‘legal fiction’ to a ‘legal lie’ is an outrageous perversion of language. That’s not the only example of Watson’s literary hypocrisy. He is author of one of the best put-downs that the ingenuity of the leftist mind is capable of generating.
Much has been written about the failings of the ‘nanny state’ – about the generous social security monies that have been distributed in utter futility to those who have no other intention than to take the money and run. To counter the detailed argument and massive empirical evidence to support criticism of the welfare state and the widespread abuse by its recipients, Don Watson ingeniously came up with the charge that critics were guilty of ‘downward envy’. There you have it: a great public debate shut down with a powerful two-word slogan. Beautiful. That’s the talent of the best propagandists: neatly shutting down debate when the argument is going against them, and giving a bigot word-weapon to those of his class who cannot or will not confront substantial criticism of their dogma or of their most cherished fantasies. A google search will reveal how often Watson’s creation has been used to evade sustained discussion of the welfare and entitlement mentality.
Watson followed up the success of Death Sentence with the self-effacing Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words, Contemporary Cliches, Cant and Management Jargon. The title says enough about the author and the book’s aims without my having to go into that. On the first page of the introductory chapter Watson gives examples of weasel words, that is, ‘the words of the powerful, the treacherous and the unfaithful, spies, assassins and thieves.’ I congratulate Watson for compressing so much leftist sanctimony into so few words. The reader would not be surprised to find conservative former prime minister John Howard’s distinction between ‘core promises and non-core promises’ foremost among those examples.
Now having flicked through Watson’s Dictionary of Weasel Words etc I readily acknowledge that he comes up with many excellent examples of the way people murder the English language for their particular purposes. But I suspect there are not many examples from the mind-numbing leftist rhetoric creating stinking pools of verbal fatality across the intellectual life of Western society. I didn’t see any, anyhow. However that may be,I am not willing to accept that John Howard’s distinction falls into the category of ‘weasel words’. Indeed, I dare to defy the great Don Watson PhD (Monash) and assert that such a distinction is a common feature of the thinking of responsible people.
Anyone determined not to be dependent on the alms of the state has a hierarchy of promises or undertakings to oneself and to others in their range of activities and responsibilities. This is true of the parent, the office manager, the coach and so on. It is even true of an academic historian like Don Watson PhD (Monash) who had to prepare courses, lecture schedules, meetings with students and so on. Once his schedule of courses and lecture times officially entered the university handbook and department handouts, he and the university were taken to have given a serious undertaking (a promise) to stick to that schedule. That’s for obvious reasons and to rehearse them here would be boring to the person possessed of normal intelligence. Let’s pursue this in a more concrete setting, one that must be recognisable to all who study or teach at a tertiary institution.
Imagine that Don Watson PhD (Monash) was confronted halfway through the academic year with an unforeseeable change of circumstances that forced him to reduce the number of courses regardless of the grave undertaking to his students to stick to the printed schedule. It could have been because of funding problems in the department, administrative changes, personal problems with family, or an illness, to name just a few of the common problems he may have encountered during his tenure as a lecturer. It may even have been that some adoring politician wanted to buy his formidable talents as a speechwriter, an offer too good to pass up.
In brief, Dr Watson would have been forced to make a choice between those courses that were essential (core) to his teaching program and those that were less important (non-core). He would have begun dropping the least important course and proceeded until his changed circumstances could have accommodated the new schedule. Out of ten courses he may have been forced to drop five promised courses. A fifty percent breaking of promises. In this case, I am sure Watson would been terribly indignant if a bunch of students or lecturers from other departments started parading around the university loudly claiming that he was a liar and not to be trusted.
I could multiply the examples whether it concerned a high school principal, a parent, a police commissioner or anyone else in a position where an imprudent decision between priorities could materially affect people dependent upon them.
It is simply non-controversial that people have to go back on serious undertakings because of circumstances that place an obstacle in the way or because something more important crops up. It would be criminally negligent of a prime minister, for example, to doggedly keep to a promise whose realisation would cause great harm to a country’s economy because of changed circumstances. Indeed, it seems to me that few actual economic undertakings, because of their nature, can be classified as rigidly irreversible promises. In an economic sense, one can only talk about a priority of undertakings all of which, depending on the circumstances, may have to be reviewed. This is the reality. That was John Howard’s unexceptionable point.
The issue is not primarily about breaking an undertaking in politics, but whether the reasons for breaking it stand up. That applies to all political parties, no matter where they stand on the political spectrum. For those who prepared to think below the superficiality of a media motivated by ideology, they will see that Abbott had to face the same problem as prime minister. Undertakings made on the understanding of one set of circumstances prior to election have to change or expire because after the election those circumstances have altered or are found to be different. In following comments, I will continue to deal with Abbott’s (alleged) promise-breaking.
But, really, let’s not kid ourselves. The issue of language abuse for a leftist like Watson is as much political as it is literary, regardless of the power of his refined use of language. The ‘core vs. non-core promise’ distinction has been and continues to be a means to carry forward the long term policy of his political class to smear, vilify and misrepresent those that depart from the correct political line. Conservatives John Howard and Tony Abbott are foremost in the line for misrepresentation and smear. The tactic has been successful and being successful the Left will continue to apply it. They have great confidence in the gullibility and stupidity of the Australian population whom they regard as a herd of animals to be pushed this way and that according to their ideological purposes.
Don Watson’s claim in his book that ‘non-core promise’ is a contradiction does not hold up. Worse, it is plainly deceptive. He before anyone else would know that although words have a dictionary meaning they do not function as mathematical entities. They are malleable in context, and usage sometimes defies logic.