I’ve written about the state of public language before, but in the wake of the Scott Morrison ‘funeralgate’ episode, I’ve been thinking about how it is manipulated by politicians to serve a political agenda. Morrison made headlines for all the wrong reasons two days ago, complaining about the costs of a funeral for refugees who perished when their small vessel was washed onto the rocks at Christmas Island in December last year. The government-funded funeral, including the cost of flying surviving family members from Christmas Island to Sydney, came in at around $300,000 – about two cents for each Australian taxpayer. On the morning of the funeral, Opposition Immigration Spokesman, Morrison, announced that the government was wastefully spending taxpayers’ money on the funeral.
His comments were roundly condemned: by critics and media, in public forums and the internet, and even within his own party with Joe Hockey calling for us not lose our sense of humanity. Yesterday Morrison apologised, not for his comments or the sentiment expressed, but for the unfortunate timing, leading me to wonder if he ever had a sense of humanity to lose in the first place.
It is not his statement, however, that I find interesting, and certainly enough column inches have been devoted to his statement, and subsequent disingenuous apology, already. It is the use of the term ‘taxpayers’ money’ that I find most fascinating. When a politician wants the general public to feel aggrieved about government spending, the money suddenly belongs to the taxpayer. Thus, the funeral for the refugees was not funded by the government; it was funded by the taxpayer.
What’s the difference? None in terms of where the money comes from. But a huge difference in the psychology of the 30 second sound grab. Taxpayers’ money implies that we still have some sort of ownership, stewardship or control over the tax we have already paid to the government. It implies that the government is misusing our money without consulting us first. When the expenditure is on something the opposition disagrees with then we are all invited to disagree as well. It is, after all, taxpayers’ money.
When the funding is for something positive – schools, hospitals, drought relief, highway upgrades – it seems the money no longer belongs to us and the projects become ‘government-funded’. One never hears the opposition railing against taxpayer-funded projects to get more doctors to rural areas, or to send more troops to Afghanistan. We are not invited to disagree with such expenditure and so the money, somehow, mysteriously, no longer belongs to us but to the government.
It’s not that the language is entirely dishonest: just manipulated. It emphasises the source of government funds (taxpayer) when the expenditure is deemed wrong or wasteful; and the source of the policy (government) when the expenditure is deemed appropriate. When you hear a politician referring to ‘taxpayer-funded’ spending, it means only one thing – that the politician doing the talking is opposed to the policy.
With that in mind I would like to take a leaf out of the Scott Morrison Handbook of Wasteful Uses of Taxpayers’ Money and on behalf of Australian taxpayers everywhere (after all, Morrison was speaking for all of us when opposing the refugee funeral costs), oppose the use of our money for the following taxpayer-funded programs:
• Buying new bombers. You remember that old slogan from the 70s? ‘It will be a great day when our schools get all the money they need and the air force has to hold a cake stall to buy a new bomber’. Well, I have it on a tea-towel and it’s still relevant (both the tea-towel and the slogan). I object to my tax being splurged on killer planes. Spend it on schools.
• Subsidising the coal industry. Actually, I think the coal industry should be subsidising us, but Kevin Rudd tried that and look where it got him. Still, they’re my taxes, aren’t they, and I don’t want my hard-earned used to support a dirty, polluting, greenhouse-gas-emitting industry.
• Off-shore refugee detention centres. Come to that, any refugee detention centres. These things are expensive to maintain and serve no purpose other than to appease insecure One Nation types who want to see brown people behind razor wire. Well, let the anti-refugee lobby pay for the detention centres and while they’re coming up with the few million dollars it will take per year, I’d like my taxes redirected into faster processing, resettlement or, where necessary, deportation back to country of origin for any who are not genuine refugees.
• Sending more troops to Afghanistan or extending the Australian military presence there any further than this weekend. Withdraw. Now. My taxes would be better spent on providing aid to orphanages for kids whose parents have been killed, either directly or indirectly, by the Australian military, and there’s quite a few Australian kids who are growing up without their fathers as a result of this ill-considered invasion as well.
Note to politicians: you’re there to serve the public good and, ideally, foster stronger civil society. By using language designed to appeal to individual financial interests you are fostering greed, self-interest and division. This is not helpful and our nation is poorer for it.