Madonna King: Plain language can form a fairer democracy

Plain language could become the norm for lawmakers in New Zealand - change we should all embrace, Madonna King writes.

Plain language could become the norm for lawmakers in New Zealand - change we should all embrace, Madonna King writes.

In the Queensland Supreme Court this week, the Honourable Justice Peter Applegarth didn’t mince words when he sentenced Rodney Wayne Williams for the murder of a 16-year-old girl.

Williams was a “barefaced’’ liar, a staggering narcissist, and a creep.

“No 16-year-old girl would have found you interesting,’’ the judge told Williams, who had previously killed a woman in Tasmania.

“Few 60-year-old women in their right minds would have found a creep like you interesting. The only ones who would – would be forensic psychiatrists.’’

Straight talking

In decades of covering court cases, it was a welcome judgement; not only because Williams will spend 30 years in jail for the brutal murder of Tiffany Taylor – but because Justice Applegarth’s strong, plain language couldn’t be lost on anyone.

Imagine if that always happened; if we could understand what someone in authority meant when they delivered a long thesis, filled with multi-syllabic words and complex sentences.

If you want a reminder, just go to the explanatory notes of a piece of legislation and see if you can then explain what it means to someone else. Or even find your insurance bill, and work out what is really included and what might be excluded.

It doesn’t end there. Tradies’ work contracts. Purchasing a new sewing machine. An explanation of your rates bill. How to fill out a new passport for a child, who has lost one. Making a claim, on the back of a storm. Even applying for a job, and wanting to ensure you’ve met all the criteria.

Now, it seems, some kind of invisible points system operates among public servants and corporates to ensure the wordiest sentences are used, with extra marks if it is convoluted and for multi-syllabic words that none of us use.

New Zealand has now moved towards banning all of that, passing the Plain Language Act 2022 that requires government agencies to write in ‘plain language’.

Pictured is New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

New Zealand will move to make sure government communications are written in plain language. Photo: Getty

That means government communications need to be clear and concise; it will bring an end to the technical jargon and gobbledygook that can take hours and dollars to decipher.

Estimates vary widely, but consensus suggests we might speak 800 different words in a day, out of the 500,000-odd words on offer.

A policy document shouldn’t be a test of those words we don’t know, and the NZ move offers a simple innovation that allows people to understand laws and policies.

It delivers on many levels; it prevents vulnerable people from being dudded through complex wordy riders, but it also improves the transparency and accountability of organisations.

Advocates of the NZ law say it also builds a more inclusive democracy, especially for those who speak English as a second language, those with lower education opportunities and people with some disabilities.

Its pathway, over the past year, has been rocky with claims it was a “solution looking for a problem’’ that would add both expense and bureaucracy to the public service.

But we would do well to follow them. The Plain English Foundation says that despite about 44 per cent of Australians struggling to read, business and government often ‘assaulted’ us with “political spin, corporate doublespeak, marketing jargon and bad business buzzwords’’.

Doublespeak flourishes

Foundation spokesperson Greg Moriarty says his favourite example of doublespeak was “injuries incompatible with living’’.

“This is a glaring example of people going out of their way to avoid clearer language,’’ he said.

“Last year federal politicians decided to name quarantine centres ‘Centres for National Resilience’.’’

That actually meant a place for people with COVID!

“A year before that, US politics gave us ‘alternative facts’ as the ultimate example of Orwellian doublespeak! A reminder – the alternative to a fact is not a fact,’’ Mr Moriarty said.

So why not call a spade a spade? Enforcing plain language laws would simply ensure that we understand what we are signing up for, and how government policy might affect us and our families.

Surely that should be the very minimum we expect from both public servants and their bosses? Those we get to hire and fire each time an election comes around.

Topics: Madonna King
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