Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The ACC scandal: politics at its most opaque

(First published in The Dominion Post, April 10.)

OBSERVING the ACC scandal unfold is like watching a scrum in an All Blacks-Springboks test match. You know there’s something ugly and unsavoury going on there, but you can’t quite see what it is.

It has provided a glimpse of politics at its most murky, messy and Machiavellian. It smells of power struggles, personal vendettas, greed and egos.

The most unsatisfying thing about it, from the public point of view, is that it has largely been played out behind the scenes.

We could sense precious little beyond the obvious fact that a bitter political contest was consuming the time and energy of politicians who should doubtless be doing more important things.

The ACC story led evening news bulletins and provided fuel for countless political columns, but not even the best-informed political commentators seemed able to spell out exactly what it all means.

Information leaks excited the press gallery but did little to enhance public understanding. The leaks were calculated to advance the political and personal agendas of the participants; nothing else.

This left the electors, to whom the politicians are accountable, unable to figure out what’s going on, still less decide who’s right and who’s wrong.

One crucial question remains unanswered. Where does the public interest figure in this imbroglio? On the few facts given to us, it doesn’t seem to count much at all.

The row has, however, brought home one or two facts of modern political life.

The first is the speed at which political scandals can gather momentum, and the unpredictability of their course.

In this case, what started out as a leak exposing apparent privacy lapses at ACC very rapidly escalated into something much bigger and messier. In a very short time the scandal had brought down one of the government’s brightest and hardest-working ministers.

Tony Blair referred to this phenomenon in a speech shortly before he stepped down as British prime minister in 2007. Noting that politicians now grapple with a relentless 24/7 news cycle, he observed that a drama can harden into a crisis within minutes.

The other thing we’ve been reminded of is that savage power struggles and ego clashes are no longer exclusively a male preserve – if they ever were.

* * *

PEOPLE find so many ways to debase the English language that it’s sometimes hard to keep up.

On Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report last week, Waikato district police commander Wim van der Velde was interviewed about a report that criticised police for their handling of a case in which a mentally disturbed woman escaped from hospital care and murdered a neighbour.

In a dire example of the managerialist jargon that has taken root in the public sector, Superintendent van der Velde said of the report: “Learnings came out of it, and from those learnings it seems police could have done some things differently.”

Two questions arise. Whatever happened to the word “lessons”? And what makes people think pretentious neologisms such as “learnings” carry more weight?

The substitution of silly new words for perfectly good old ones, often by making a noun out of a verb, is one of the odder trends in the abuse of English. Even my Microsoft Word program recognises there’s something not right with “learnings” by putting a red line under it.

It’s often said that English is a dynamic language, constantly acquiring new words and usages. But when new words serve no purpose, and in fact detract from the language’s clarity and precision, they should be shunned.

For perpetrating this latest atrocity, Superintendent van der Velde should be assigned to traffic duties for a month.

* * *

SPEAKING of peculiar linguistic trends, it seems everyone these days is in the business of selling “solutions”.

Real estate agents don’t sell houses anymore; they provide “residential property solutions”. A moving company promises “tailored solutions for every customer”, Mitre 10 offers “Home DIY Solutions” and trucking company Linfox is in the business of “supply chain solutions”. (It’s what we used to call transport, but why make do with one word when you can use three?)

A few months ago, Campbell Live featured an item about a Wanganui nursery ware retailer named Baby Solutions, a name that could just as easily have been adopted by an abortion clinic.

Presumably it’s thought that the word “solutions” suggests something more sophisticated than “services”. Engage a firm called Plumbing and Heating Solutions, for which I hear ads on my local radio station, and you expect the man who turns up to unblock your drains to be wearing an Italian suit – or at the very least, crisp white overalls – rather than an old footy jersey and boxer shorts.

It’s hard to tell where this trend will lead, but it may be only a matter of time before funeral directors start advertising death solutions.


The probligo said...

The greatest fear about corruption, and in particular political corruption, is that one can never be sure how far it goes.

There is no doubt in my mind that the main party to the ACC raruraru had high expectations of political favour at the very least. Not just the once, but on at least three counts - with her insurance company, with ACC, and with maintaining her "privacy".

That expectation is of the very lowest grade of corruption, but it was enough to get Phillip Field tipped out.

Stephen Stratford said...

Best use of "solutions": Manukau is home to the companies Whitford Water Solutions, Rainline Water Solutions and Ozone Water Solutions.