Tuesday, October 25, 2022

Jonathan Ayling: 'Plain Language Bill’- Another Solution Looking for a Problem

Parliament: an ironic place where contradictions abound. At first glance stately and formal, but under the surface we know skulduggery abounds. A place of quiet importance and hushed propriety, yet if you’ve ever seen Question Time (or a Caucus meeting), it gives a disrupted kindergarten a run for its money.

It’s fitting then that Rachel Boyack’s Plain Language Bill keeps up this ironic trend- a piece of Government writing filled with lots of big words about why they need to employ people to make sure their writing has small words. And yes, you’d think that government would already be writing in a way so that the people they represent can understand. But, well, there’s that irony again. As the Shadow Attorney-General, Chris Penk, claimed as simply as possible ‘this Bill is not good. In fact, it is bad.’

Frankly, it’s difficult to argue against the claim that official documents should be accessible to the general public. In fact, it’s such a good idea there are already annual ‘Plain Language Awards’ celebrating the public service department which uses the clearest language. But that’s not really what’s up for debate in Boyack’s Bill. Rather, it’s a Government funded structure to employ ‘Plain Language Officers’ (could someone write a ‘use-more-original-names’ Bill?) to peer over the shoulder of each public servant, making sure that their language is not convoluted (that means “tricky”, if it wasn’t plain.) This is the more sinister element of this legislation, and with irony again rearing its ugly head again, Boyack, the sponsor of the Bill, is entirely ignorant to it.

Does this seem a bit elaborate (that means “convoluted”)? Let me put it plainly: given the way this Government has tried to control information, speech, and expression, do we really want a ‘language officer’ signing off on every piece of public comms? What happens when the Government does what I just did there without anyone noticing? Take away the ‘plain’ aspect, and just make it a ‘language officer’… is this sounding a little more Ministry of Truth-esque? Public servants need to be able to give free and frank advice to their political overlords and more importantly, to speak openly with the public; erasing certain words from their vocabulary is a step in the wrong direction.

Is that clear? To control language is to control the ideas we can communicate.

Opposition to this Bill is split between its absurdly unnecessary nature, and the potential for it to be abused and become yet another string in the censorship bow of a Government intent on controlling speech. Just because it is in practice good to write plainly doesn’t mean we need legislation creating a role to enforce this. And just because the intention of the ‘plain language officer’ isn’t inherently censorious, that doesn’t mean it won’t end up silencing provocative speech. Is Boyack’s next Member’s Bill going to address these issues that she’s creating with this one?

Despite what some might say, the public service is not simply a conglomeration of higher beings sitting in great ivory towers in Wellington micromanaging the country through sophisticated decrees. (To put it plainly now) they’re normal people, like us, and can be expected to speak on the same level as the rest of the nation in a way we can all perfectly understand, on their own. Like so many other attempts at restricting and controlling speech, this Bill has proven to be another hopeless solution in desperate search of a problem.

To echo a suggestion from Duncan Garner- perhaps it would be a much better use of Government resources to appoint common-sense officers, perhaps even honesty officers or transparency officials!

(If you skimmed to the bottom of the article for the plain explanation in simple words, you can’t put it better than Chris Penk: ‘this Bill is not good. In fact, it is bad.’)

Jonathan Ayling is the Chief Executive of the Free Speech Union. In between running his Wairarapa vineyard and being Zen with his bees, he enjoys standing up for the freedoms that make New Zealand the stunning country it is. This article was originally published by and is published here with kind permission.


Anonymous said...

I think you are right Jonathan (got side-tracked there reading about Niccolò Machiavelli) I would not be surprised if Rachel Boyack was just an innocent tool of the Prime minister and her closest conspirators. Does politics in this small country have to be so sneaky?

Robert Arthur said...

Sorry I don’t agree. They are not to vet all communications, just those brought to their attention. Hopefully the threat will return written official language to a fathomable Churchillian form generally. In recent years, aided by the word processor, a spun out coded form of tertiary education language has dominated. I have made submissions on several Council and other documents. Although basic in form many have required repeat re read to reasonably fathom. Very far reaching intents are slipped in and lost to most among the sea of words. Much of the current maori takeover would have been avoided if not artfully concealed in glib tertiary speak words.
Councils in particular seem to use words to weigh down and bamboozle Councillors and the public and thus deter any opposition to staff driven policies. I am looking forward to lodging my first complaint.
The great failing of the Bill is that it excludes maori twaddle. Councils now adopt this (with no immediate or any translation) to hugely expand documents and throw off pesky Councillors and the public. As the meaning of many maori words is whatever maori choose to make it at any time (mauri, wairua, rangatiratanga etc etc etc) the scope for deliberate obfuscation and for advancement of maori governance is vast. Government depts and Councils will simply resort to yet more maori twaddle to baffle normal busy folk.

Hopefully the Bill will extend to cover arty diagrams, another ploy to confuse

Don said...

Please explain how a Plain Language Bill can be reconciled with the jamming down our throats of a contrived non-language full of invented words in flax skirts of no use to anybody even those of us living in this country.
It fits with the King Canute syndrome that thinks by taxing farmers we can stop the tide coming in. Cyclic climatic changes will continue just as they have millions of years before humans, or cows, appeared on this planet. We have the technology to measure the tiniest emissions but what leap of arrogant stupidity concludes that climate change can be influenced by taxation?
Monty Python lives!

Robert Arthur said...

Hi Don
It cannot be reconciled and is exempted from any attempt to do so. An example of a document which incorporated maori to confuse was/is the Draft Auckland Regional Parks Management Plan. Lotsa te lingo and not even a glossary, let alone a translation after the many words. All in accord with Council policy to plug te lingo, although never put to the voters as a democratic choice, and no recent councillor candidates dared risk cancellation.

AlanG said...

Clearly the biggest hindrance to plain language in official communications is the use of te reo, (which is understood by such a very small proportion of the population), without a translation into plain English. Unless the requirement for a clear English translation of every te reo word is enshrined in this law, then it totally misses the mark. It's quite ironic (some would say barking mad) that the government presiding over an emerging new pidgin English/Maori now wants to legislate for plain language.

Doug Longmire said...

Yes - this looks very much like the "Thought Police" being introduced slyly. The language officers/police will have gradually spreading powers...