'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.’)