Ted Baillieu, the former premier of Victoria and business scion, knows the power of a bitchy metaphor.
Despite supporting progressive causes such as voluntary euthanasia and abortion law reform, and having been involved in efforts to save the Franklin River and heritage preservation, he was labelled “Ted the Toff from Toorak” and “Cottee’s, because he’s thick and rich’’.
The metaphors of naming and shaming are not his thing. We are talking about metaphors in the election campaigns here and in the US, from where he’s just returned, and it’s raining hype.
The present US primaries are reminiscent of the hilariously bad smack-downs and mixed metaphors of the past when a Republican senator called his political opponents “lemmings in suicide vests”. The American public is yet again being forced to “eat a sugar-coated Satan Sandwich” and “drink the Kool-Aid” — two gems from the 2011 debt negotiations.
Back home, we’re a seafaring mob. The economy is floating about like a juggernaut moving towards the end goal — or “Armageddon”, depending which side you are on. Your opponent’s vessel is “a sinking ship moored to the dock like the Titanic about to self-destruct”. Yep, I actually heard that one once. In power you might be adrift but, as Tony Abbott once promised, barnacles are being scraped off the ship.
Baillieu and I recently became friends at a conference in India that focused on non-divisive politics. The Art of Living Global Leadership Forum was attended by prime minsters, presidents (past and present) and business leaders including Forbes group chief executive Michael Perlis and Richard Branson (Twiggy Forrest was delayed mid-flight).
It explored ways to foster co-operation, empathy and ethics in leadership. Ted gave a keynote on being calm and kind and the importance of putting ego aside in this time of global crisis.
“There is enormous power in calm and there is enormous power in silence Not every leader has to yell and scream. Not every leader has to respond to the 24-hour daily media cycle,” he says, sick and tired of all the infighting, hissy fits and squabbling that mar the political landscape he’s been part of for decades.
We both returned home to exactly that: the yelling and screaming, hyperbole, psychobabble and mixed metaphors of election-speak. A recent study has estimated there is one metaphor spewed out every 2-3 minutes in politics. Such verbosity jumbles the issues and pits one leader against another.
A straight-talking Baillieu says so far the election campaign here has been “pale predictable, and non-penetrating”, without overt personal nastiness. But he says: “Once you start hearing the metaphors we heard in recent leadership battles, firefighting with kerosene, ambulance drivers, biblical catastrophising, i.e. Armageddon and nuclear weapons, movie references to the Titanic or hobbits, you are really in strife.”
He is saddened to hear Malcolm Turnbull subjected to the same “metaphor mischief” as he was subjected to, being called a “silvertail” and filthy rich.
While he won’t be drawn on election commentary — having drawn a line under his political days, including its sudden end when he resigned as premier on a balmy autumn night in 2013 — he does believe the stereotyping of Turnbull is another linguistic beat-up. “They attempt to colour us the same way,” says Baillieu.
While paying homage to the fact he is descended from the wealthy Baillieu clan, he emphasises Turnbull does not have that background. “He has the grace of his family history, which has made him his own self-made man, doing well in his own right, a man who has a great world view, and worldly view, he connects well with other people and has genuine humility,” he says.
“The fact is cheap labels don’t work if they don’t fit, and these labels don’t fit with Malcolm.”
But there is a one comparison that does fit — a genuine fondness for public transport, with both men often photoed in transit.
Despite the shallowness of the similes, hyperbole and awful metaphors, the verbal carry-on continues. It brings to mind one of Barack Obama’s famous lines: “We might as well do it now — pull off the Band-Aid and eat our peas”, which in 2013 caused one journalist to parody the US President’s constant mix-meta-speak when he wrote: “We will eat our peas. We will burn a candle at both ends, keep the ball rolling, and if I have to, I will put a sock in it.”
US-based Andrew J. Gallagher, PhD, master’s in linguistics and a degree in anthropology, spent the past four years analysing language and political/media doubletalk for his website database.
It grew to include more than 2000 metaphors in 54 different categories, used for “playing their own trumpet” or tearing one another down, especially during election time.
He says the journey motif reigns supreme. Political opponents are lost, they go down a dead-end street with their policies, or get trapped on a one-way street, or are down a rabbit warren. The good guys face obstacles and stumbling blocks but build bridges (set in concrete, solid foundations built brick by brick), while opponents remain on a dangerous slippery slope without a road map. Or accelerating the debt without a foot on the brake.
He says we love a good fight metaphor, throwing punches, the judo flip, battle cries. A bit of ill health and death is omnipresent — bills that are “dead on arrival”, or as Abbot was fond of, “dead, buried and cremated”.
Games feature: playing the woman card, scoring goals. And of course nature: weathering the storm, mudslinging, changes of seasons and flourishing economic growth, uphill battles on steep inclines, erosion, and potholes on the path.
Baillieu says constant verbose manipulations take away from hard work, good policy and getting things done. He’s also had to weather the proverbial “storm” of hype and attempted humiliation during his 15 years of parliament.
He told the conference good government was being thwarted by those who are “shamelessly disruptive and shamelessly inconsistent and shamelessly provocative about it”. Which prevents bipartisan co-operation and tough issues being addressed.
“I’m an architect. I want visions to be instigated, not needlessly sidetracked.”
Of course, the occasional conflict is unavoidable, but divisive, negative politics is simply non-productive. His views echo comments made by the managing director of Transfield, Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, who campaigns endlessly for a movement called New Democracy based on the Greek model of a citizens’ senate rather than a divisive two-party preferred system. “Why do we need all this destructive tearing down?” asked Belgiorno-Nettis during a recent interview.
Not that Ted the Toff is adverse to a fight — a pillow fight with me that is, in the lobby of the prestigious and uber-swish Leela Palace Kempinski hotel in New Delhi. Onlookers and dignitaries were suitably miffed when the tall, statuesque Baillieu in his suave navy suit jumped off the couch mid-interview with me and spontaneously engaged in a pillow fight for no apparent reason other than good, mad fun.
Baillieu has been in the thick of it in power and opposition — betrayed, done over — no saint himself by his own admission. “No, I’m not pure and perfect”, which is impossible in politics. But he doesn’t believe negative, dirty politics is the way it should be, or has to be.
Jeff Kennett told The Age in 2010: “(People say) Ted is not in there punching as hard or criticising as much as he should be. (But) he doesn’t do it because he’s not comfortable with it. He doesn’t think you have to be like that. He will not change his values just to appease the baying crowd.’’
Baillieu says he can stay out of the muck because he meditates by way of a breathing technique that helps him relax and let’s the “criticisms flow through to the back of the chair”. He doesn’t drink tea, coffee or alcohol. “I don’t do anything that would make me reactive. I like to stay calm so I don’t respond. I just ignore the slurs and attacks and avoid them. If you hit back, then they hit you back again. So I give it no fuel.”
Forbes’s Perlis is acutely aware of the media’s role in the disunity and in — dare I use a colleague’s recent metaphor — “throwing kerosene on the political fire”.
Unhelpful metaphors are constantly being used in news broadcasts. In one study, it was found a metaphor or hyperbole was used every 25 words.
Baillieu now gets turned on by leading trade missions to India and China, by promoting two-way trade, multiculturalism and arts festivals — encouraging “diversity”, not being “divisive”.
But he laments the demand for quick-fix solutions and elaborate circus play in political leadership. After two years in office, Baillieu was criticised by business and community leaders for acting too slowly on policies. “It’s impossible to be a good leader if you have such a limited time in the chair.”
He isn’t impressed with the revolving doors of leaders. Tenure is too short, says the man who was forced to prematurely hand over the reigns of the Liberal Party to Denis Napthine in 2013. A little over a year later, Napthine and the Coalition then lost power to Daniel Andrew’s Labor.
“It takes more than a year to get things done,” Baillieu says.
“Good policies take time, and once in the actual leadership seat it’s a hard responsibility working with public servants who’ve been there so many years longer than you, and some self-interest parties with agendas.”
He worries about the lack of talent coming up through the ranks of political leadership around the world.
“Very few people want to participate in the political process because it can be ugly and there are limited rewards. How do you get capable people involved?”
It’s a burning question. And a problem we need to solve. Otherwise if leaders continue to be combative, someone could accidentally pull the trigger while reaching for their Satan sandwich, on the high seas. And then we’d all sink like the Titanic in a storm.