Malcolm Turnbull sticks with the 'programme' ... or does he?

Malcolm Turnbull sticks with the 'programme' ... or does he?

Which spelling of this mundane, yet now politicised, word has the imprimatur of the highest office in the land?

Malcolm Turnbull seems to have found a simple formula for electoral success: say (if not do) the opposite of what Tony Abbott would say. And polls suggest the strategy is working rather well (albeit against Bill Shorten).

Nonetheless, there appears to be one Abbottism that our popular Prime Minister is reluctant to ditch (or at least reluctant to say he is ditching). Despite two months of pestering, this column has been unable to draw a response from Turnbull's office on his preferred spelling: "program" or "programme".

Dangerous lefty? Malcolm Turnbull's office won't reveal his spelling preferences.

Dangerous lefty? Malcolm Turnbull's office won't reveal his spelling preferences.Credit:Stefan Postles

This is, of course, a highly political matter that goes to the heart of the question that has riven the Liberal Party: is Turnbull the dangerously progressive lefty that many conservatives fear he is, or is he just role playing to gather stray votes from the centre?


First, a little history. As many public service readers know, Coalition ministers have tended to prefer "programme" while Laborites are committed to "program". The politics behind the spelling are such that the bureaucracy (with the exception of a few bold outposts) has switched three times in recent decades.


John Howard issued a memo after he won office in 1996, telling public servants to avoid what he thought was the American "program" in favour of the British "programme". (In fact, the English had used "program" for yonks but switched to "programme" in the 19th century, when everything French was in favour. They've since mostly weaned off the Frenchified version.)

After Kevin Rudd came to power in 2007, he reversed Howard's edict.

And then, upon Abbott's ascension in 2013, the ever-responsive bureaucracy switched again. Australia bunged on the Frenchy once more.

(Parliament's fiercely impartial Hansard editors ignored all this to-ing and fro-ing; they stuck with "program" throughout the spelling wars. The Defence Department and the military, always keen to appear politically neutral, opted for an inclusive, passive approach: a spokesman told the Informant that in Defence's "internal and external communications, either spelling is appropriate". Nor does the Commonwealth Style Manual make a ruling on the matter, though it uses "program" throughout.)

So back to Turnbull. We noticed that, within weeks of ousting Abbott as Liberal leader, "program" began to creep into some of his official media statements and speech transcripts. Was it an accident, or a deliberate slight on Abbott's legacy? Clearly, it had the whiff of communism about it, and would hardly go down well among the Liberal's wounded conservative wing.

Whatever the cause, "program" remains scattered throughout Turnbull's statements two months after we drew it to his media staff's attention. They also refuse steadfastly to answer that simple question: which spelling currently has the imprimatur of the highest office in the land? Prime Minister, we await your leadership.

Divine lawsuit

A reader who travelled recently through Karnataka sent in a photo (below) of an inscription on the Indian state's parliamentary building: "government work is God's work". Which is interesting in itself, but the motto's history is even more so.

The Vidhana Soudha, or parliament, in Bangalore, the capital of the Indian state of Karnataka.

The Vidhana Soudha, or parliament, in Bangalore, the capital of the Indian state of Karnataka.

So controversial was the slogan that, within a year of the legislature being built, the Karnatakan government announced plans to replace the words. Yet the expense was prohibitive, especially given that the cost of the building itself had sparked immense criticism. As no politician dared to give the go-ahead to pay for a new inscription, it's still there 60 years later.

However, the controversy didn't end – it spread. During a 1996 visit to Bangalore, the Republican governor of Ohio, George Voinovich, was so impressed upon seeing the inscription that he decided to etch his state's motto, "With God, all things are possible", onto the Ohio Statehouse. That decision prompted a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union, which argued that the motto and the planned inscription violated the US constitution's first amendment, which forbids state endorsement of religion.

The outcome? The union lost. The statehouse now displays a large version of the Ohio seal, with its divine motto.

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