Certain phrases reveal that a politician is being sneaky; that they are avoiding some nasty truths.
For example: "mum and dad". We hear regularly of "mum and dad investors", while "mum and dad landlords" is also popular. "Mum and dad businesses" is less common, but suggests the same thing: these are nice, middle-class heterosexual couples, familiar and safe. These are not dodgy profiteers, plotting for spoils. They are ordinary Aussies. Battlers, perhaps. (When families on $150,000 suddenly became battlers in 2011, the rot was obvious.)
Obviously, this phrase has an important purpose: to remind citizens that investment and commerce are not purely corporate. It introduces a suburban, familial atmosphere into an otherwise mercantile landscape. You too, says the unspoken pitch, could become one of these petty bourgeois capitalists, enjoying modest rewards from modest investments.
But this purpose is usually cankered, because it obscures inequality, suffering and other social ills. The "mum and dad" phrase suggests benign domesticity and humble ambitions; it shifts focus to visions of well-meaning striving, where toil translates into deserved rewards. Reality is more fraught.
Rental income, for example, is usually a tool of the wealthy. Spruikers of its egalitarian effects tells us that three-quarters of landlords have incomes under $80,000.
Even if this were true, it would still be misleading. The median gross income for a single Australian is roughly $56,000, putting the average punter only a little closer to the magical $80,000 figure than they are to the full aged pension. More importantly, that $80,000 is after tax deductions, including those for negative gearing rental properties – their incomes are actually much higher.
Income itself is only part of the picture. Some landlords with low incomes are able to survive on their seemingly meagre cashflows because they have significant wealth. On paper they seem to be dinky-di battlers but actually they may have, as the ABC's Michael Janda put it, "several investment properties, and possibly have a substantial share portfolio or bank balance as well". They have the option to sell their assets at any time – an option the poor do not have.
And this is the real sleight-of-hand behind the "mum and dad" phrase: not that it simply celebrates the comparatively well-heeled, but that it silences the genuinely struggling. We don't hear about the "mum and dad disability pensioners unfairly penalised by Centrelink", the "mum and child evicted by rapacious home owners" – or, shock horror, the "dad and dad who can't afford stable housing because, despite their hard work and austerity, their parents didn't sling them a cheeky deposit for a first home". Their stories are invisible in this grand narrative of mobility.
Put simply, the "mum and dad" phrase is often a ruse used by the wealthy and powerful to give their fellow class beneficiaries a true blue gloss; to transform structural inequality into homely hard yakka.
Obviously, it's futile to expect politicians to speak in any other way, as a large part of their job is pretending. While accusing various groups of not living in the "real world" – by which they usually mean a system engineered to benefit them and their class – they trade in semblance. They omit, use weasel words, half-truths, and outright lies. They deploy wilful ignorance, tactically. The point is not that we shouldn't hold them to account, but that assuming honesty would be naive.
Rather, recognising the dodginess of the "mum and dad" phrase is merely one tick in a long list of checks and balances. We do this for the sake of ordinary citizens, not to redeem the elected leaders. There is an enormous amount of spin, doublespeak and outright nonsense. The government of the day trades on a very low signal to noise ratio, so that the important messages are lost in a hum of vague waffle or boilerplate bollocks. It helps to remind ourselves of why their stock phrases are misleading, and what uncomfortable truths they are trying to obscure.
This is important for its own sake: the urge to be truthful and honest. But it is also important politically, as we remember those who routinely miss out of the spoils of a rich country, despite their toil. Australia is wealthy enough to support all its citizens, but many are born into want. Advertising the virtuous, salt-of-the-earth toil of the wealthy is a cheap trick that insults the countless mums and dads who didn't win the socioeconomic class lottery (because it's rigged).
As a country, there are other investments we need to make.
Damon Young is a philosopher and author. damonyoung.com.au