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Understanding ‘Abbott-Speak’ – Truthiness to English Dictionary

Listening to Tony Abbott speak can be confusing. One day he’s saying something like “Let me be as categoric as I can, the GST won’t change, full stop, end of story”. Then, in the very first budget brought down by his government, the GST is immediately put under the spotlight – leading up to last week, where he praised the States for ‘considering’ an increase to GST, describing it as “one of the better [taxes]”.

Abbott’s seemingly contradictory statements can leave the average punter scratching their head, wondering how to make sense of ‘Abbott-speak’. This is because Abbott is often speaking ‘Truthiness’ rather than English – particularly at press conferences and interviews.

‘Truthiness’ is an English dialect often used by politicians. It was identified by American Commentator Stephen Colbert to describe the particular subset of language used by US politicians. The key difference between ‘Truthiness’ and everyday English is that someone speaking Truthiness uses words and concepts that ‘feel’ true, or that they wish you to believe to be true, without worrying about whether or not they actually are true.


The Truthiness dialect sounds very similar to normal everyday English, which is why it often causes confusion. So I’ve prepared this handy dictionary for you which translates some of the key Truthiness phrases often used by Tony Abbott.

TRUTHINESS: Budget Repair (as in “We’ve done a lot of budget repair”)
ENGLISH: We can’t think of anything else to say about the budget that doesn’t sound REALLY bad

There was a much used Truthiness phrase – which preceded this one – that has passed out of common usage this year: “Debt and Deficit Emergency”. The English translation of that phrase is “We want you to think there’s a major economic problem, and that only we can fix it”. This wasn’t true of course – but Truthiness doesn’t have to be true, it just has to feel true.

Of course since taking Government, the LNP have arguably turned our economy into a basket case, and created the world’s worst debt trajectory. This makes it challenging for them to continue to use the ‘Debt and Deficit emergency’ Truthiness phrase without having it potentially used against them.

The LNP have now rolled back their ’emphatic’ commitment to deliver “a surplus in [their] first year in office and….achieve a surplus for every year of [their] first term” – which of course they haven’t. Instead they’ve gone for the only thing they can really say without admitting ‘we’ve done a really crap job’ – which is essentially that ‘we’re working on it’. The budget is effectively ‘in the shop’ for repairs.

(See also ‘Terrorists are coming for every one of you’.)

TRUTHINESS: Crystal Clear (as in “I want to make it absolutely crystal clear”)
ENGLISH: This may or may not be true, but I’d like you to think it is

The use of this phrase can be an indicator that whatever it refers to is probably Truthiness rather than English. Here’s some great examples from Tony Abbott:

  • “I want to make that crystal clear: we absolutely stand by all the policies that we took to the election”
  • “We’ve got good and improving cooperation with Indonesia. I want to make that absolutely crystal clear.”
  • “Can I make myself crystal clear: the pensioners of Australia are better off under this Government”

TRUTHINESS: Important thing (as in “The important thing is……..”)
ENGLISH: That topic might make me look bad, I’d rather talk about….

Tony Abbott uses the phrase “the important thing is….” a lot in interviews. Rather than indicating that a particular point is actually important – which would be the normal English interpretation of the phrase – when used in the Truthiness dialect, it seems to indicate that the question Abbott has just been asked is probably not one he wants to answer. So instead of responding to the question he has just been asked, he diverts the listeners’ focus onto a topic he does want to talk about – referred to as ‘the important thing’.

Here’s an example from an interview in June with Neil Mitchell on Radio 3AW:

Neil Mitchell: Theoretically, hypothetically, would you find it acceptable to pay people smugglers?
Tony Abbott: Look Neil, I’m just not going to get into hypotheticals. The important thing is that we stop the boats…

TRUTHINESS: No cuts/No change to [insert name of program e.g. education]
ENGLISH: I REALLY want you to vote for me

Watch the following ten second video of some of Abbott’s pre-election promises:

Now play it back, and replace the phrase “no cuts/no change to [insert name of program] with “I REALLY want you to vote for me”.

It makes a lot more sense that way, doesn’t it?

TRUTHINESS: Operational Matters ( as in “That’s an operational matter….”)
ENGLISH: I don’t want to talk about that/Talk to the hand

TalkToTheHand Tony Abbott and his Ministers use this phrase regularly to respond to any questions on asylum seekers that they don’t wish to answer – which is pretty much any question on asylum seekers. It’s the Truthiness version of “Talk to the Hand”.

Here’s an example from an interview last week with Minister for Saying-We’ve-Stopped-the-Boats, Peter Dutton:

JOURNALIST: I can understand not providing operational details now, but surely just acknowledging ‘there’s been a boat, it’s been spotted, there are now operational approaches to deal with it and we will give those further details in due course’ – that’s not unreasonable surely?

PETER DUTTON: No and that’s exactly what we’ve said. We said we don’t comment in relation to operational matters and we’ve been very consistent about that…

Yes you have Peter Dutton. Yes you have.

TRUTHINESS: Terrorists are coming for every one of you
DonateNow ENGLISH:
1. Be afraid. Be very VERY afraid…….And then vote Liberal
2. Look over here.
(Commonly used as a distraction technique when budget issues arise.)
3. Look at how we are keeping you safe from this HUGE threat that is actually half way across the world and not really much of a threat at all.

This is an extremely versatile Truthiness phrase – and has a number of potential meanings attributed to it – often used simultaneously. For example, last month the Victorian branch of the Liberal party sent out an email to its subscribers, with the image on the right enclosed, requesting donations:

“Your contribution is vital to ensure the Liberal party has the resources to keep fighting on the issues that matter to you.”

For more information on how this phrase is used, and the actual threat it poses to Aussies, see my Idiots Guide to avoiding Terrorists under the Bed.

TRUTHINESS: We’ve stopped the boats (also see ‘Operational Matters’)
ENGLISH: We’ve stopped the boats from being a political problem for us, and we’ve made asylum seekers someone else’s problem

The problem with understanding the phrase “We’ve stopped the boat”, as I’ve said before, is that the phrase doesn’t specify what we’re supposed to have stopped the boats from doing.

The boats haven’t stopped coming, although they have possibly slowed – it’s a little hard to tell definitively, due to the Government’s ‘Talk to the Hand’ approach on asylum seekers. We do know the Government hasn’t stopped the people smugglers and they haven’t stopped deaths at sea. They haven’t even completely stopped arrivals. But still Tony Abbott repeats the phrase “we’ve stopped the boats”. So what does this Truthiness phrase mean in English?

The English translation of this oft-used phrase appears to be that Abbott and his Government have stopped talking about anything to do with the boats, by saying that anything relating to asylum seekers coming by boats is an ‘operational matter’ (see above). This has taken the political heat out of the problem, but left the problem of finding homes for asylum seekers like the Rohingya to our poorer neighbours.

The above is just a brief selection of Truthiness phrases designed to help you get the hang of identifying and interpreting Abbott-speak. The key to translating Truthiness is to listen carefully to what Mr Abbott – and other politicians – say. Don’t necessarily take their words at face value. This is particularly true of three word slogans or where what is being said isn’t backed up by facts or logic. If you do this, you’ll be fluent in Truthiness in no time!

This article was first published on Progressive Conversation.

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  1. Kaye Lee

    “The key to translating Truthiness is to listen carefully to what Mr Abbott – and other politicians – say.”

    You ask too much Kate. I would much rather read your translation. Great article 🙂

  2. Kate M

    Thanks Kaye!

  3. roaminruin

    Very amusing. Extremely disconcerting.

  4. Blinkyewok

    All Abbotts truthiness just highlights what he said years ago; we can’t believe anything he says.

  5. Carol Taylor

    Blinkyewok, at least Abbott is still can’t believe anything he says.

  6. Matters Not

    wondering how to make sense of ‘Abbott-speak’ … the normal English interpretation … key to translating Truthiness …

    What’s with this ‘making’ sense, ‘interpreting’ and ‘translating’? Seems very radical. Or are you seriously suggesting that it is we, as humans, who are at the core of the ‘meaning making’ process rather than the ‘words’ we created?

    If so, then I agree.

    It’s clear that the ‘meanings’ we give to words change constantly. For example, I’ve had two ‘haircuts’ recently. One given by a barber, another delivered by the sharemarket.

  7. corvus boreus

    Dinner at Tony’s.

    Truthiness as fluffy-filling between factoids (3 words type),
    cooked with constant repetitions and frequent ‘um-tuations’,
    splashed with hyperbolic sauce,
    and served up framed by hand-parentheses and flanked with ever-multiplying flags.

    Unutterably impalatable.

  8. Kate M

    Harquebus – great link. The other phrase I dislike is “collateral damage”.

    Corvus – great poem. Particularly like ‘um-tuations’

  9. Harquebus

    Kate M
    I agree. Sounds so much better than “innocent casualties”.
    Another is “free trade”. Regulated trade that frees corporations from government oversight.

  10. Ricardo29

    Along with Kaye Lee, some fun late night reading here.oh, it’s not late night yet us it?

  11. corvus boreus

    Thanks, Kate M, both for the compliment and the article.

    Ps, I think “value signal” (meaning ‘increased GP costs’) is a worthy addition to the lexicon of obfuscative euphemisms.

  12. John Kelly

    Truthiness goes hand in hand with what we use to call ‘double speak’, which is the art of saying something that promotes one understanding while actually meaning something else. John Howard was very good at it.
    Example: when pressed to announce some kind of retirement plan John Howard said that “when he reached the age of 64 he would look at it.” Journalists took this to mean he would retire and hand over to Peter Costello when he turned 64. He didn’t mean that at all. And he didn’t retire then either.

  13. Harquebus

    Kate M
    You might also like this one. Recommended.
    I have asked a psychologist to review it and it is valid.

    Propaganda and Manipulation: How mass media engineers and distorts our perceptions

  14. jeannettejing

    Most mothers know the temptation to use fear. It is poor parenting, effective sometimes in the short term but still poor parenting. Example, “Eat your dinner or that spider up there will come and get you.” Surely there are enough intelligent people in our population who will wake up to the manipulative nature of propaganda?

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