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The Power Of Wordsmiths

The Power Of Wordsmiths

For political parties to persuade the public that their policies offer the most for New Zealand, they must be framed in appealing and not neutral terms. The policy debate is always framed in language designed to sell values, which is why the language itself is so important.

A paper recently written for the Labour Party, and released this week by National MP Gerry Brownlee, reveals that Labour is in search of new language to frame its ideas. The paper, Language Matters: Setting Agendas-Taking Charge of the Language, was prepared for the Otago Southland Labour Party regional conference. Author Clare Curran registers her concern that National has co-opted the language around social issues, such as education, welfare and family.

Citing expressions such as "political correctness", "family values", "tax cuts" and "welfare dependency", the paper argues that these phrases, and others like them, buy into a values framework biased towards National. She points out that "if you control the language, you control the message", and calls for the framing of issues with new language, in tune with Labour Party values: "One of Labour's key goals should be to define the debate on our terms".

For example, the paper suggests that to make people feel better about paying tax, Beehive spin doctors should call tax "an investment". Ms. Curran calls it "...the glue that holds us together" saying that tax, results in "assets" such as "communications, infrastructure, schools, hospitals". This is an apt demonstration of the power of language. With one stroke, Ms. Curran has made the government's tax take the seal of all that is good, (roads, small children, people on kidney machines), and positioned tax as the primary mechanism that holds society together (glue). This puts those who think government should let people keep more of their own money on the defensive. After all, who would oppose paying for Aunt Maud's new hip, or touch "the glue which holds society together"?

The power of language is seen in other policy debates too and Labour is not alone in its quest to capture it. The Hon Jim Sutton's "emissions levy" is the Federated Farmers' "fart tax". To some, the "unemployment benefit" is really "the dole". Is it "racial separatism" or "closing the gaps"? Is school zoning "protecting the local school" or "denying parents' choice"?

As a morass of professional wordsmiths and strategists engulf political debate, voters must be savvy about the power of language to sell values, and probe behind the memorable slogans to see the ideas they seek to advance.


While the Select Committee considering the Bill to repeal section 59 of the Crimes Act 1961 began hearing oral submissions this week, the Bill's sponsor, Green MP Sue Bradford, conceded that her Bill needs changing. One thing is clear - clarity is absent from this debate.

Section 59 currently allows parents to use "reasonable force" on their children for corrective purposes. Without the protection of section 59, to place a child in their room for 'time out', or to lightly smack a child, would constitute the crime of assault. It is pleasing that Ms Bradford has realised that such discipline should not be made illegal.

She has suggested that the problem could be solved either by a commentary stating that the Bill is not intended to criminalise "light smacking", or by rewording the Bill itself. Unfortunately, her first proposal would do nothing to alter the Bill's effect. Ms Bradford says that a commentary could be written by the Select Committee. This statement of intention would sit alongside the Bill, and would not be part of it. However, what matters is what the law will actually say, not what anyone intended it to say. If Ms Bradford's proposed change is not part of the Bill itself, it will not be part of the law if the Bill is enacted. This would mean that the repeal of section 59 would proceed unaffected and light smacking or enforcing 'time out', would be a crime.

To ensure that any change to the Bill's effect is part of the law, the Bill itself must be reworded or abandoned. One solution put forward is to rewrite the Bill to amend section 59 so that it defines what constitutes "reasonable force". While this would be an improvement on the Bill as currently drafted, and an improvement on the suggested commentary, it would still be highly problematic. Building definitions into section 59 will make it more rigid, and therefore liable to create injustice. For example, some have suggested that physical discipline administered to a child under two and over 12 years of age should be defined as unreasonable. It is obvious that an approach which hinges on such arbitrary limitations will produce injustice. A conviction could rest on whether a child was disciplined merely hours before their birthday, regardless of other circumstances, such as the degree of force used.

Maxim Institute's submission to the Select Committee proposed rewriting the Bill to amend section 59 so that it specified a list of factors that must be considered in section 59 cases. This amendment would give certainty to the law, while retaining flexibility for judges and juries to decide how those specific factors, and any others that were relevant, applied in a particular case. This combination of certainty and flexibility is necessary to ensure that just results can be achieved in individual cases. It is vital that the debate on this Bill, centre on the facts of the law, and not on rhetoric or good intentions.

To read Maxim Institute's written submission on the Bill, please visit:



Education took centre stage this week when Education Minister, Steve Maharey announced plans to build seven new schools in South Auckland, and the Education Review Office (ERO) claimed that one in five children are not "experiencing success" at school. This week, Maxim Institute also released the final report in its award winning Parent Factor series - Summary and policy recommendations.

The report summarises the key findings from the Colmar Brunton research into parents' views on schooling. The research paints a clear picture: New Zealand's education system is out of step with what parents want. The "big picture" is a much needed element in the New Zealand education debate.

To help make the schooling system more reflective of what parents want, and to ensure the best possible outcomes for pupils, Maxim Institute recommended that schools be granted more flexibility over funding, curriculum and assessment to enable schools to better reflect their community's values. Schools should be free to remunerate teachers in the way which best suits their community. More of the information that parents want about schooling, including exam results and teachers' qualifications, should be more easily accessible. Finally, school zones should be abolished so that parental income ceases to be the primary factor determining which school a child can attend.

In light of the ERO concerns about inadequate pupil achievement and the building of new schools, it is important to take time to look at fresh ways of approaching education and to see what kinds of policies are working well overseas. While parents may not have the expert training that many others involved in education have, their voices deserve to be listened to.

To read The Parent Factor: Summary and policy recommendations, please visit:


To listen to Maxim Institute's Policy Manager Nicki Taylor, discuss education with Education Minister Hon Steve Maharey on Newstalk ZB, please visit:



These immortal words call to mind foggy Victorian London, and one of the most famous characters in all literature. Complete with deerstalker, pipe and the incredulous Dr. Watson, Sherlock Holmes has been delighting audiences since he took his first bow in A Study in Scarlet (1887).

His creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930), turned 147 this week, illustrating that although he is dead, his writing and characters are not.

Literature reflects and helps shape the values of a society. In Sherlock Holmes, and also in other Conan Doyle works, such as The White Company and The Lost World, we see both the strange and the familiar. Conan Doyle is an author of his time, and many of his assumptions seem foreign to us. But it is a measure of his greatness that Holmes retains much contemporary relevance.

We find in Conan Doyle an epic romanticism, a Victorian confidence in scientific method, faith in progress and in Empire - all things which, to some extent, we have lost in the post-modern world, which is far from Victorian. But we find enduring values also, of truth, justice, honour, duty and fortitude.

The outrageous smoking in defiance of OSH regulations, and the patriotic "V.R." in bullet holes on the wall of 221B Baker Street might scandalise the sensitive, and Conan Doyle does not shy away from either human flaws or the sometimes unbearable dirtiness of human existence. But his allegiance to the cause of justice still has the power to inspire, both in continuing portrayals of Mr. Holmes, and in wider and contemporary culture.

Modern television series' such as Cold Case, CSI and Law and Order, show us the deep desire for moral order and for the uncovering of the truth, in spite of the odds.

Sherlock Holmes has become a cultural symbol of tenacity and the quest for truth, things we still value as universal human virtues. Stories matter and stories inspire. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a story-teller both for his time and for all time. His work gives us both a connection to the virtues of the past, and continuing inspiration for the present.



The Justice and Electoral Select Committee reported back to Parliament this week on the Electoral (Integrity) Amendment Bill, colloquially knows as the "party hopping" legislation. If passed, the government Bill would force an MP who leaves their party to also leave Parliament. They would not be able to remain as an independent MP for the rest of the Parliamentary term.

Maxim Institute was one of 15 submitters on this Bill. We suggested amending the Bill, so that its provisions would only apply to List MPs and not to electorate MPs, as List MPs are elected solely on the basis of the party they represent. It is pleasing to see that the Committee has recognised many of the problems in the Bill, acknowledging that because electorate MPs have a mandate from their constituents, they should only be forced out of Parliament by the voter. The Committee have recommended that the Bill does not proceed, and because political support for the Bill is wavering, it is unlikely to pass without significant amendments.

To read the Select Committee's report on the Bill, please visit:


To read Maxim Institute's submission on the Bill, please visit:



Statistics New Zealand has released its 2005 Demographic Trends report, which shows that the marriage rate is declining, while the number of de facto unions, the trend of marrying later and the number of single people, is on the rise.

The number of marriages solemnised fell 2 percent between 2003 and 2004. The marriage rate was 13.9 per 1000, less than a third of the marriage rate at its peak of 45.5 per 1000, reached in 1971. De facto unions on the other hand, rose from one in four in 1996, to one in three in 2001. Among couples under 25, de facto unions are more popular than legal marriage.

These statistics are evidence of a continuing and worrying trend away from marriage. Marriage, as the foundation of stable family life and society, is too important to ignore, and trends like this make a debate on the value of marriage, all the more urgent.

Chapter three of the report, which deals with marriage and divorce, can be read at:



"What you have inherited from your forefathers, earn it, that you may own it"

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)


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