It's time to remind OUR government that WE are in charge

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The narrative needs to change to reflect the democratic reality that governments work for us, writes Noely Neate.

LISTENING to Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt brag about how his Government is helping more people with cancer, got me thinking.

It is great we are putting four more life-saving drugs on the PBS. In fact, when you look at other nations like the UK and the U.S., who are drastically downgrading their public health systems – with the fear we are treading blithely down the same track – it actually heartened me to hear this announcement.

What pulled me up was the phrasing used, then repeated all over the media:

'The Federal Government will subsidise a cancer drug that gives hope to mantle cell lymphoma patients who suffer a relapse along with three other cancer drugs.'

Ummm, no! It is not the Federal Government "subsidising" anything — as if it was some sort of philanthropic organisation. It is the “Australian taxpayer” subsidising these drugs. The Federal Government only "chooses" what to do with our taxpayer funds.

This may sound like nit-picking, but stay with me here.

So many people are disenchanted with politics. We see parliamentarians as self-serving and we don’t trust them. I’m wondering would this attitude change if we were fed better information that would allow us to actually take ownership of our government and be more convinced that these people are acting for us and on behalf of us?

Words matter!

There is a big difference between hearing that you are being given something and that you are paying for something. For the likes of adding life-saving drugs to the PBS, knowing we are paying for that can make us feel good, that our taxes are not being wasted, they are helping save people’s lives. It is not Greg Hunt and Malcolm Turnbull saving those lives, it is the Australian taxpayer. Good on us for doing it, too.

Now, if only Malcolm Turnbull and his Government could make some more "good choices" on how we can have our taxpayer funds spent to improve our nation.

On the flipside, we also hear politicians announcing things like "mobile blackspot" funding for a particular area, always announced as though that particular parliamentarian was "gifting" something to the community. The Nationals love it. Because the mobile blackspot funding is framed as How wonderful are we? Going to fix that black hole of telecommunications death outside town. All praise the Nationals!

Seriously, think about it. This is like someone hitting you up for money to buy you a birthday present but they actually hit you up for that hand-out nearly two decades ago, then finally got off their butt to buy you that present because they wanted you to like them again — hoping you will forget you actually paid for that present in the first place. And you are supposed to thank them for it?

Pretty sure in real life you would tell them to bugger off — you sure as hell would not be thanking them.

Sadly, though, because of the framing of these announcements, anyone who lives in a Nationals electorate will have seen time and again in the local papers, and on the nightly news, some MP beaming at a press conference while local media praise them for "getting it fixed".

This whole narrative is wrong, but we, the punters, have been groomed to accept it, by both politicians and the mainstream media.

The true framing of such an announcement should be:

After nearly two decades, the MP for [insert electorate] has announced the government has decided to release taxpayer funds to finally fix [insert thing that needs fixing].

Or if harking back to my scenario: Useless loser finally does what I paid them to do 20 years ago and expects thanks.

If the reality of the situation was reported as I have just done above, people might raise their expectations of their local MP. They may be better informed as to how their taxpayer dollars are spent and demand they get their fair share in their local area. They might also expect their local MP to represent them, truly represent them, as in fight for their share of funding for much-needed services or infrastructure.

Framing, narrative, language, context

We have seen the Government "choose" to give "our" money to all sorts of organisations and businesses, though this is always framed as them "giving" this money.

Stuff like the highly suspicious Great Barrier Reef Foundation getting their massive grant without tender was reported as:

'The Government in April announced it would gift $444 million to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a tiny business-focused charity, to fund reef-saving projects.'

Admittedly, this piece in Fairfax by Nicole Hasham includes "taxpayer funding" quite a few times, for which I thank her. We need more reporting like that. How can we, the taxpayers and citizens of this nation take politics more seriously when we don’t think these decisions are actually done in our name, and have any effect on us?

That line about "gifting", however, should read:

The Government in April announced it has chosen to give $444 million in taxpayer funds to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a tiny unknown business-focused charity, for reef-saving projects without the application going to tender.

This style of reporting would result in any punter paying attention at home asking:

  • How much of my money are you spending on the Reef?
  • It seems dodgy. Why didn't this massive contract go to tender?
  • Who the hell are this mob getting that much of my money?
  • Can this mob even do the job?

People are inherently selfish. In general, we only tend to care about things if they personally affect us. Some vague "government gives" doesn’t mean a hell of a lot to us, but "we are paying" does.

It's the same with government information. How often do we hear “commercial in confidence” or “FOI knocked back”. Many taxpayers don’t even know what an FOI is and glaze over when they hear “commercial in confidence”, which sounds like some vague legal thing. Australians may think differently if government decisions were reported differently.

We would feel differently, for example, if such scenarios were reported thus: 

  • The Government is refusing to tell taxpayers why they gave away squillions of taxpayer dollars.
  • Deputy Prime Minister spent squillions of taxpayer dollars in Canberra when Parliament was not sitting, but is keeping activities secret from citizens and expects them to trust that he was working.
  • Government MP is refusing to tell the taxpayers why he should be allowed to pay back their money, which he spent on a lavish trip with little merit or taxpayer benefit and for which he should not have claimed. Meanwhile, taxpayers have been threatened with gaol time and charged massive interest for accidental tax return errors, to pay for their employee's luxury jaunt.

The narrative seems to be that it is the Government’s money to spend as they wish and it is the Government’s right to "choose" to make laws as they wish. When Government decisions are framed in a such an abstract way without our involvement, as such, we don’t feel we have any ownership or a choice in what our elected officials do and it just doesn’t hit home for us.

We voted them in, therefore we are responsible for the choices our Government makes.

We will only start holding governments and politicians to account when we take ownership of those decisions ourselves. But we need to be reminded – constantly – that this money or these decisions are made on our behalf, in our name, with our money.

Let's start inserting ourselves into the narrative and sharing information with others. It might make some people feel uncomfortable to realise expensive legal fees were paid with our taxpayer dollars to stop a sick child, which we gave this Government permission to send to Nauru, from getting help. We voters may not like having that blood on our hands.

It's time for citizens to be inserted back into the narrative. We are not just one of many "stakeholders" — the Government needs to heed that we are the primary stakeholders. We gave it permission to make those choices with our votes. It is time we reminded the government they work for us — not the other way round.

Read more from Noely Neate on her blog YaThink?, or follow her on Twitter @YaThinkN.

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