By Ulli Diemer
The American newspaperman I.F. Stone used to say that the main thing to know about governments was that they all lie.
That isn’t exactly news, of course; most people have about as much faith in politicians as they do in used car salesmen. That is to say people listen to them because they have a corner on the market. But they listen more to what’s between the lines – if they listen at all – than to what he’s actually saying. And given the chance, they might not mind giving not only the tires but the salesman a good swift kick.
But the difference is that everybody knows that the salesman is out to make a buck. Politicians; on the other hand, are supposed to be out for the good of everybody – or so we’re always told. So you tend to keep you cynical ideas about them more or less to yourself, while the politicians keep on telling us what a great job they’re doing.
But I have a hunch that the introduction of television to the House of Commons has made a difference in the way people see politicians. When a politician is quoted in the newspaper, his statements may sound stuffy, but they do give the impression he’s being important, wise, and perhaps even sincere. (It’s hard to tell sincerity from the printed page.) But when you see the same people on television, you get an entirely different impression of them. Opposition spokesmen like Clark and Broadbent are always huffing and puffing, and trying to seem extremely indignant and concerned, but they don’t carry it off very well. It comes across like an act, because we all know what people who are really mad talk like, and it isn’t like Joe Clark. The government people, meanwhile, from Trudeau on down, simply refuse to give a straight answer to anything. They stickhandle better than any team in the NHL except the Canadiens, they shift, doubletalk, and mutter pompous platitudes that are supposed to make us think they have things well in hand, and our best interests at heart. But somehow it just comes across as fakery surrounded by a think verbal fog.
Perhaps the most striking thing about it all is that politicians seem completely incapable of giving straight answer to anything, of talking in ordinary language, of communicating. Language for them isn’t a way of getting ideas across, but of confusing people so they won’t understand what’s really going on.
As good an example any of the way politicians communicate is a sign that many of us see every day. It’s on all TTC vehicles, and it says, “The operation of this transit service is financially assisted by the Government of Ontario.” That all sounds very lovely, until you stop to think about the fact that TTC fares are rocketing higher than the CN Tower because the Ontario government has been cutting back left and right on its financial assistance to transit service. And then, just who is the “Government of Ontario” anyway? Are Bill Davis and Darcy McKeough digging into their ample piggybanks to help out the poor beleaguered TTC? Not on your life. It's the taxpayers of Ontario who are “financially assisting” the “operation of this transit service.” We do it first with our taxes, and then we make up the difference with our fares. The Government of Ontario is doing nothing except spending our tax dollars to put up signs in our streetcars and buses telling us that our money paid for them. Only they don’t put it like that, because that would make it sound as arrogant and foolish as it in fact is.
Their sign is not only an insult to the English language, it’s an insult to the citizens of Toronto.
Published in Seven News, Volume 8, Number 19, February 25, 1978