Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire: Understanding the language of politics

John Key has plenty to say to hard-working families and ordinary Kiwis via the media. Photo / Greg Bowker
John Key has plenty to say to hard-working families and ordinary Kiwis via the media. Photo / Greg Bowker

That strange groaning noise you've been hearing is the New Zealand political animal rising from its annual slumber, stretching its limbs out like a fat-tailed dwarf lemur emerging from hibernation. Bright, energised and bushy-tailed, our elected representatives have in recent days been reporting to their bosses for a fresh upload of Optimal Communicative Discourse Upskilling.

Gobbledegook and politics hang together like pathways and going forward. They always have. The peculiar language of politics, reckoned George Orwell 70 years ago, engenders "the curious feeling that one is not watching a live human but some kind of dummy". It is "designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind".

The murder thing might, touch wood, be overstating things as far as New Zealand is concerned, but we certainly get our fair share of wind (and, yes, we in the media blow a bit of wind of our own, but let's do that another week).

As we plunge headlong into the political year, then, with a flurry of state-of-the-nation speeches, here's a quick glossary to decode the verbiage that is soon to rain down upon us.

"What really matters to New Zealanders"

What consistently comes up in our focus groups.

"As I go up and down the country"

As I scan up and down the polling data.

"If you'll let me finish"

If you'll let me repeat my rehearsed message for the third time.

"If I can just make this point"

I need to return to my rehearsed message or our head of comms will growl at me.

"To get back to the point I was trying to make"

Our head of comms is terrifying.

"Make no mistake"

Here are some noises to fill up some space before I repeat my rehearsed message.

"What I will say is" (See also: "What I can say is, What I can tell you is, What I do know is")

I don't like your question very much so I'd rather answer another one of my choosing, to which the answer, as luck would have it, is my rehearsed message.

"Let's get a few facts straight"

Let's change the subject.

"Let me be very clear"

Let me phrase this cunningly.

"We've been very clear"

Much like mud.

"It could hardly be clearer"

We all know it could.

"With all due respect"

I really don't like you.

"I think you'll find"

Nobody likes you.

"I refute that"

I reject that.

"The enormity of the situation"

I don't know what words mean.



"You can always do more"

We're definitely not doing enough.

"There are a range of views"

Our position doesn't really stand up to scrutiny.

"There are a range of options"

We're waiting for more polling on this.

"Those aren't the words I'd choose to use"

That's an excellent summary but it would look terrible in a headline.

"We should let the process take its course"

I don't want to talk about that.

"I don't want to prejudice the inquiry"

I don't want to talk about that.

"Hard-working families"

Swing voters.

"What we've said is"

What I've been told to say by the terrifying head of comms is.

"I'm not going to get into hypotheticals"

I'm not going to discuss the hideous potential consequences.

"We need to take a holistic approach"

I need to avoid discussing specifics.

"I am not a political commentator"

I am merely a politician who commentates

"I don't intend to give a running commentary"

Because it would sound like a batting collapse.

"I don't have the details on that"

I didn't expect you to ask me that.

"Could you repeat the question?"

I have no idea how to answer that question.

"Ordinary Kiwis"

People without pointy-headed highfalutin concerns about esoteric things like human rights or political ethics.

"A raft of measures"

An unknown number of undefined things.

"Key stakeholders"

People whose calls I have to take.

"Repurpose / reapportion / consult widely / rationalise / find efficiencies" etc

Cut funding.

"I'm not completely ruling it out"

We'll probably end up doing that.

"Some people have just got a little bit carried away here"

Some people are on to us.

"Some people just need to calm down a bit"

I wish some people would calm down a bit.

"As I understand it"

If I overlook inconvenient factors.

"But here's the thing"

Listen, I am speaking with words that I hope will make me sound like a normal human being.

"New Zealanders will be able to make up their own minds on that / The public will draw their own conclusions"

I daren't say this out loud because it's contemptible but I also want to hint at it to tap into people's basest prejudices.

"I'm relaxed about that"

Most people aren't paying attention to that.

"There's more to politics than photo-ops and slogans"

I am not very good at photo-ops or slogans.

"Polls go up and down"

Our polling numbers are not good

"The only poll that matters is the one on election day"

Our polling numbers are terrible.

"I misspoke"

My pants are on fire.

"I misspoke and I apologise"

My pants are on fire and I am engulfed in flames.

"At the end of the day"

After the fuss over this problematic scandal abates.

"I apologise if any offence was caused"

I am saying sorry but I am not.

- NZ Herald

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Toby Manhire is a Wellington-bred, Auckland-based journalist.

Toby Manhire is a Wellington bred, Auckland based journalist. He writes a weekly column for the NZ Herald, the NZ Listener's Internaut column, blogs for, and contributes to the Guardian. From 2000 to 2010 he worked at the Guardian in London, and edited the 2012 book The Arab Spring: Rebellion, Revolution and a New World Order.

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