Last Wednesday, standing next to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said something increasingly obvious to everyone. “We’re seeing these events which we call one-in-1000-year flood events or one-in-100-year flood events now becoming one-in-one-year flood events.”
This is no criticism: politicians regularly fail, even in the face of dogged questioning – particularly in the face of dogged questioning – to state the obvious. This is a fact often missed in the debate, last week, over whether Scott Morrison’s secret, lied-about holiday to Hawaii could be compared to Albanese’s trip to Ukraine. The whole debate was petty, in part because it mostly skipped the context of that debacle. There was a sense that Morrison had “gone missing” (Labor’s term), not only by virtue of his literal absence, but by his refusal to engage on honest terms with the role of climate in natural disasters. He was, in other words, missing from the only discussion that mattered because he took too long to describe an event in terms that had long been obvious to everyone else.
Changes in language are often fraught; their effects are not straightforward. We lose something, too, when we move away from the now-inaccurate “one-in-100-year” description. We risk normalising disaster, in the way that we have normalised too many other worrying features of our world. But in part because those effects are hard to assess it is usually better to stick with the simple principle of attempting accuracy at every moment. In this case, “one-in-one-year” provides an honest answer to the question most Australians have begun asking themselves: is this the new normal? Yes, it is.
In general, though, politicians’ language is to be distrusted. It is too carefully constructed: too obviously an attempt to make us think a particular thing, as when the Coalition suddenly began describing asylum seekers as “illegal maritime arrivals”. In the case of the one-in-one-year floods, there is no reason to be suspicious: the evidence is visible.
But what about other changes the federal government is now making?
Two stand out. As this paper reported, the Treasury department has begun to model the effects of climate change on the economy for the first time in years. Treasurer Jim Chalmers, also announced last week that from now on the Budget would include indicators beyond the standard economic ones. We don’t know precisely what yet, but there are suggestions that over time they might include life expectancy, child poverty, and other pointers to economic inequality.
Labor wants to change the conversation to one more suitable to itself.
This is not a matter of changing language, exactly, but its goal is similar: Chalmers is explicit about wanting to reshape the conversation. In the spirit of distrusting politicians, then, it is worth asking what political benefit this might deliver. The answer is obvious enough. As others have observed, conservative parties tend to benefit when voters are focused only on the question of economic management. When the question is broadened it becomes more favourable to progressive parties.