What Do Alison Redford and George Orwell Have in Common?

Premier Redford and the novelist George Orwell have one thing in common—they recognize the value of euphemisms in political discourse.

A euphemism is a mild or indirect word or expression used in place of one that is too harsh or blunt.  The recent exchange between Premier Redford and Prime Minister Harper about the national energy strategy is a brilliant example of two savvy politicians using euphemisms to stake out their positions on a critical federal and provincial issue—the exploitation of the oil sands.

Premier Redford fired the first volley (although she didn’t realize it at the time) in a speech to the Economic Club of Canada where she outlined her vision for a national energy strategy and Alberta’s role as a leader in the economic development of Canada.  She said Ottawa and the provinces needed to work together to make Canada an energy leader and—in a turn of phrase which in retrospect would have benefited from the application of a soothing euphemism—said “We need to put all antagonisms behind us.”* Antagonisms…?  Too adversarial, try something more bland like “differences” or better yet, scrap the sentence altogether.                                                                                                 

The Prime Minister was not amused (now there’s a euphemism if ever there was one), particularly when the premiers of BC, Sask, Que and Ontario climbed on board.  Mr Charest, the premier of Quebec, boldly stated that the provinces didn’t need the federal government to set up a national energy strategy because they were already working on it.  Take that Mr Harper!

Mr Harper’s response was measured and cut to the quick.  He was puzzled.  He described Redford’s energy strategy as “kind of vague”.  He had no idea what the premiers were talking about but looked forward to discussing it with them.  Then in a devastating use of euphemistic metaphor he flashed the sword of federal power.  He tied Redford’snational energy strategy to Trudeau’s National Energy Program (NEP) by stating that all Canadians get “nervous” when they hear the words “national” and “energy” used in the same sentence.  The NEP still evokes a visceral reaction from Albertans 40 years after the demise of that disastrous program.** Nice slap down Mr Harper, but was it really necessary?   

Yes it was—if you’re Mr Harper.  Strip away the cloak of euphemism to see what really going on here.  Mr Harper is not the least bit “confused” about Ms Redford’s national energy strategy.  It’s crystal clear to him that the provinces are banding together to create it and as far as Mr Harper is concerned if the provinces think they’re going to go forward a Canadian energy strategy without the fed’s involvement they can think again!

Ms Redford reacted quickly to this veiled attack on provincial cooperation.  She gave interviews expressing her “surprise” at the Prime Minister’s comments but was quick to note that she was “not offended”.  She said (and here’s a clever example of a sentence so vague it completely loses its meaning) that she “didn’t really take it as anything to be particularly preoccupied with one way or the other” and concluded that the Prime Minister’s comment was a tempest in a teacup.***

There are an awful lot of fluffy metaphors and abstract understatements flying around between Ms Redford and Mr Harper over the most critical issue facing Canadians today.  And that’s the point…euphemisms serve two purposes:  (1) to send messages staking out one’s position without being so blunt that the message requires an equally blunt response and (2) to phrase the message in language the public won’t fully understand so that the public is rendered incapable of participating in the discussion.

The use of euphemisms in political dialogue is very dangerous because a misguided political strategy will be well into implementation (perhaps completely haywire) before the public understands the facts and has an opportunity to complain.  That hasn’t happened yet in the discourse around the national energy strategy, but it has happened in the context of Alberta’s healthcare policies, energy policies and land management policies (to name a few).

The run-up to the provincial election will be peppered with euphemisms from all political parties.  We would be well advised to take George Orwell’s definition of euphemism to heart.  He said euphemism is obfuscatory language designed “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable”.****It’s time to start paying close attention.

*Calgary Herald Online Nov 16, 2011

**Edmonton Journal Online, Jan 6, 2012

***Calgary Herald Online, Jan 22, 2012 

****The Economist Dec 17, 2011, p107

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4 Responses to What Do Alison Redford and George Orwell Have in Common?

  1. Carlos Beca says:

    In the last 30 years we have been able to develop a culture of Euphemisms which, in my opinion, is blowing up on our faces. I hate euphemisms which I call in my language lies. Politicians have been enticed into this culture in order to be elected and appealing to the public but nothing ever happens without its consequences. In this case, very low voters turn out, a quasi total disinterest in politics from most people, especially the younger generation, a growing feeling of no light at the end of the tunnel with the obvious radicalization of a great part of the population. I know that politicians, especially the government denies all of this and continues in its merry ways but the reality is that the system is showing signs of its limits.

    Whether or not Alberta politics will become irrelevant in the near future, is a good guess, but in the present format I certainly hope so.

  2. I’ve just read Alison Redford’s letter to her constituents in Calgary-Elbow (Jan 2010 issue of The Elbow Scene). She says that Alberta is the freest place in North America but her government isn’t satisfied and she’s working hard to make Alberta even freer. How? By creating the Red Tape Reduction Task Force to help small business owners and implementing its recommendations this spring. Access to public healthcare is melting away right before our eyes but our government is busy with the Red Tape Reduction Task Force. It takes your breath away, doesn’t it.

    I agree with your comments Carlos. Let’s do all we can to ensure that the voters don’t give up out of sheer frustration. This nonsense has got to stop.

  3. Carlos Beca says:

    Alberta the freest place in North America! I am surprised she did not say in the world. Her government is going to make it freer. I believe this is another ‘euphemism’ – she meant to say more freedom and lower taxes for businesses. Her Mafia uncle just said this afternoon that the debate on the pipeline should be left to Canadians. What he meant is that foreign money should only help the corporations to do whatever they want, but anyone defending our real interests should not get any help at all other than from other Canadians. This from the prime minister of a country that is now in the hands of foreign interests anyway. We are now even selling ourselves to China, a country that has one of the worst human rights violations on the planet. Of course it is the price of doing business. It is the price to create jobs. My goodness talk about euphemisms. Talk about total absence of decency and honesty. This is the total abdication of responsibility, national pride, understanding of reality. These people are so used to euphemisms (LOL) that they do not even know the truth anymore. They are the first victims of their own system.

    Susan, I always do what I can to ensure that we create a better future for those who come after us. The issue is that I believe we have a different view as to how that can be accomplished. You still believe in this system that has been failing for 40 years. I believe in its replacement.These people are beyond repair. If I had the brain and the means and the motivation I would launch a campaign to stop people from voting in this decrepit system of lies and deceipt. If 50% of us did not vote or better, went there and ruined the vote, they would start paying attention. Other than that I cannot see how one can have any effect. If you do please do explain. I have voted in Edmonton since 1981 and my vote never counted. So the question is why vote? Lets all stop voting and they will notice. I would probably have CSIS at my door if I asked people to do that. I would not be surprised at all.

  4. Well, we all have our own take on the situation and do what we can in the way that we think is best. Thanks Carlos.

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