New Zealand lawmakers debate bill banning jargon from government communications

By on 27/09/2022 | Updated on 27/09/2022
A page of a dictionary with a tasselled bookmark
Lawmakers in New Zealand are calling for simple-to-understand communication from government to be recognised as a right of national citizens

The government could be legally bound to use jargon-free language in its communications with the public under a new bill currently being debated by lawmakers.

The Plain Language Bill seeks to make it a legal requirement that text in public documents can be easily understood by the intended reader “after one reading”. The legislation has passed its second reading, though will need to face a final vote to become law.

Speaking in New Zealand’s house of representatives, Sarah Pallett, a member of parliament for the country’s ruling Labour Party, quoted the English romantic poet William Wordsworth. “‘I wandered lonely as a cloud, That floats on high o’er vales and hills, When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils’. Beautiful. Basically: ‘I was feeling sad. I went for a walk. I saw a lot of beautiful daffodils, and they cheered me right up’ – good old Wordsworth.

“That is the place for flowery, inaccessible language – in poetry and literature, and not in government legislation.”

Under the new law, idioms such as ‘innovation readiness’, ‘change-adaptability’ and ‘internal pain points’, all of which have appeared in New Zealand government literature in the past, would fail the plain language test.

Read more: Five keys to managing government communications in a crisis

Rachel Boyack, the Labour MP who introduced the bill, said that New Zealanders had a right to understand government communications, especially as it often included fundamental information such as “what [citizens’] rights are, what they’re entitled to from the government”. She added that government’s failure to communicate clearly with citizens risked breeding distrust among the public and could negatively affect the elderly, people with learning disabilities, and those for whom English is a second language, which could lead to fewer New Zealanders engaging with public services and participating in society.

Labour lawmakers have also argued for the bill on the grounds that it would increase tax compliance and lessen backlogs.

Written into the bill is a requirement that agencies create a compliance plan and that ‘plain language officers’ be appointed to enforce compliance across government. A plain language guide from Peter Hughes, the country’s public service commissioner, would also be circulated.

Actions speak louder than words

Members of New Zealand’s opposition National party have criticised the bill, saying it would make little difference to the quality of most public documents and that funding and resources would be better used elsewhere.

Chris Bishop, a National party MP, called the bill “the stupidest to come before parliament in this term”. He said the party would repeal it.

Read more: How to write personal statements for civil and public service jobs

The idea has been positively received in other countries, however. Pierre Marcel Poilievre, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada commented: “The Plain Language Act will make government writing and thinking simpler and clearer. The new rule will be that ‘everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’”.

Poilievre said he would move to pass a similar bill if elected prime minister of Canada.

Other tongues

The bill is the latest in a series of efforts by the New Zealand government to promote internal customs and practices aimed at boosting representation and inclusion.

In 2021, Hughes praised workforce data for that year which showed that the country’s public service became more diverse as its workforce grew in response to the coronavirus pandemic. This included a rise in ethnic representation. For example, Māori representation rose to 16.4%, compared to 15.9% the previous year.

Read more: New Zealand’s top public servant welcomes workforce diversity progress

The Te Taunaki Public Service Census, which ran from May to early June last year, showed that New Zealand’s public servants were driven to improve their language skills to engage more of their Māori colleagues in their day-to-day work.

More than half of the survey’s respondents (65%) said staff at their agencies were encouraged to use te reo, an Eastern Polynesian language spoken by the Māori people. In addition, around 58% said they already used some te reo at work, though only 6% said they could have a casual conversation in the language.

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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