Spells trouble

So here in Australia, thanks to Senator Fielding, we now know that ‘fiscal’ has neither 3 syllables (as in physical) nor a K.  Turns out that Fielding has trouble with language thanks to a form of dyslexia that resulted in his achieving only 29 in his final high school English exams.  His other marks were exceptional (all in the 90s) so this is not an issue of intellect, but rather of a specific aptitude that Fielding lacks in regard to language skills.

Fielding was addressing a media contingent a few days ago, and after he had referring several times to ‘physical policy’ one intrepid reporter inquired if he didn’t mean ‘fiscal policy’. Fielding replied “fiscal – F-I-S-K-A-L” to the collective surprise (and then delight) of everyone in the media who knew that’s not how you spell fiscal.

So now we have people coming to Fielding’s defence, saying “leave the poor bloke alone, he can’t help it if he can’t spell”.  This is then countered by others saying “English isn’t my first language – do you know how hard I’ve worked so that I can spell properly, and be taken seriously in my adopted country?”.  And the obvious (and obviously moronic) “what the hell is a moron doing in parliament?”.

Today one prominent columnist joined in the brouhaha with a battery of opinions on the matter. She began by suggesting that if Senator Fielding hadn’t taken a climate change sceptic position then journalists might not be so quick to deride this educational failing.  But by the end of her piece she had reached the conclusion, and I may be paraphrasing somewhat loosely here,  that if we were teaching children to read using phonics (as compared to a whole word approach) then Australia wouldn’t find itself with bad spellers voted into office;  a conclusion based on ignoring a quite interesting body of work about what makes reading a challenge to students with one of the dyslexic spectrum of learning difficulties.

I’d kind of like everyone in the nation to understand the benefit of applying the appropriate research data and conclusions to problems under consideration, but I suspect it might be asking too much of newspaper columnists to do so.  Politicians we should still hold to this high expectation, even if their spelling skills are patchy.

To me the question is not one of spelling but one of presentation.  If, as a politician, one knows one has a weakness (say, one can’t clap in time with music, can’t stand up on a surfboard, or can’t spell) then it would seem quite a straightforward matter to politely, and without drawing attention to the fact, avoid ever doing in the public the thing that is a struggle.  The error of judgement involved in Senator Fielding’s decision to enact a dramatic gesture through the spelling out of a word is where the real questions as to fitness to political office kick in.

And yet, even as I type the words, I see what a nonsense this is, living as I do in the state of New South Wales, where most politicians would be thinking they had had a very good day indeed if the worst thing that had happened to them had been a bit of bad spelling.

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