The annual federal budget speech is the one required
speech of the Australian political calendar. And it goes all the way
back to Federation. It’s Australia’s equivalent of the State of the Union address.
The scope of the budget speech is no less than explaining, justifying
and selling a government’s decisions about how it will spend the taxes
we pay, forecast to be about A$360 billion in the coming financial year. It typically gives a financial outlook statement and positions the government in the context of “where we are now” and “where we are heading”.
In this process, the treasurer of the day has to make sense of the
many disparate, even contradictory, policy decisions contained in the
budget. This creates a situation that can only be retrieved by what, in
political circles, is increasingly called “the narrative”. In other
words, politicians not only have to take action, they have to interpret
what they are doing. If they don’t, someone else will do it for them.
This is because humans attribute meaning to almost everything:
smiling and not smiling, talking and silence, roses versus gerberas,
stilettos or ballet flats, how you hold your knife and fork, unusual
breathing … the list is pretty much endless. The brain, to quote
linguist Ruqaiya Hasan:
…is a naturally designed interpreter: so long as it is not dozing, not drunk, not deranged, not dead, it must make a ‘reading’.
A political narrative is the reading a political party offers to
explain what it has(n’t) done, is(n’t) doing, or will(won’t) do.
Abbott’s “narrative” in opposition was really just a mantra. A mantra
…a word or formula, as from the Veda, chanted or sung as an incantation or prayer.
But what is a mantra in opposition needs to become something more
coherent and substantial in government. You still need a mantra –
something you can say for the purposes of the short grab on broadcast
news – but the mantra needs to have broader and deeper roots.
It needs to be the distillation of a broader story about where you’re
taking the country, and why. If you vacate this space, even briefly,
some other narrative will colonise it.
The elements of successful oratory
The government approached budget day knowing it was handing down what
would be its most unpopular budget of its term of government. It must
have known this was going to be a hard budget to sell. But language
gives us an endless supply of rhetorical resources. And western cultures
have been studying political rhetoric for over 2000 years.
Aristotle defines rhetoric as:
…the capacity to see, in relation to a particular subject, the available means of persuasion.
Forms of persuasion, according to Aristotle, are of three kinds:
those that arise from the character of the speaker; those engendered by
creating an emotional response in the listener; and those deriving from
logical argumentation. These three forms are known as ethos, pathos and
Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s budget reply speech
had ethos, pathos and logos in spades. He related his own experience,
both in his personal and professional life, and talked up the
achievements of the previous Labor government. He showed the impact of
the budget decisions on ordinary Australians.
And Shorten detailed the general good health of the Australian
economy, and how and why the government’s cuts would hurt Australians
and the Australian economy. He explained what the opposition would
oppose, and why.
Hockey’s ‘don’t think of an elephant’ speech
So what about Hockey? On “ethos”, Aristotle would have sent him back to the drawing board. Hockey’s budget speech
should have been trying to persuade us about his own credentials,
and/or those of the government. But in selling the government’s approach
to the budget, Hockey failed George Lakoff’s “don’t think of an elephant” test.
Hockey’s speechwriters should be metaphorically hung, drawn and
quartered for letting him get up and say the budget is not about an age
of austerity, but an age of opportunity. Hey guys, don’t think of
austerity! In attempting to persuade us of the strengths of the new
government’s budget, Hockey articulated not only his preferred
interpretation, but the one most likely to be recruited by his
Here are the other things Hockey told us his budget is not about:
weakening government, undermining a strong social safety net, cutting
government spending, self-interest.
For “pathos”, Hockey would also have got an F. The only emotion
Hockey’s speech attempted to invoke was nationalism. Hockey tried to
convince us to pay more tax by presenting it as some kind of national
duty. For this rhetorical device to work we would have to think that
“we” all, equally, hold the destiny of Australia in our hands.
And we would need to ignore the fact that the “we” who earns less is
paying more, while the “we” that earns more is paying less. We would
have to believe that “we” are freely giving as part of this national
duty – “contributing” – rather than paying more because the government
has increased taxes. And that we are “contributing” so that “we” can
continue to enjoy the quality of life that “we” all enjoy today. You, me
What about “logos”? Weirdly, unlike his two predecessors, Hockey’s
budget speech did not give a reading on the state of the economy and how
its key indicators look into the future.
Hockey’s speech did not recruit either the word “forecast” or
“outlook”. As treasurer, Peter Costello averaged four of these per
speech; Wayne Swan averaged three. Hockey’s only mention of GDP was to
report that the government is increasing defence spending. Hockey gave
up on the one element of the speech that would have made him sound like a
treasurer, rather than just another politician.
Rhetorically sloppy, Joe.