A ‘new’ approach to communicating – oh, and jobs and growth – to be found in Budget 2016

In the past 20 years, budget speeches have been delivered in increasingly less complex language. AAP/Lukas Coch

On budget night, Scott Morrison and the Coalition whipped out their little sack for the nation. “Budget”, you see, derives from the Old French bougette “little leather sack”.

Let’s review the language of these little sacks, and see how this year’s budget language measures up against past trends.

A boring but subtle political frame

How a budget is framed is critically important to how the budget is received. More than a few commentators have noted that this is a boring but political budget. Fairfax political editor Michael Gordon wrote the budget had:

… all the wow factor of a lukewarm bath - and that’s its strength.

In linguistic terms, there appears to be a stark contrast between this budget speech and general trends over the past 20 years. We examined few of these trends by using a text analysis tool known as the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC).

A striking development over the past 20 years has been a marked increase in pronoun use in budget speeches. Pronouns include words such as “I”, “you”, “we” and “someone”. This suggests budgets have been becoming increasingly personal and less subtly political.

In the 1996 budget, pronouns accounted for approximately one in 20 words used in budget speeches. By 2015, pronoun use had jumped to one in 10 words. Peter Costello’s use of first-person plural forms (for example, “we”, “us”, “our”) accounted for 1% of his 1996 speech. By the 2015 speech, these pronouns accounted for 3.9% of the word count for Joe Hockey.

In this budget, there was a slight drop in the use of pronouns as well as a shift in the way in which words like “we”, “they” and “you” were used. For instance, use of the first-person plural forms mentioned above dropped from Hockey’s 3.9% of the total to 2.7% of Morrison’s total.

The pronoun “you” appeared rarely in budget speeches at all until Wayne Swan’s 2013 effort. In this speech, Swan used “you” as an impersonal device rather than a pronoun with a specific person in mind (for example, “you do not get to choose”).

Such impersonal uses of “you” accounted for most of its uses of the past 20 years. However, Hockey bucked this trend in the 2014 speech when he began to use “you” to address the Australian people.

On Tuesday night, Morrison also used “you” to address segments of the Australian population – investors and those receiving modest tax breaks – but he used “you” fewer times than either Swan or Hockey had.

Keep It Simple, (not) Stupid

Another trend bucked by Tuesday night’s budget relates to the complexity of the language style used. The past 20 years have witnessed budget speeches of decreasing language complexity.

LIWC measures complexity with reference to sentence length and words with six letters or more. The latter tend to be of Greco-Latinate origins and linked to scientific or more complex topics.

In the 1996 budget speech, 30% of the words consisted of six letters or more. In the 2015 speech, this percentage had dropped to 24.1%. From 1996 to 2015, sentence length had dropped from 21 words per sentence to 18.1 words per sentence. Sentences in the 2016 budget were by far the longest in past 20 years (24.8 words per sentence) and the six-letter word count at its highest since Swan’s 2013 budget.

It is worth noting that text analyses such as these can be crude measures of complexity. More so, they aren’t measuring the intelligence of the speaker but rather the degree to which the text is accessible to an audience relative to their educational attainment.

So, for instance, if we’re to use these text analyses tools exclusively to judge a speaker’s intelligence, then George W. Bush was a more intelligent speaker than Barack Obama in the US State of the Union addresses.

Jobs and growth, in-‘new’-vation and, by the way, jobs and growth

Shifting the discussion to specific words, there’s no question the Coalition was keen for us to pick up a few key words. In this case, we’re talking about Morrison’s somewhat laboured repetition of jobs and growth (13 times to be exact).

The word jobs appears 37 times in this year’s speech, making it the second-most-common noun after tax, which appears 71 times.

Yet, the key theme of this year’s budget was “novelty” – and a series of words associated with “newness”. New is the most common adjective in this speech, appearing 30 times. New economy appears six times as a phrase, and we see this linked to a range of concepts but, perhaps mostly saliently, innovation.

The word innovation can set off alarm bells when used by conservatives. For example, George W. Bush wielded innovation as a tool to argue for corporate tax cuts. After all, a heavily taxed corporation can’t be expected to innovate, could it?

So, is the government using innovation the way we’d like them to? Well, the answer to that question relates to how you’d expect or want it to be used. The word innovate derives from the Latin innovatus, the past participle of innovāre, “to renew” or “alter”.

Subtly relevant to this year’s speech, the element nov in innovation and its Latin predecessors is closely related to the modern English word new. Some of the earliest uses of innovation related to changes to language, by philosophers and with reference to the state of mankind. Yet innovation became tightly linked to technology and commerce during the industrial revolution.

In more recent years, there has been a rise in innovation economics and this underlies the current vision set out in the government’s budget speech and its National Innovation and Science Agenda.

We ran a corpus search (Antconc) on the information sheets of the latter and found that collective references to “business/commerce” in this policy outstretch those to “universities” at a rate of 4.5 to 1.

There are frequent references to entrepreneurs but there are no references to language, culture or anything that might be construed as humanities-related in this policy. And, by the way, the bias in entrepreneur towards the new is only recent.

The vibes of luke-hot budgets

Each year when the government whips out its budget sack, the media and opposition are quick to attach labels to it (“horror budget”, “magic pudding” and so on).

This year’s budget, in the words of ABC radio presenter Fran Kelly, has a different “vibe”.

There’s a lot of vague newness about – oh, and have we mentioned jobs and growth?

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