In government, a mantra is not enough to control the narrative

Joe Hockey’s budget speech forgot the age-old rules of rhetoric, which he needed to observe if he wanted to control ‘the narrative’. Lukas Coch/AAP

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 is:

…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 logos.

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.

Bill Shorten’s budget reply speech as a word cloud – the biggest words are the most frequently used. Author

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 adversaries.

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.

Joe Hockey’s budget speech as a word cloud. Author

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 and Gina.

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.