Government budgets need explaining and promoting – both in the budget speech itself and especially in the publicity before and after. That means soundbites – which all of us know but few profess to love – are indispensable to the economics of government.
Former New York governor Mario Cuomo observed:
You campaign in poetry; you govern in prose.
Budget speeches cleave faithfully to the second half of that formula – even if Australia’s election campaigns rarely live up to its first half. Still, the implication that you can tell a competent government by how well its ministers bore you clearly holds some kind of sway.
To be fair, “Mr/Madam Speaker, I rise tonight to talk about money” makes for a very hard opening if your aim is to entertain or inspire.
But budgets are produced by people who want to be noticed and respected. Treasurers throughout Australia’s history have used their budget role to reach out to people and win some kind of support for their policies.
The media’s role
News journalists have been covering Australia’s federal budget since 1901. And since 1984, treasurers have had an added power of live television coverage to amplify their performances.
The ABC’s TV coverage in 2015 reportedly drew 1.2 million viewers to watch Joe Hockey give his budget speech. An even larger (but harder to count) audience tuned in to excerpted coverage on news and current affairs programs across all stations.
TV in particular has changed much about the nature of the budget speech as a performance. To catch the primetime audience, a budget speech is now strictly compressed into its 30-minute timeslot on a Tuesday evening.
To project atmospherics to the home viewer, government MPs go through a transparently phoney rigmarole of thronging the treasurer with handshakes and kisses when he (never yet she) finishes speaking.
Another change TV has brought is to the content of the speeches. Since treasurers began reaching a direct audience of more than a million and a mediated public of several millions, there has been a lot of pressure to say things that all those people can understand, relate to and vote for.
Rhetoric, the art of persuasion, has been studied and practised since long before the ancient Greeks gave us that word. One of its mainstays is that memorable makes compelling. If audience members can remember the key phrases a speaker uses to make a point, they are much more likely to agree with the point itself.
Journalism has compounded this importance by excerpting the main points that public figures make in their remarks in order to characterise their positions for news reportage.
Researchers since the 1970s have repeatedly shown it is the most poetically condensed phrases that journalists listen and read for when they decide which excerpts to report. That means, when a journalist is looking for quotes, their innate preference is for pithy phrases – using not too many words to say something with a clear stylistic form.
This, in essence, is the soundbite: “the budget that brings home the bacon”, “a sandwich and a milkshake”, and so on. It is the element that most makes our politicians serve as performance poets – even if many of them are not particularly keen on poetry.
In other words, if a speaker makes sure the most important points are embedded in the most memorable phrases, then the key message gets through to the public. If they do not, then journalists will zero in on phrases of their own choosing. This is a far more risky dynamic for a politician trying to promote a policy logic.
Choose your words
A recent conference in London discussed the history of the soundbite since 1973 and its far longer prehistory. A constant theme was how much politicians suffer when they get this stuff wrong.
But the main way politicians get it wrong is through not trying. As a political speaker, either you pick your key phrases or they get picked for you.
That is why even such a wooden performer as Wayne Swan could cut through, as long as he stuck to the method – and to his “working families”. It is why treasurers with an ounce of dramatic timing like Peter Costello or Paul Keating could seem like the apotheosis of wit, even when they were speaking utter inanity (as politicians often must).
There are times when playing the game can explode in a treasurer’s face. Compare the cynical but effective Joe Hockey in 2015 with the same treasurer 12 months earlier.
In 2014, Hockey ramped up a critique of “the age of entitlement”, only to be photographed with Mathias Cormann smoking conspicuously sized cigars shortly before a budget widely criticised as unfair. “Entitlement” became an albatross around his neck, his own word that others used against him.
In 2015, by contrast, Hockey handed down a budget that promised every small business a tax cut. Its headline feature was a no-questions-asked tax write-off for small-business owners. The prime minister, Tony Abbott, rather immodestly dubbed these people “Tony’s tradies” – a catchphrase that duly stuck.
Arguably it was economically irresponsible policy. Certainly it was cynical. But politically it was safe ground to be on.
And that is why the main strategic purpose for the government’s commentary around a budget, especially the treasurer’s budget speech itself, is to carve out voteable rhetoric.
What will they try this year?