Treasurer Scott Morrison’s sales pitch for the federal budget is already in trouble. Monday’s Fairfax Ipsos poll showed around half of Australians disapproved of the budget and a further third were neutral — results unlikely to win the Treasurer a national sales award.
This may simply reflect the difficulty of selling policy in the current political climate. But did Morrison (pictured) make the most of his budget pitch? And how did Opposition Leader Bill Shorten’s budget reply compare?
An economic plan
Martin Luther King famously inspired a nation with a dream. Morrison, on the other hand, has a plan:
“Australians have clearly said we must have an economic plan to make this economic transition a success.
“This economic plan is the foundation on which we can build a brighter, more secure future, in a stronger, new economy with more jobs.
“This budget delivers our economic plan in three key ways.”
This was hardly an enticing opening. What followed was more academic economics paper than public sales pitch:
“The government has finalised or committed to agreements with four states and territories under the government’s Asset Recycling Initiative, worth $3.3 billion, which will catalyse $23 billion in additional infrastructure investment in projects including …”
Catalyse? Would any non-economist even know that’s a verb?
Like his recent National Press Club address, Morrison’s speech was full of finance-speak in snaking, soporific sentences. There was no rousing repetition, no soaring climaxes — no attempt at oratory.
But if the language was opaque, the argument was simple: tax cuts equal investment, which equals growth, which equals jobs.
As sales pitches go, Morrison’s speech represents a major departure from Joe Hockey, who mounted a far more rhetorical defence in his 2014 “lifters not leaners” budget:
“The age of entitlement is over. It has to be replaced, not with an age of austerity, but with an age of opportunity.
“This is not the time to talk the country down, but it is the time to face the facts.”
Instead, Morrison frames the government as the steady, competent econocrats. They have a plan. It’s colourless and full of jargon, but they have a plan.
Given the electoral failure of the Hockey budgets, this strategy is worth trying, but the risks are high. Seldom has an election come so soon after a budget, which means the budget pitch will shape the entire election.
But will a dry economic plan be enough to sustain an eight-week campaign? Already the Fairfax poll shows that one-third of Australians are less confident about the government’s economic management because of the budget.
A rhetoric of fairness
So what was the alternative language in the budget reply? In stark contrast to Morrison, Bill Shorten’s speech ramped up the rhetoric.
Labor too has a plan, with its “100 positive policies” that “put people first”. From the outset, the opposition’s pitch was far more aggressive:
“After seven months of waiting.
“After months of ruling-in and ruling-out, after all that on and off the table.
“After apprehension … and great expectation.
“This budget has fallen apart in 48 hours.”
There was plenty of alliteration:
“From Tony’s Tradies to Malcolm’s Millionaires — this is a budget for big business over the battlers.”
And the speech was crammed with Barack Obama-like repetition, sequencing sentences towards an emotive climax:
“The Prime Minister loves to talk about aspiration — but there’s a part of it he always leaves out.
“That’s the aspiration to equal opportunity, to a fair start for everyone.
“The aspiration to a fair go.
“That’s the aspiration Labor will always fight for.”
Shorten wants to fight the budget over fairness, replacing the dry economic data with more concrete contrasts:
“A working mum on $65,000 with two kids in high school will be over $4700 a year worse off.
“And someone on a million dollars will be almost $17,000 better off every year.”
While far more aggressive than Morrison, Shorten was also more muted than in previous years, when his reply speeches were full of flailing adjectives. The Hockey budgets were, he told us, cowardly, wicked, punitive, capricious, brutal, cruel and extreme. Hockey himself was a “foghorn leghorn”, a “low-rent toe-cutter” and a “blackmailing coward”.
Shorten’s ad hominem attacks were also less colourful this year, and directed exclusively at the Prime Minister:
“Of course, advocating climate action is hard, and running a scare campaign against it is easy.
“You should know that Mr Turnbull — you’ve done both.”
And Shorten still can’t resist his zingers, such as this awkward effort to channel Winston Churchill:
“Never has an opposition had so many of its policies adopted by a Government with so few of them.”
A clear choice
Budget week presented two vastly different styles to sell alternative products.
On the one hand, the government sales pitch seems deliberately bland and boring — which perhaps also makes it bold. The jargon will lull our concentration while the key words sink in: economic plan jobs growth transition new economy. Even when we are sick of it, it still might work.
The opposition is appealing to our emotions, with a more aggressive pitch about fairness and putting people first, delivered through rhetoric ripe with alliteration and repetition. If Shorten can tone it down a tad, this might make an attractive alternative.
This election does not just present some clear policy options. It will also test the language for selling policy itself.