An analysis of the political rhetoric surrounding budget politics and austerity in New Zealand

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This is a piece that was produced for POLITICS 769 Advanced Research Skills at the University of Auckland

Abstract: Political parties and governments around the world, even those on the left, recently have converged on the standard of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘austerity’ when it comes to public accounting and annual budgets. This piece analyses the rhetoric used and some of the politics behind this phenomenon in New Zealand.

Texts: Budget debate speeches of Party Leaders, Clark (2006),[1] Brash (2006),[2] Key (2015),[3] Little (2015),[4] Turei (2015).[5]


I           Introduction

‘Political language, is designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’.[6] This report examines how governments and opposition parties employ rhetoric to frame themselves as sound economic managers of New Zealand. The last two Governments have gone through a boom as well as the Global Financial Crisis (“the GFC”), and both Labour and National have deployed language to convince the public that they can manage the ‘good’ times as well as the ‘bad’, often in contrast to each other. The analysis explores whether the rhetoric employed is connected to existing ideological differences, how it shifts depending on the economic climate and whether it changes depending on whether the party is in opposition or in Government. To achieve this, this report analyses five budget debate speeches (“budget speeches”) by political leaders across these temporal and contextual distinctions. Speeches from the 2006 Budget and 2015 Budget are selected to elucidate this contrast between different Governments and the economic climate. This report will analyse and discuss the effect of language used to frame taxation and spending, and place it in the broader context of political branding, political niches and the wider trend of ‘austerity fever’ occurring around the world. The conclusion will demonstrate how rhetoric on responsible economic governance has diverged and converged based on these variables.

II         Research Question

How have political parties used ‘humanistic’, ‘responsible’ and ‘irresponsible’ rhetoric to portray themselves as possessing sound economic governance?

III        Literature Review & Background

Scholarship on political marketing in New Zealand has begun focusing on the use of political language adopted by different contemporary parties, especially with the change to MMP.[7] However, the focus has so far been on political branding and contrasting the ideologies between left and right. When more specific research is conducted, it has mostly focused on the language used in welfare or education ‘reform’.[8] There has been little or no academic discussion in New Zealand on twenty-first century budget politics.

Budget politics is important because the rhetoric restrains and subsequently translates into policy.[9] The budget is also the instrument that ultimately funds these social services which have been politicised. Overseas in Australia and the United Kingdom, there have been increasing attention on budget politics and this presents a convenient ‘gap’ for this report  to examine any similarities and differences in New Zealand. In Australia, Gillard in her acceptance speech ‘assured every Australian that their budget will be back in surplus in 2013’.[10] In Great Britain, scholars have argued that ‘Britain’s opposition has been amazingly willing to accept claims that budget deficits are the biggest economic issue facing the nation’.[11] After the GFC, The scholarship has so far demonstrated an growing acceptance by the Left that austerity has become normative standard of ‘responsible economic governance’.[12] Skinner calls these normative standards ‘descriptive-evaluative terms’ in political marketing, which the public uses as standards and proxies for assessing good governance.[13] Political parties can seek to shift the legitimating space by rejecting and redefining the term, or they can accept the space as legitimating and seek to control it. In a crisis, it is easier to defer to the latter because a visceral and universal problem is more convenient to leverage than challenging the rationale. Therefore this report is well-placed to examine the effects of another ‘crisis’ such as the GFC on economic governance.  This also highlights the importance of deconstructing political language in order for the public to engage with the real debate on economic governance.[14] If the left adopts the same standard as the right for ‘responsible economic governance’, then the debate is not about competing economic paradigms, but merely who is better at implementation.

The literature allows us to ascertain and explain the distinctions, similarities and shifts in the language used by each political party, which will also contribute to our broader understanding of the discursive space surrounding the politics of surplus and austerity around the world.

IV        Methods

Five budget debate speeches by party leaders were selected via generic purposive and convenient sampling.[15] The speeches were delivered by two different Governments (Labour and National) in 2006 and three different opposition parties (National, Labour and Greens) in 2015, before and after the GFC, and reflect the context and variables required for comprehensive analysis. Content and thematic analysis,[16] as a subset of document analysis,[17] are employed in a tiered process. Themes are initially determined by critically engaging with the texts by looking for humanistic, responsible and irresponsible language or imagery, analysing word frequencies, and manual and auto-coding. Reliability and validity are maintained using Bryman and Silverman’s approach to thematic analysis; [18] the themes are first revised and consequently organised into hierarchical nodes based on their meaning and relationship to each other, followed by a thematic analysis by conducting a comparison of the framework matrix.[19] To ensure the process is rigorous, analytical software NVivo was employed to assist with the analysis by using nodes, auto-coding, running queries, linking relationships, generating models and exporting the framework matrix. The results are presented in the discussion section, which will be divided into three sub-questions, outlined below.

V         Discussion

The first part will discuss the themes evoked by each party more generally, the second part will focus on two specific questions on how responsible and irresponsible economic language are employed to judge a party’s economic governance.

What were the general themes and brand image being portrayed by each budget speech to convey the effect of ‘responsible economic governance’?

Naturally, all three political parties used the budget debate as a platform for framing their policies and parties in a positive way to present a coherent, economic message the public. For Labour, Clark’s 2006 speech placed significant emphasis on the themes of ‘economic transformation’ and the ‘identity of the nation’ which was linked to higher public spending, but also to generate buy-in for these initiatives as part of greater economic progress beyond the individual. Central to the speech were issues such as job apprenticeships, investing in science and technology, access to education and the internet, and improving the public transport infrastructure. Labour’s emphasis on public goods was noticeably lacking in Little’s speech in 2015, instead the focus shifted to public accounting and pushing the National government on the deficit. This reflects two political trends, first an attempt to counter the caricature by the right that the left are unscrupulous ‘spenders’, and particularly ‘wasteful’ during the boom especially after Key compared Labour to the ‘Greeks’ in need of austerity; the second purpose is to hold the National Government to account by trying to present Labour as the one that can ‘balance the books’ and reminding New Zealand that Labour was the party which ‘achieved nine successive surpluses’. While this is disingenuous because Clark’s term benefitted significantly from booming business cycles, the focus on the deficit is a sound tactical choice because the public often compares absolute numbers instead of focusing on the trend.[20]

The themes portrayed by Clark was also largely absent in Brash’s speech. There was also an obvious shift in the National government’s rhetoric between the focus on public goods and public accounting, but the shift was in the opposite direction. While Brash’s speech lacked a unifying brand compared to Helen’s ‘economic transformation’, there were strong themes of personal responsibility and individual choice, by focusing on more tangible and practical words such as ‘growing income’ and ‘tax [cuts]’ in contrast to the more amorphous and inclusive phrases used by Clark. Under Key, there was a shift towards more inclusive language under the brand of a ‘Brighter Future’.[21] The convergence between Clark’s and Key’s speech perhaps reflected the move by National to the centre in order to crowd out Labour, and the possibility that more inclusive language is used by Governments because they are under more scrutiny and held more accountable.[22] Nonetheless, National under Key still did not use inclusive language to the same extent as Clark, and more notably, there was more crisis rhetoric used to frame the economic language, reflecting the visceral impact of the GFC (discussed below). To some extent, Labour and National can be said to have switched the type of rhetoric employed depending on whether they are in Government. This is crucial for the Greens, as Little’s speech moved towards fiscal responsibility and pushing for surpluses and austerity, the Greens occupied the traditional niche of fiscal spending once held by Labour.

How is responsible language used to justify spending? Is there a relationship to the use of humanistic language?

This question mostly relates to Clark’s and Key’s speech who were in Government. For the purpose of this analysis, responsible language was deemed to be rhetoric used to convey ideas of efficiency, rationality and restraint, and humanistic language was determined to be rhetoric carrying connotations of community and personability. Both the Clark and the Key Government used responsible rhetoric to justify their spending, although National deployed it more than Labour. As the Government spends taxpayer’s money, both Governments need to present an image to voters that their spending is value-for-money.

A noticeable difference was the relationship between responsible and humanistic language. Clark almost always linked economics back to people, whereas Key did this much less and when it was done, it was generally used to ascertain the idea of reasonableness. For example, Clark used responsible language such as ‘steady’ and ‘stable’, but they are normally followed by discussions on ‘families’ and ‘young people’. On the contrary, Key overall focuses on more ‘objective’ concepts like ‘growth’ and ‘productivity’. Notably, when Key discusses the increase in the benefit rate which had been frozen for over three decades, he merely described it as ‘fair’ and ‘reasonable’.[23] When pressed by Roberston in an interjection on increasing the work obligations of sole parents, Key framed it as a ‘reasonable’ thing which ‘thousands of Kiwis have to do every day’, using humanistic language by referring to ‘Kiwis’ but only in order to come across as reasonable, and not necessarily compassionate; perhaps showing an intimate understanding of the National base and the existing paradigm which emphasises ‘work that pays’. This showed an overall narrower scope of topics used by Key and language that is less expressive. Nonetheless, Key still uses significantly more humanistic language than his predecessor Brash. Key’s focus on ‘jobs’ and ‘employment’ aligns with Clark’s and deviates from Brash’s. The shift also aligns with the perception and branding of Key as a ‘nice’ and ‘personable’ Prime Minister,[24] as well his statement after winning the 2014 election that ‘We [National] are here to govern for all New Zealanders.’[25]

How is irresponsible language used to criticise other parties?

Irresponsible language is language that carries connotations of wastefulness, inefficiency and indulgence. Irresponsible language was most regularly employed by the opposition to attack the Government. It was occasionally used by the Government to describe the opposition, and predictably never employed by any political party to describe their own image. When it was used by the Government, it was mostly in reference to inheriting an ‘economic mess’ or ‘squandering the Golden economic times’.

Irresponsible language was most frequently used by Brash. In order to separate the six billion dollar surplus from the character of the Clark Government, it was necessary for Brash to use irresponsible language relationally.  Brash described the Clark’s Government as ‘bureaucratic’ and emphasised ‘tax increases’ multiple times, the effect was to portray the Clark Government as a selfish and sub-optimal caretaker of New Zealand despite Labour being able to deliver one of the largest surpluses in New Zealand history. Therefore, there was a nexus between irresponsible language and the theme of efficiency, by claiming and linking any Labour spending to its alleged ineffectiveness. This was a very precise space which Brash had to navigate as Brash cannot indiscriminately criticise every single spending. Brash probably realised that at least a small surplus was good in a boom environment, but could not openly agree. Even if Brash did agree, at least a few of the spending programmes coincided with his party policies.  For example, in a surplus environment, Brash actually agreed with numerous spending increases in order to address social problems or to (more cynically to) forward his party’s agenda. For example, on the problem of ‘hospital waiting lists’, Brash had to juxtapose how ‘government spending on health has increased’ but ‘spending has brought almost nothing’. Another example is in relation to being ‘tough on crime’ policy. Brash had to acknowledge the ‘need for more [spending on] prisons’ but described it as a ‘national disgrace’ because it ‘exceeded $490 million’. Another use of irresponsible language employed relationally were the numerous comparisons to Australia. Brash called the budget a ‘Brain Drain Budget’ and the ‘Bondi Budget’.[26] Brash had to shadow Labour’s very large surplus by being comparative. This was a nuanced and arguably correct strategy used by the right, but Brash’s speech suffered because Clark was able to point to the bottom-line which made Brash’s more complex comparisons look trivial and even petty.

While the issue in 2006 was value-for-money, this was different in 2015. Lack of funding was not a major an issue in 2006 in contrast to 2015’s deficit environment. Little in 2015 used a significant amount of irresponsible language to describe the National Government. Little compared the Government to ‘sleeping at the wheel’. However, there is a similar problem for Little to the problem faced by Brash. Little has to use relational language when deploying irresponsible language, because to a large extent he probably agrees with increased welfare spending, and the need for public spending in a recessionary environment; but similar to Brash Little cannot explicitly acknowledge this. Therefore, Little has to link any irresponsible language about the government to the concept of a ‘broken promise’, instead of admitting that a deficit is probably a good policy for the time-being. This is the same convergence of Little and Brash on fiscal responsibility, similar to how the speeches of Clark and Key also converged in their language on inclusiveness. However, Little leads a centre-left government which makes his job more difficult.  Importantly, Little never used strong language which Brash did; Little never advocated for ‘tax cuts’ or any explicit cuts to social spending programmes, which goes back to the paradox of being forced into a position of advocating for austerity while being on the Left. This significantly restrained the rhetoric which Little could use, which firstly explains the amount of contrived repetition on the ‘broken promise’ theme in his speech. These variations ranged from ‘failing to deliver on the surplus they promised’, ‘appearance of a surplus’, calling it a ‘fudge-it-budget’, accusations of ‘hiding’, to the very offensive ‘fiscal gender-reassignment’ comparison. Secondly, this explains the criticism of him occasionally contradicting himself by accidentally advocating for spending cuts such as means-testing superannuation; in his speech it would have been difficult to resolve that cognitive dissonance. Noticeably, Turei’s speech did not have this dissonance and was much more coherent. It implicitly advocated for more spending by using the humanistic language such as how the budget is ‘cruel… to toddlers’ and ‘abandoning’ New Zealanders. Interestingly, while the policy manifestation of both Little and Turei would be very different, the Greens were equally unable to directly advocate for spending but had to imply it in an environment where austerity has become the principle of good governance.[27]

VI        Conclusion

This shift of the left is uncharacteristic, but it has happened once in New Zealand under the Fourth Labour Government. It occurred after a similar crisis and trend towards neo-liberalisation around the world. Today in Australia and the UK, the left and the right have both accepted the ‘austerity’ standard instead of challenging it. In New Zealand, we can infer the Labour has also accepted this standard, and the Greens now occupy the space of the ‘old’ Left.[28] The significance of this research can be shown on the impact it has had on the Gillard Government, where the ALP essentially bound themselves to a more right-wing standard of responsible governance. This report also shows how each party is good at employing triangulation to force its opposition to adopt a certain position. To some extent, we have a mixed blessing of National not delivering on their promise of zero budget which would have had disastrous results on New Zealand’s economy. However, if Labour continues to push them on this issue, unfortunately the Left may eventually sow the seeds of their own demise if they were ever elected.[29]


Bryman, Alan. “Language in Qualitative Research.” In Social Research Methods. 524: Oxford University Press, 2012.

———. “Sampling in Qualitative Research.” In Social Research Methods. 416: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Child Poverty Action Group. “Benefit Sanctions: Creating an Invisible Underclass of Children?”: Child Poverty Action Group,, 2013.

Fairclough, Norman. New Labour, New Language?  London: Routledge, 2000.

Franzosi, Roberto. “Content Analysis.” In Handbook of Data Analysis, edited by Melissa Hardy. SAGE ResearchMethods, 2004.

Hansard. “Budget Debate Appropriation (2006/07 Estimates) Bill.” Hansard, 2006.

———. “Budget Debate Appropriation (2015/16 Estimates) Bill.” Hansard, 2015.

Johansson, Jon. “2008: Leadership During Transition.” In Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008, edited by Stephen Levine. Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010.

Kolovos, Ioannis. “Reconciling Marketing with Political Science: Theories of Political Marketing.” Journal of Marketing Management 13 (1997): 651-63.

Krugman, Paul. “The Austerity Delusion.” The Guardian, 2013.

Lees-Marshment, Jennifer. “The Nature of Political Advising to Prime Ministers in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.”. Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 52, no. 3 (2014): 358-75.

Miller, Raymond. New Zealand Government and Politics. Fifth ed.: OUP Australia and New Zealand, 2010.

Olson, Margaret. “Document Analysis.” SAGE ResearchMethods, 2010.

Orwell, George. Politics and the English Language. Benediction Classics, 1946.

Politico. “The Language of Austerity.” Sheila Killian.

Rudd, Chris. “Marketing the Message or the Messenger?”. In Marketing the Message or the Messenger? The New Zealand Labour Party, 1990-2003. 2005.

Silverman, David. Interpeting Qualitative Data. Fourth ed.: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2011.

Skinner, Quentin. Vision of Politics. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Thompson, Helen. “The Consequences of the Politics of Austerity.” Philomathia Social Sciences Research Programme, 2013.

TVNZ. “John Key: ‘We’re Here to Govern for All New Zealanders’.” One News, 2014.

Walter, Ryan. “Budget Talk: Rhetorical Constraints and Contests.” Australian Journal of Political Science 48, no. 4 (2013): 431-44.

[1] Hansard, “Budget Debate Appropriation (2006/07 Estimates) Bill,” (Hansard, 2006).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Budget Debate Appropriation (2015/16 Estimates) Bill,” (Hansard, 2015).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] George Orwell, Politics and the English Language  (Benediction Classics, 1946).

[7] Raymond Miller, New Zealand Government and Politics, Fifth ed. (OUP Australia and New Zealand, 2010).

[8] Jennifer Lees-Marshment, “The Nature of Political Advising to Prime Ministers in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.,” Commonwealth & Comparative Politics 52, no. 3 (2014).

[9] Chris Rudd, “Marketing the message or the messenger?,” in Marketing the message or the messenger? The New Zealand Labour Party, 1990-2003 (2005).

[10] Ryan Walter, “Budget talk: Rhetorical constraints and contests,” Australian Journal of Political Science 48, no. 4 (2013).

[11] Paul Krugman, “The austerity delusion,” The Guardian 2013.

[12] Walter, “Budget talk: Rhetorical constraints and contests.”

[13] Quentin Skinner, Vision of Politics  (Cambridge University Press, 2002).

[14] Ioannis Kolovos, “Reconciling marketing with political science: theories of political marketing,” Journal of Marketing Management 13(1997).

[15] Alan Bryman, “Sampling in Qualitative Research,” in Social Research Methods (Oxford University Press, 2012).

[16] Roberto Franzosi, “Content Analysis,” in Handbook of Data Analysis, ed. Melissa Hardy (SAGE ResearchMethods, 2004).

[17] Margaret Olson, “Document Analysis,” (SAGE ResearchMethods, 2010).

[18] Bryman, “Sampling in Qualitative Research.”; David Silverman, Interpeting Qualitative Data, Fourth ed. (SAGE Publications Ltd, 2011).

[19] Bryman, “Language in Qualitative Research.”

[20] Miller, New Zealand Government and Politics.

[21] Ibid.; Jon Johansson, “2008: Leadership During Transition,” in Key to Victory: The New Zealand General Election of 2008, ed. Stephen Levine (Wellington: Victoria University Press, 2010).

[22] Miller, New Zealand Government and Politics.

[23] Child Poverty Action Group, “Benefit sanctions: Creating an invisible underclass of children?,” (Child Poverty Action Group,, 2013).

[24] Miller, New Zealand Government and Politics.

[25] TVNZ, “John Key: ‘We’re here to govern for all New Zealanders’,” One News 2014.

[26] Hansard, “Budget Debate Appropriation (2006/07 Estimates) Bill.”

[27] Politico, “The Language of Austerity,”  Sheila Killian.

[28] Norman Fairclough, New Labour, New Language?  (London: Routledge, 2000).

[29] Helen Thompson, “The consequences of the politics of austerity,” (Philomathia Social Sciences Research Programme, 2013).

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