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It may come as little surprise to longstanding observers of the budget process that the exercise is rife with political rhetoric. Seasoned platitudes include “living within our means” and “saving for the future,” while newer mantras include “jobs and growth.” At the same time, refrains such as “sustainability” and “responsibility” are invoked so frequently that it is possible to tally their systematic use and trends.

The impact of rhetorical processes in the budget process remains an underexplored phenomenon in the public administration and economic literatures. As such, in a study recently published in the International Journal of Public Administration, we examined the nature of rhetoric in the budget process, particularly with respect to its impact on budget reform.

Our findings suggest that the use of rhetoric by politicians and public managers detracts from the implementation of reform. It also serves as a smokescreen against serious budgetary action.

At the same time, our findings show that the use of rhetoric is a product of contradictory values as articulated by citizens. On one hand, citizens articulate the desire for restraint in the use of public funds, but at the same time, they do not want such restraint to impede their levels of consumption or welfare. This forces politicians and public managers (bureaucrats) to prioritize between competing values, and to choose whether to divert resources or rhetoric, which is to say: either attempt to mobilize resources towards addressing articulated needs, or instead to say that they will mobilize resources, without actually doing so.

We began by remarking on the consensus among budget scholars that Australia’s budget process, while having once been a global pioneer in fiscal reform, is today seen very much as a laggard. Australia’s historic Charter of Budget Honesty was once seen as the very best in terms of fiscal responsibility legislation, but scholars have come to recognize its conception of key ideas as vague, open to ambiguity, and subject to interpretation.

The focus in the Charter of Budget Honesty is on the technical representation of budget information instead of on strategic budgetary thought, a point that is best articulated by Hawke and Wanna, who argue that:

 Australia has shown itself prepared to tackle the technical input side of budget reform, while consigning broader strategic decision-making to the margins, and being churlish in showing reluctance to tackle the harder performance-related side of the budget including ‘hard’ accountabilities for delivering programs.

In order to contextualize the rhetorical aspect of all this, it serves to note that the fiscal rhetoric is couched in generalities and vagueness, and bereft of specificity with respect to budget measures. For example, as Hawke and Wanna assert, “often when reforms were introduced, the executive was not particularly forthcoming about what it intended to achieve with any one component, preferring to talk in generalities such as greater efficiency, transparency, tighter discipline or a greater focus on results,” As a result, “in the absence of specific definitions, the [Charter] remains a set of platitudes and nice sounding intentions” (Hawke and Wanna, 2010, p. 73).

The Charter is the first of the two pillars of the modern budget process; the other one being our Parliamentary Budget Office.

Unlike other Legislative Budget Offices, which aim to strike a balance between “advisory” (normative) work and “costing” (procedural) work, Australia’s PBO deliberately adheres to a strict mandate of costings-only. While this reduces the level of confrontation and contention, and leaves the PBO relatively secure within the framework of the Charter of Budget Honesty, from a theoretical public administration perspective, the disengagement from a normative role reduces the “public value” generated by the PBO.

Therefore, in Australia, the erstwhile pioneer in budget reform, today we observe a form of stagnation, where meaningful reform is usurped by the application of rhetoric in the budget process. The tally of the mentions of “sustainability” and “responsibility” during budget speeches and budget reply speeches is reproduced below:

Table: Annual Budget Speeches and Budget Reply Speeches, a textual analysis of mentions of “responsibility” and “sustainability” (2006-2016)


Budget Speeches and

Budget Reply Speeches*

(Government & Opposition)

Year “Responsibility”** “Sustainability”** (Budget Speech / Budget Reply Speech)
2006 0 2 Peter Costello / Kim Beazley
2007 8 2 Peter Costello / Kevin Rudd
2008 7 0  Wayne Swan / Brendan Nelson
2009 9 17 Wayne Swan / Malcolm Turnbull
2010 9 4 Wayne Swan / Tony Abbott
2011 8 8 Wayne Swan / Tony Abbott
2012 3 5 Wayne Swan / Tony Abbott
2013 11 9 Wayne Swan / Tony Abbott
2014 6 7 J. B. Hockey / Bill Shorten
2015 8 6 J. B. Hockey / Bill Shorten
2016 7 9  Scott Morrison / Bill Shorten
Total 76 69 Overall: 145
Source: Parliament of Australia, Budget Speeches and Budget Reply Speeches. Archived Collection.
* The Budget Speech is delivered by the Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia, while the Budget Reply Speech is normally delivered by the Leader of the Opposition in Parliament.
** The keywords “Responsibility” and “Sustainability” also include counts of their variants “Responsible”, “Irresponsible”, “Responsibilities”, “Responsive”, “Unsustainable”, “Sustain”, “Sustaining”, and “Sustainable”.

There are several important points to glean from a content analysis of budget speeches and budget reply speeches over the period 2006-2016. It is evident that the message of budget “sustainability” has been influenced by the 2008 crisis. Given the political pressure worldwide to offer responses to the unforeseen and profoundly damaging fallout of the 2008 economic crisis, Australian politicians began to allude with ever greater frequency to greater fiscal “sustainability”. The excuse of “sustainable” rhetoric rose immediately after the crisis, in the budget speech and reply speech of 2009; and has persisted ever since. The rhetoric around the need for budget “responsibility” was already part-and-parcel of budget speeches, but rose to its highest level in 2013, concomitant with the establishment of the Australian PBO, and has been reiterated with regularity throughout the ensuing years. Together, “responsibility” and “sustainability” are the two most frequently occurring fiscally-oriented rhetorical terms in Australian budget speeches and budget reply speeches, followed by “innovation” and “prosperity”. It is important to note that this consistent rhetoric is employed regardless of economic cyclicality. Furthermore, it is employed regardless of the political party at the helm of government.

In other words, the conclusions of our research have been that Australian politicians, bolstered by a budget architecture that is sufficiently vague and a PBO that is sufficiently non-confrontational, can employ budget rhetoric such as fiscal “sustainability” and “responsibility”, without actually undertaking the requisite reforms. Such rhetoric serves to elude decision making on the necessary tough fiscal measures that would incur political costs. Rhetoric is therefore an underexplored but important element in the complexities that underpin the fiscal process, and further research must explore the repercussions of rhetoric on budget policy in a wider domain of contexts, including other geographies, other time-periods, and specific fiscal projects.

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  1. Pingback: Budget Forum 2018: Should Australia produce a Citizen’s Climate Budget? - Austaxpolicy: The Tax and Transfer Policy Blog

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