Federal Budget Rhetoric: A Comparative Analysis

  • National Newswatch

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word,” according to Mark Twain, “is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”With the possible exception of the Speech from the Throne, the federal budget is the most carefully crafted government policy document. Each word is scrutinized to ensure alignment with the government's chosen narrative.Last month's budget, the first tabled by Justin Trudeau's government, clocked-in at about 4,700 words. Examining which words were used – and which ones weren't – is telling, especially in a comparative context.Four budgets were chosen for this analysis: two Liberal (2005, 2016) and two Conservative (2006, 2015).The examples chosen have both similarities and differences. The 2005 and 2015 budgets were calibrated with a campaign in mind, while the 2006 and 2016 ones were opportunities for new governments to differentiate themselves from their respective old and tired predecessors.  Apart from Ralph Goodale who delivered his second budget in 2005, the other three were tabled by a rookie (federal) finance minister – the late Jim Flaherty having served in the same role at Queen's Park.While Nick Taylor-Vaisey at Maclean's writes that “Budgets have gotten waaaaay bigger,” interestingly, the speeches have gotten significantly shorter.  The 2005 and 2006 budget speeches averaged 56% longer than the 2015, 2016 ones.The chart below shows how the words delivered by ministers of finance have changed over the last decade.The analysis suggests that budget speeches today are more storytelling than they are providing the public with details. This is highlighted by the use of the dollar sign and the words million or billion as illustrated in the chart above.  The speeches even have authors now – you won't find the name Ralph Goodale or Jim Flaherty in the 2005, 2006 respective budget document, for example.Budgets began taking a different tone with the development of the Conservative “Economic Action Plan” theme.  In a similar way, the Liberals are trying to carve out their own areas of focus, bolstered by the use of certain words – and the avoidance of others.  As the chart shows, the current government, for instance, does not spend but rather invests. Its focus is on the future, growth, and innovation.The rhetoric of the 2016 budget regarding debt differs significantly from the other three, even the 2005 Liberal one.  In that speech, Ralph Goodale (the current Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness) declared that, with regards to sound financial management, “It creates the discipline of pay as you go, not spend as you like.  It ensures that the decisions we make today do not become the debts our children will have to bear.”By comparison, the National Post's Andrew Coyne recently opined that, despite a growing economy (real GDP rose 0.6% in January alone) and rebounding consumer confidence, the current budget increases the debt with little “coherence”.The changing federal budget rhetoric over time – and within the same party – is telling.  Comparing key words is instructive, although it's not without limitations.  The context for how each individual word is used differs but some patterns nonetheless emerge – simply compare the use of the word budget or tax.Note: for this comparative analysis, the word counts excluded titles and headings in the budget speech documents but included similar words (e.g., Canada, Canadian), as well as their plural form.Evagelos Sotiropoulos writes on Canadian politics for The Hill Times and on Orthodox Christianity for HuffPost Religion. You can follow him on Twitter @evan_sotirop