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Pre-budget hype (Image: Tina Tiller)
Pre-budget hype (Image: Tina Tiller)

PoliticsMay 28, 2024

Ten things I learned while reading 17,000 words of pre-budget speeches

Pre-budget hype (Image: Tina Tiller)
Pre-budget hype (Image: Tina Tiller)

Anna Rawhiti-Connell finds little light in the darkness before the budget day dawn. 

When Taylor Swift announced at the Grammys in February that she had a new album coming out, it was two and half months before the album itself was released. Very little happens these days without a relentless cycle of hype and build-up. This is true of Taylor Swift’s albums and, as it turns out, government budgets. 

Two and a half weeks ago, finance minister Nicola Willis began a relentless cycle of pre-budget hype, with the first of many pre-budget speeches from many politicians. Rather poetically, she told those assembled at the Hutt Valley Chamber of Commerce on May 9, “It is darkest before the dawn.” A few hours later, crisis meetings were under way regarding a national grid emergency that threatened the country’s supply of light and heat on what was a very cold day. 

For most of us, the economic darkness Willis alluded to will last through this year and into the next. Speaking to the media after, Willis called upon the poets again, saying that this budget would not “wipe every tear from every eye”. No single budget can sustain the weight of the economic turnaround required. 

Nicola Willis, finance minister, will deliver her first budget on Thursday (Photo: Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Last week, like Anubis weighing hearts at the gateway between heaven and hell, the Herald’s Audrey Young held Willis’s first speech and eight other pre-budget speeches in her hands and asked whether one budget could sustain the weight of all those speeches. Young politely requested that she be woken up for the actual budget on May 30. 

As finance minister, Willis is expected to give pre-budget speeches and has done two. Prime minister Christopher Luxon has done four if you include the three speeches given at National party regional conferences. Green party co-leaders Marama Davidson and Chlöe Swarbrick delivered a State of the Planet speech, which we can call a pre-budget speech because any time a politician stands up and talks in front of people within two weeks of the budget, it is officially a pre-budget speech. Labour leader Chris Hipkins has delivered one pre-budget speech. Labour’s finance spokesperson, Barbara Edmonds, also gave a speech for which she earned a nod from Young for breaking through the pre-budget noise. 

Assembled into one groaning Google doc, that noise, excluding the three conference speeches from Luxon, weighs in at just a touch over 17,800 words across six speeches. I read all of it so you don’t have to and here’s what I learned.

1. 2040 is going to be the best year ever

Both Luxon and Hipkins chose to cast out beyond the darkness and the unwiped tears of our current time and look to 2040 in two separate speeches. 2040 is a year politicians are already hyping because it will be 200 years since the signing of Te Tiriti o Waitangi. While opinion differs on what honouring Te Tiriti looks like, it’s possible that by 2040 we’ll have better footpaths, no racism, and a more productive economy. Somewhat surprisingly, based on prior form, Luxon introduced a “comprehensive response to climate change, both on track to achieve our ambitious emissions targets, and resilient to the challenges of a more volatile world” as the third achievement he believes his government’s path will unlock for New Zealand in 2040. If all else fails, we can follow the lead of Australia, who celebrated the 200th anniversary of the founding of their nation in 1988 with a song, approximately 65,000 years after the country’s indigenous people were known to have occupied land in the lucky country.

2. A lot of people assume Winston Churchill said, ‘It is darkest before the dawn’. He didn’t, but we are allowed to say it sounds ‘Churchillian’ 

Willis says she was referencing the Florence and the Machine song ‘Shake it Out’ when she said, “It is darkest before the dawn”. That song is 13 years old, and Willis is officially our first millennial finance minister. She also got called “Churchillian”, which is probably because there’s a film about Churchill called The Darkest Hour, and when we mention dark hours, we think of England. Despite there being no record of Churchill saying or writing “darkest hour” or the dark/dawn quote, it was apparently in a letter someone wrote to him in 1945. Florence and the Machine didn’t exist then, so good enough. The origin of the phrase is actually from a proverb committed to paper by Thomas Fuller in 1650. According to one Reddit thread, there is also still a very live debate as to whether the darkness is, in fact, the darkest before the dawn. 

3. Fiscal is an odd word the more you look at it, and repetition is good 

Willis and Luxon drop the word fiscal 22 times across three speeches. There is fiscal drag, fiscal policy, fiscal trajectory, fiscal mess, fiscal situation, fiscal goals, fiscal challenge, fiscal stance, fiscal decisions, fiscal vandalism (see arsonist below) and a promise that “tax relief” (see Max Rashbrooke) will be fiscal(ly) neutral. Grant Robertson used the term fiscal 10 times in his pre-budget speech to the Wellington Chamber of Commerce last year, citing a fiscal Bermuda triangle, fiscal sustainability, fiscal rules and fiscal decisions. Barbara Edmonds used the word once in her speech, while Swarbrick and Davidson did not use it at all. Having typed pre-budget a lot already, I think budget might also be an odd word but not as weird as fiscal, which is too close to the word fissure for it not to have an accidentally unpleasant sound.

4. Accusing each other of being ‘arsonists’ is still popular, and repetition is good

This falls outside the main speech doc that I am now deeply regretting starting, but it is still within the official pre-budget window, so it counts. In a “fiery” speech in Palmerston North, Luxon returned to his favourite insult and said that Labour’s questions to him each parliamentary sitting week were “a bit like an arsonist returning to the scene of a fire that they started and then criticising the fire brigade for the means by which it is extinguishing the fire”. Luxon called Hipkins an arsonist in the House in December last year. To avoid confusion, lest calling someone an arsonist gets described as “Luxonian”, David Seymour’s use of the insult predates Luxon’s. Seymour said, “It’s like an arsonist showing up dressed as a fireman, saying, ‘I am here to help and fix it all’,” about his future co-deputy prime minister, Winston Peters, at the Newshub minor party leader debate in September. 

5. Pre-budget speeches are best done at chambers of commerce 

I am going to be honest and say that at this point, I don’t really know what a chamber of commerce is other than a place to host a pre-budget speech. Luxon, Edmunds and Willis delivered a total of five pre-budget speeches from within these hallowed halls of business power. You are also allowed to give a speech at the Employers and Manufacturers Association or a party conference. Anywhere else is risky. I don’t make the rules. 

PM Christopher Luxon at a post-cab press conference (Photo: Getty Images)

6. Luxon is less inclined to aim his speeches at the city in which he gives them

Last year, in his pre-budget speech as prime minister at the Employer and Manufacturers Association in Auckland, Hipkins mentioned Auckland 10 times. In his speech at Auckland Business Chamber, a chamber of business (and perhaps commerce?) based in Auckland,  Auckland appears four times in Luxon’s speech notes. The first mention is right at the top, where the inspirational title of the speech goes. In this case, giving the Gettysburg Address a run for its money, the speech is called “Pre-Budget speech to Auckland Business Chamber”. The second mention of Auckland comes when he thanks the Auckland Business Chamber CEO. The third and fourth mentions were tacked onto paragraphs about savings and water reform and included a RIP to the dead Auckland light rail project. Luxon used the term “New Zealander” or “Kiwi/Kiwis/Kiwi kids” 12 times.

7. ‘No bells, no whistles’ is the new ‘no frills’ but it is not the new austerity

Robertson called his budget last year a “no frills” budget but then some people said it was surprisingly frilly. With “no frills” gone from the list of possible contenders for the name of this year’s budget, Luxon said it would have “No bells. No whistles”. We’ll find out on Thursday whether there are any surprise bells or whistles and whether “the no bells, no whistles budget” is as catchy as “tortured poets department” as a name worthy of its hype cycle. Luxon also said the budget would have no surprises so my small tax-cut money is on that being a lead contender for headlines. Willis moved quickly to squash any notion of austerity in her kick-off speech, so no one will dare mention that word again. It is “moderate and responsible”. The moderate and the responsible is a good contender for a band name.

8. Co-leaders make speeches long, and repetition is good

Combined, Davidson and Swarbrick’s speeches, which were delivered one after the other, are over 5,000 words long and largely designed to reconnect with the party faithful after a rough few months. I can’t feel my eyeballs any more. Because I haven’t tortured my Taylor Swift analogy enough, what I will say is Swarbrick is in her 1989 era. She is still the same person she was before she became co-leader, but her hooks are hookier, and her bangers are poppier. Repetition wins again as the preferred oratorical device of our political leaders. Davidson repeatedly mentioned the $16m in donations received by the parties that make up the coalition government. Swarbrick returned to the “good things, bad things” refrain as a way to call for action and present an alternative approach. “Bad things happen when good people stand idly by. Equally, good things happen when we work together to make them happen,” she said. We can, with some hard work and an improved attendance rate at rallies and protests, have nice things.

9. Politicians should talk about themselves a bit more

Incredible conclusion, really, after reading 17,800 words of fiscal stew and optimism about a future that is far enough away to hedge bets on, but Barbara Edmonds’ speech deserves the single plaudit Young had to give. It served as an introduction to her values, philosophy, upbringing and credentials. Labour is sensibly in its “privately debate tax and chill” phase, so that was all that was required, and it made her sound like a real human being. Her three tables analogy, where she said her experience comes from sitting around a cabinet table, a board table and a kitchen table, is much better than my comparison of Swarbrick to 1989 Taylor Swift.

10. Budget day is a dawn of sorts for all those wading through the darkness of political oratory

Audrey Young is right about pre-budget speeches. I regret this exercise. Wake me up on Thursday.

Keep going!