Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 19:33 | SYDNEY
Monday 23 Jul 2018 | 19:33 | SYDNEY

Do politicians' speeches matter?


Sam Roggeveen


20 March 2012 12:56

David Frum, once a speechwriter for George W Bush, doesn't think so:

You know who was a really lousy presidential communicator? Dwight Eisenhower. You know who else? Calvin Coolidge. Both were overwhelmingly re-elected. Benjamin Disraeli said that a parliamentary majority was better than the best repartee. And likewise, peace and prosperity are better than any speech. Yet despite both the political science evidence—and the practical experience of politicians from Coolidge onward—political commentary assigns huge excess weight to presidential communication.

Frum goes on to argue that one reason the commentariat likes commenting on speeches is that it's easier and more fun than actually investigating the work of government.

There's something to this, and it reminds me of the relief expressed by some journalists over the appointment of Bob Carr as foreign minister, because Carr can talk. Someone recently observed to me that the Canberra press gallery's attitude to Carr is reminiscent of the way Washington hacks treated Donald Rumsfeld in his pomp, when his media conferences were must-see events and seasoned reporters hung on his every witticism.

Frum is probably on solid ground when he says that speeches don't move public opinion very much, so from the perspective of electoral politics, they ought to get far less attention than economics, which is a much bigger factor in swinging elections.

But speeches remain an important tool for communicating policy to the public and to foreign audiences, and if you study changes in the way speeches by particular leaders are written over time, you can unlock some possible policy trends. Speeches are also one of the best tools politicians have to communicate with their own bureaucracies; big policy speeches set government goals and indicate priorities for public servants to observe.

Those are reasons enough to pay them attention.