12 Jun 2023

On repeat: What hours of interviews reveal about the obsessions of our political leaders

6:08 am on 12 June 2023

Christopher Luxon has zeroed in on tax and spending as key weapons in his arsenal of political language - carpet bombing the government with allegations of poor economic management in his media interviews.

RNZ has conducted an unprecedented analysis of nine months of weekly interviews with the Labour and National leaders on RNZ, TVNZ, Newshub and Newstalk ZB.

The data investigation covers 28 hours of interviews between July 2022 and May 2023. The findings are published from today in a series called The Interview.

The words and phrases on heavy repeat

National's leader Christopher Luxon used the word 'tax' 233 times in his interviews - about three times as often as Labour's Jacinda Ardern and Chris Hipkins in the same period.

And Luxon said 'spending' 179 times, nearly five times more than his opponents.

There was also a significant gulf between the leaders on the use of the word 'crisis'.

Luxon used the word crisis 91 times, compared to Ardern who used it 11 times. Hipkins, who took over as prime minister in January, never used the word crisis during the period RNZ recorded.

Luxon used the phrase 'cost of living' 86 times in his media slots and on 49 of those described it as a 'cost of living crisis'.

Ardern used 'cost of living' 16 times, calling it a 'cost of living crisis' just once. Hipkins used the phrase 16 times but never described it as a crisis.

A key theme is Luxon's relentless use of words associated with basic economics.

He used the words economy, inflation, spending and tax 700 times compared to Hipkins and Ardern, who used them just 205 times between them.

The analysis also shows Luxon sticking to words relating to core government services.

He used the words health or hospital, and variations on those words, 180 times compared to Ardern and Hipkins, who used them 87 times.

The National leader used the words education, school or teacher, or variations on those words, 325 times compared to 200 times for Ardern and Hipkins.

Josie Pagani has worked as a media advisor for politicians and is a writer and political commentator with a left-leaning perspective. She said Luxon's focus on tax, spending and core government services reflect an attack on Labour's vulnerabilities.

"The problem for Luxon is that it is very much the classic hits of National isn't it? So it's tax, it's spending, it's economy, it's farmers," Pagani said.

"I don't think that that language is telling you anything different about National. It's not going to appeal to any swing voters who might be feeling frustrated with the government but looking for a reason to vote for the other guys."

Luxon rarely used words like inequality (just once) or working class (not at all) which might move him into Labour's territory, Pagani said.

Luxon also used the word treaty 14 times but the two Labour leaders used it just once.

Labour's talking points

One of the startling results is that Labour leaders Ardern and Hipkins almost totally avoided talking about farming or farmers.

Luxon used the word farm, or references to farming, 114 times in his weekly media slots whereas Ardern and Hipkins only used the word eight times between them.

Labour leaders, perhaps in response to pressure from the public, the media and their political opponents, have used words associated with law and order more frequently than Luxon.

The words crime, police and law were used 167 times by Ardern and Hipkins compared with 123 times by Luxon.

The word police (and variations, such as policing) was used 108 times by Ardern and Hipkins, a former police minister who was prime minister during fears of looting after Cyclone Gabrielle, and just 18 times by Luxon.

The Labour leaders talked about infrastructure nearly twice as often as Luxon, using the word 44 times, compared to 25 mentions from Luxon.

The political catchphrase

The analysis also shows how the leaders try to introduce key phrases and zingers into the lexicon.

Luxon has pushed the phrase 'addicted to spending' - using it nine times in the period RNZ monitored, including six times in one round of media interviews in August last year.

The National leader also hammered the phrase 'squeezed middle' as he sought to shape a narrative around the middle class being wedged between the rich and the poor.

Luxon used the phrase 'squeezed middle' nine times in the period RNZ recorded.

He talked about New Zealanders 'going backwards' (or having 'gone backwards') 39 times.

Andreea Calude, a data linguist who works on various aspects of language analysis at Waikato University, said metaphors such as 'the squeezed middle' can be powerful when used constantly by politicians.

"Many of the listeners from that group will recognise themselves. They'll see themselves in that metaphor and say 'yeah we are squeezed' and so they'll feel heard and validated."

Language of 'the professional managerial class'

To mark National out as a party that will deliver and get things done, Luxon repeatedly talks about 'outcomes'.

He used outcomes 144 times in the nine months RNZ monitored, including 19 times in one day of media interviews in March this year and 18 times in one day in October 2022.

Janet Wilson, a journalist-turned media trainer whose clients have included the National Party in the past, said this is an example of Luxon using corporate jargon.

"Outcomes is a hideous word," Wilson said. "So is 'going forward,' and he also uses that phrase."

Luxon used "going forward" 17 times.

"This is the language of the professional managerial class. This is the language of those who go to university and do degrees but it has very little cut through with the average person," she said.

"Authenticity is what people are seeking. The more authentic you can be, and true to yourself, whatever that self is, the more successful you will be."

Pagani agrees Luxon's language makes him look like he's "from management".

"Every time he opens his mouth, you expect him to say something like, 'and the corporate synergy workshop begins in 15 minutes' and no one wants to spend time with a guy like that."

The data shows Luxon is being very careful with his language, Pagani said.

"I call it the 'Ming Vase' theory of politics: he's behaving a little bit like he's walking across the polished floor carrying a ming vase," she said. "The opposite of that, I suppose, would be carrying a tray of drinks across the dance floor, looking precarious, taking risks."

Luxon has been under close scrutiny for his personal polling numbers.

While on some polls National is in a position to form the next government with support from the Act Party, Luxon consistently trails Hipkins as preferred prime minister.

How we analysed the data:Weekly leader interviews on the following shows were included. Newshub's AM Show, TVNZ Breakfast, RNZ's Morning Report, and Newstalk ZB's Mike Hosking Breakfast Show. In total more than 28 hours of interviews were analysed including 107 interviews with Christopher Luxon, 49 with Jacinda Ardern and 50 with Chris Hipkins. Recordings were transcribed by Otter.ai and then manually cleaned to improve accuracy, however some minor errors may remain. Excessively long preambles to interviews by hosts were shortened to focus on the interviewer and leader exchange. Text was analysed using R and the Quanteda package.