The Rudd Government was slow to acknowledge a financial crisis, but when it did, it quickly framed it as a global crisis, and sought to assure a sound future for the Australian economy under its leadership. What’s really interesting it is to look at how rhetoric from the government and the media has evolved. What themes have government and media sought to communicate, and how have these interplayed?

My analysis shows that the government was slow in acknowledging a financial crisis, and was initially unsure of how to frame it. Eventually, the issue was portrayed as a “global crisis” and government rhetoric aimed to return conversation to economic growth and a plan for the future. This approach strategically distances the Rudd Government from the source of the problems, and makes claim to being a safe set of hands in dealing with it. In contrast, the media led the government in talking of financial crisis, and also discussing threats to the Australian banking system.

This trend shows that there are certain areas in which the government’s rhetoric cannot be ahead of that of the media. Were the government to talk of financial crisis and crumbling banking systems before the media, there is the possibility of panic and alarm in the community, as well as the significant possibility of electoral damage. In this sense, the Rudd Government has to play “follower” to the media. The Rudd Government’s approach shows caution in this.

It only definitively and unreservedly discussed a global financial crisis on 14 October, after the notion had appeared in the media over a period of several days. However, in return, the Rudd Government has clearly sought to inform discussion by moving talk toward economic growth and the future of the Australian economy, and maintaining the global nature of the crisis. Analysis shows the media as having initially adopted this narrative.

To perform this study, I used Leximancer. Leximancer is a qualitative analysis tool which automatically extracts the most frequent concepts in a body of text, and plots the relationship of these on a concept map. The brightness of the wording of a concept indicates its frequency in the text, and the colour of the dot indicates how related it is to other concepts on the whole map. This works according to the colours of the rainbow, with red dots indicating the most connected concepts through to blue dots being the least connected.

In looking at how rhetoric has evolved during this time, I used all Prime Ministerial interviews, media releases, and speeches relating to the financial crisis used on 10, 12, and 14 October (all publicly available through the Prime Minister’s homepage). Because this would then interplay through the press on the following day, I then used all front page articles dealing with the financial crisis in The Australian newspaper on 11, 13, and 15 October.

10 October, Rudd Government rhetoric

At this stage, Rudd Government rhetoric shows no indication of a financial crisis. Emphasis is on world, global, and Australian financial markets, but there is no negative connotation with these, such as “turmoil”.

A good example is Rudd’s summary of the problems on 10 October in an interview with ABC Radio: “I think, overall, what we face is a broader problem of a lack of a demonstration of global and coordinated political will to deal with some of the deeper regulatory challenges that we now face, and that, I believe is a key part of the confidence equation and that must be addressed as the Finance Ministers meet in Washington this weekend.”

Rudd is therefore careful to talk of administrative solutions to what he perceives as a confidence issue. The Government’s talk at this time is therefore of a strong economy, with more specific issues of the pension and banks being raised in a minor way. At this time, the pension is an outlying concept.

11 October, lead stories in The Australian

The Australian introduces the notion of a world crisis on 11 October. The Australian reported “Another rout on Wall Street reverberated around the world, sending stock markets in Australia, Asia, and Europe plunging as investors bet the crisis would spiral out of control”. On the map, banks are in a close relationship with the world crisis, indicating the rhetoric from the media frames banks both as a key concern and a potential solution. Guarantee of deposits also becomes an issue, along with notions of a bank plan.

12 October, Rudd Government rhetoric

On 12 October, the Rudd Government adopts the media’s line on banks and deposit guarantees. Banks is the most frequent, and frequently related concept in the map (as indicated by the brightness of the word “banks”, and its large red dot), a major change since 10 October when banks were a minor concept in the narrative. However, the Rudd Government only adopts the notion of a crisis in a minor way. It is a relatively isolated, and infrequent concept on the map, indicating a reluctance on the part of the Government to talk about a crisis.

While Rudd talks of a “global financial crisis” in several instances on 12 October (“Coordinated international action is critical to the overall confidence equation in dealing with the global financial crisis”), it is not with major frequency. In fact, the Government leads toward maintaining positive associations in the rhetoric, particularly in the small cluster showing future and Australia. Interestingly, the emphasis on this being a world or global issue diminishes in scale from 10 October. World does not appear in the map, and global is not in the major clustering as it was two days earlier.

13 October, lead stories in The Australian

Australian banks are still the most frequent and well related concepts in The Australian on 13 October. This incorporates discussion on the guarantee of deposits, as well as the importance of credit to the system. The framing of the crisis is of a global financial crisis, or to a lesser extent a US financial crisis.

14 October, Rudd Government rhetoric

Three days after The Australian spoke of a world crisis on 11 October, the Rudd Government rhetoric acknowledges a global financial crisis on 14 October. These are the most frequent and well-related concepts on the map, and are important because they represent a vigorous attempt by the Rudd Government in framing the crisis as a global event. However, the map also shows strong efforts by the Government to present positive rhetoric around the crisis. A

ustralian economic growth is closely related to the Government on the map, demonstrating attempts to show that the economy has a strong future and is in safe hands. As an example, Rudd says in his speech to the nation, “history tells us that when the economy slows, responsible governments step in to strengthen growth”.

15 October, lead stories in The Australian

Lead stories in The Australian on 15 October show strong uptake of Rudd Government rhetoric on the Government’s spending package. It is reported that: “economists expect that the package, including one-off cash handouts for pensioners, low-income families, and first home-buyers, will fuel a six-month spending spree that will sustain economic activity and allow Australia to maintain economic growth”.

Of interest is that this package and shift in the Rudd Government’s rhetoric at least momentarily removes the global financial crisis as a theme from The Australian’s front page for the first time in this analysis.

Peter Fray

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