Nova Scotia·Opinion

Political speeches aren't boring by accident, says Graham Steele

Political analyst Graham Steele says giving a speech filled with buzzwords, self-congratulation and debateable statistics is the best way to be play it safe in the world of politics.

Political analyst Graham Steele says giving a boring political speech is the best way to be play it safe

Finance Minister Randy Delorey's budget speech last week is a great example of why boring speeches in politics are effective in keeping the risk of blowback low, says CBC political analyst Graham Steele. (Paul Withers/CBC)

I wasn't in the room when finance minister Randy Delorey delivered the traditional pre-budget speech to the Halifax Chamber of Commerce last week, but I read a copy of his remarks.

Dull doesn't begin to describe it.

There was no news, except the date of the budget. Anybody could have figured that out by looking at a calendar.

The speech was a bore-fest of buzzwords, self-congratulation and debateable statistics. The reporters who attended struggled to find reportable content.

I might possibly have delivered a speech or two like that myself.

If political speeches are boring — and, let's face it, most of our ministers could easily be elected mayor of Dullsville — there are good political reasons why it is so.

Bread and butter

The bread and butter of political speaking isn't the giant campaign rally like we're seeing these days in the United States, but the departmental announcement, the chamber of commerce lunch, the not-for-profit fundraiser.

Ministers frequently give remarks at these events.

But all too often, the audience doesn't get a speech. They get a reading, with the minister's eyes fixed firmly on his or her text, with maybe the occasional bob of the head. The minister mechanically recites the words. The audience's attention wanders. The minister receives token applause and moves on to the next event.

Why do ministers insist on reading their speeches word for boring word?

Some lack confidence, either in their public-speaking ability or in their grasp of the subject matter.

When you're not sure of yourself, the easy way out is to get someone else to write the speech. If somebody else wrote it, nobody can blame you for saying the wrong thing.

The problem is that most civil servants are not very good at speech writing.

The civil servants mean well, but they don't actually deliver speeches themselves and they don't study the art. There's a world of difference between the spoken word and the written word.

So what they write is technically correct and looks OK on a page, but when spoken aloud is dully wooden.

Approved in advance

The other big reason for boring speeches is that "the centre" wants it that way.

The people in the premier's office or prime minister's office typically don't have a lot of respect for cabinet ministers. Ministers were made by the boss and they can be unmade.

The best way to control ministers is to approve speeches in advance and demand they be delivered precisely as written. The first and only commandment is to stay on message.

Not all ministers kowtow to the centre — I once saw Peter MacKay rewriting his remarks just before he and I did a joint funding announcement — but independent minded ministers like MacKay or the late Jim Flaherty are unusual.

Most just want to stay out of trouble. If the boss and his minions are happy, they're happy. They get to be a minister for another day.

Randy Delorey is acutely conscious that his predecessor at finance got into trouble — and the trouble started at the chamber pre-budget speech exactly one year ago.

No wonder that, when it was his turn, he chose the safest route. He spoke, but he said nothing that mattered.

Knowledge and passion

The best speeches, of course, are the ones where the speaker is talking with knowledge and passion. That's rare. Too often, both elements are missing from a politician's speech.

When we remember great speakers we remember the way they made us feel. That's the elusive goal, the pinnacle that not many speakers can achieve.

As a teenager I once went to hear Pierre Trudeau speak in a hall in Winnipeg.

I remember being on the balcony of an auditorium, almost fainting with the heat because it was a standing-room only crowd and I was wearing a winter coat.

And I carry a sharp mental image of the way Trudeau looked and sounded on stage, totally cool and in control of himself and the crowd.

I don't remember what he said, but it must have been a very effective speech. Thirty-five years later, I remember.

Randy Delorey spoke just last week and everybody who heard it has probably already forgotten.

Believe me, he doesn't mind. Nothing was risked — and nothing was lost.


Graham Steele

Political analyst

Graham Steele is a former MLA who was elected four times as a New Democrat for the constituency of Halifax Fairview. He also served as finance minister. Steele is now a political analyst for CBC News.