For pure theatrics, this afternoon’s parliamentary clash of the leaders over the budget was unexpectedly evenly balanced.
Not only did John Key do his now-traditional stand-up routine, but David Shearer risked a walk on the wild side, too, and went for a few humorous excursions. Both leaders had their troops listening with delighted interest and amusement, rather than the more traditional grim-chopped and dutiful “hear-hear!” response.
This is a much-needed mini-triumph for Shearer. While his delivery is still rather bumbly – notably his transposition of words to call “Mr Speaker” “Mr Australia” by mistake – he was a lot louder, bolder and more excoriating than I’ve seen him before. He did a more than competent hatchet-job, but more winningly, he raised a few laughs at National’s expense.
Does this matter? For each caucus’s level of morale, yes very much. To the wider audience, hardly at all. The only thing most people see of the parliamentary budget debate is the odd sound-bite. The debate is an absolutely by-the-numbers exercise in which no one says anything surprising, so it’s not a big deal – except as a caucus mood-booster.
Key’s strength at times like this is that he demonstrates a fluent, good-humoured, robust command of the House – even while he’s essentially just trotting out one-liners rather than saying much of substance. He makes it look easy. It’s a demonstration of power rather than a defence of exposition of the budget measures.
The old contrast with Phil Goff’s budget speeches was painful. Goff basically just did a lot of angry shouting and air-chopping, and though it had all the right content and was delivered with feeling, it plainly did not surprise, move or inspire his troops.
Shearer’s tack today, while far from towering oratory, showed he may after all have an instinct for adding a bit of warmth and humour into a speech to cut the earnestness, and most importantly a degree of acerbic fun-poking. Key overdoes this stuff, but there are few techniques more powerful than being able to make people laugh at your opponents.