The mechanics of Cunliffe’s conference remarks


I deliberately used the term remarks. Remarks is an Americanism and that’s what DC’s speech to the Labour conference was – a lesson in American political rhetoric. But that’s not a bad thing. “Building a Future for All” is the best New Zealand political speech I’ve read.

Consider this: the plural pronoun “we” appeared 107 times. The possessive determiner and the possessive pronoun “our” and “ours” appeared 57 times. Contrast that against the use of the first person pronoun “I” which appeared 19 times. “Me” appeared a measly 5 times.

These are deictic expressions. The effect is that DC is speaking on behalf of the audience, not to it.  The technique is used to build a relationship with the audience. But it also goes further: DC is speaking as if everything he says is issued by “us”, the people. The heavy use of inclusive language opens the speech to the audience and lets them impose their own interpretations on it.

But everyone knows that a speechmaker should prefer we over I. A more interesting technique is the use of syntactic and lexical parallelism. The first is a repetition of the same structures, the second is a repetition of the same word categories. The other syntactic technique that emerges is parataxis which describes phrases that are equal (e.g. an equivalent set). Take the following:

“We need to reimagine the future. To rebuild it. To reclaim the Kiwi dream for all New Zealanders”.

That’s the rule of three in action, which DC uses heavily, and an example of syntactic and lexical parallelism. Now consider another:

When National thinks about growth, they think about growing volume. Milking more cows, digging more mines or drilling more holes.

They haven’t got a fracking clue.

Note the equivalent set in the first sentence. There are words belonging to the same word category: milking, digging and drilling. Parallelism is used as a chorus to build to the crescendo. Parallelism is used as an adrenalin shot, in other words.

It’s not a technique that’s used widely in New Zealand politics and it shows. The rhythm is off. Parrallelism works best with poetic language rather than the prosaic. Poetic language invites the audience to fill the gaps.  The audience can impose their own interpretations on the meaning of the speech when the language is left open.

American politics instructs its politicians and speech writers to approach political writing like didactic poetry. DC’s speech writers – and I wonder who they were – seem to have taken parts of that cue. The language isn’t poetic (per se) but the structure is. The speech is roughly organised into stanzas or verse. It makes the speech more accessible. Unlike Shearer’s speeches which were organised sentence to sentence without any bridges.

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DC’s speech is a long way from being an Obama or even a Miliband. But it’s a level of sophistication unfamiliar to New Zealand politics. We’re conditioned to dry language, poor delivery and low expectations. Off the top of my head the last political leader to reject that was Lange. I’m hoping DC’s remarks represent a shift back to the language of Lange, Kirk and the other great orators of the Labour Party. Or even an emulation of the American style. Remarks are more interesting than speeches.


Post-script: the more common techniques are present too: foregrounding and backgrounding, alliteration and assonance, antithesis and so on. There are mixed metaphors too. Example: “map without a compass” and a couple of sentences later “off key and out of tune” (pun alert).


  1. Oh for crying out loud! The Nats and other haters, will pull the speech apart and crap them selves.
    I’m sorry but you pulling this speech apart was just crap!.
    Why oh why couldn’t you just have left it at “is the best New Zealand political speech I’ve read”. Or you could have run thru the good points or even the bad (If you can find one). But to use language from the political landscape of a country that worships the Dollar. To dismantle the speech in that way was disrespectful at least.
    Oh FYI I read and then listened twice to the speech and I gathered that he was speaking to ME and Everyone that was listening. And the only thing he said on my behalf was the bit about wanting all of us to help a Labour govt get to power in 2014.

    Deictic My Ass!

    • I’ve read a lot of strange comments on the internet, but this takes the prize for monumentally missing the point.

      • I didn’t miss your point but you missed mine which was, Why do people have to Americanise everything? Why couldn’t it have just been a good kiwi speech, with good kiwi values??
        Why does everything have to be compared to America, the last time I looked and listened, there were no Americans around. Only New Zealanders. But if thats missing the point so be it.

        • We did see a good Kiwi speech with good Kiwi values. But we also heard a speech that borrowed from the best parts of American political rhetoric. It’s called smart politics. Politicians emulate what works overseas. Are you saying that DC should have trotted out another dry, parochial and insular speech like John Key does?

  2. I read the words before watching the video and got some of the effects Morgan points out while not knowing the technical terms. I feel it is useful to have such an analysis, politics is an actual science after all.

    Knowing how and why things work is necessary if many on the left are to conquer the ‘mystery’ of John Keys counter intuitive appeal to aspirational working poor and middle classes for example.

  3. No Morgan, DC is attempting to mimic the ancient art of class rhetoric. Not Deictics. Dialectics.
    ‘We’ before it became unfashionable in narcissistic America (not Native, Black or Latin Americans mind you) refers to the class subject.
    The ‘we’ subverts bourgeois ideology which presents the class ‘we’ as the possessive individual ‘me’.
    The USA just happens to be the high tech production line of the ‘me’ against the ‘we’. Alien(n)ation.
    Go drill the rhetoric of working class street orators. [Jock Barnes speech in the Auckland Town Hall 1951.] Here lies a deep sea well to milk for a PhD on cunning linguistics.

    • “We” is the most common word in American political speeches. In Obama’s first inaugural address “we” was the most used word. It’s an echo of “we the people” from the Constitution and every American politician uses it.

      • Yeah but in US political parlance today the ‘we’ is gutted of any social solidarity. The ‘we the people’ always was a ruling class appropriation of national identity imposed on those who didnt rule to fool them into making peace and then going to war. Today its an even emptier appeal to ‘we the figment of the nation’ that provides the GPS coordinates for the drones.
        To suggest that Cunliffe is using ‘we’ in that sense, instead of a mimicking the class rhetoric in the tradition of the labour movement is silly unless you are really saying that Cunliffe is like Key an agent of the US ruling class.

    • “Here lies a deep sea well to milk for a PhD on cunning linguistics.”

      Maybe I just have a dirty mind, but I think I see what you did there ;-).

  4. Ha . Yes @ David H did miss the point . I really enjoyed the scholars dissection of the structure of a speech . It was fascinating to be truthful . I missed out on a tertiary education so I’m constantly having to live with daily surprises .
    Morgan Godfry is helping is to get to know the enemy and I truly appreciate that help as should we all .

    Remember ; jonky has wooed an entire country with cunningly delivered , trite gibberish . We’ve been anesthetized by trite gibberish via the media and we’re being swindled of our very existence by those architects of trite gibberish designed to lure us into debt then keep us there .
    Try to imagine a New Zealand without debt , without fear , without anxiety , without jonky and with a Prime Minister leading a government which goes out of it’s way to engage the public and invites participation ?

    If we don’t know the enemy and if we don’t understand the enemies battle strategies how are we going to make informed decisions ?

    Put simply . We can’t .

    Right now , we have a smug little cock who tells us that by not informing us of his plans ( Ie the TPPA . ) he’s doing his best by us . What a load of wank !

    It’s like a doctor telling you that he’s taking you to hospital and he’s going to remove something and he’s not saying what but don’t worry , you probably don’t need it and it’s probably going to be better for you while he’s thinking ” Excellent ! I’ll get a good price for that kidney . ” and you trust him because he’s a ‘ health professional ‘ rather than doing your own independent research .

    When it comes to politics and surgery , ignorance is not bliss .

  5. Geez Wayne, I hope we haven’t got ourselves an Obama. Obama uses the “we” of the conman, inviting the audience into a falsely promised future full of hope, change, and semi-civilised medical care. A few years later, “we the people” notice that we are not included, that “we” means Monsanto, Wall St, and the security apparatus, while we give thanks that a humane president can kill towelheads without putting our children’s boots on foreign soil.

    I hope the rule of 3 this time isn’t Douglas, Clark, Cunliffe. Two was more than enough already, but if he’s getting advice from the Democrats, I am more than a little worried.

  6. Speeches are one thing, and worthy of such analysis. More interesting to me however when looking at our pollies, is their language used in conversation (including when confronted by journalists and jonolists).
    My impression so far is that “I” and “Me” roll off Key with ease, whilst “us” and “we” from Cunliffe.
    Just so long as I don’t start hearing “The New Zealand people”, as we do with “The American People”, and more recently “The Australian People”.

  7. Another possibility presents itself. The constructions (dietetic expressions) had the ring of another tradition which David has either consciously or unconsciously borrowed from his formative upbringing – Bible and sermons in church. As a current practitioner, much of what he said and how he said it resonated with the sermons I preach. And kiwi sermons don’t really follow US patterns. Not as hot on the social justice themes as David Lange, but recognisable similarities and room and time to get there.

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