When PMs Open Their Mouths

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has a myriad of ways in which he can respond to invitations to events. He can reject the invitations, send a letter or he can attend, but not give a speech. But clearly the most meaningful way in which he can choose to respond, at least from the organizers' point of view, is to show up and give an address, a feat that promises to attract media coverage to the event.

It was with this in mind that the Progress in Democracy organization, a relatively new group set up to fight growing ties between governance and financial elites, decided to compile an annual report on the prime minister's speeches. "It's difficult not to note," the report reads, "how prime ministers are reluctant to give speeches at social-oriented events. The war on poverty, family violence, youth at risk, civil rights, disenfranchisement of minority groups and other issues - these, prime ministers tend not to think of as being worthy of their presence." According to the report, most speeches are on either financial or security issues.

The first of Progress in Democracy's reports covers speeches made by prime ministers between 2001 and 2007, during the terms of Ariel Sharon and Olmert. Information about the prime minister's speeches is easily accessible through the Web site of the Prime Minister's Office. According to the data, prime ministers give an average of 72 speeches a year. Olmert made 97 speeches in 2006, a peak year in terms of addresses.

The director of Progress in Democracy, Shabi Getenio, who drew up the report, says there are over 30 fixed dates or events each year for which premiers feel it is incumbent on them to deliver a speech. Other events that require speeches musts are wars, terror attacks and visits abroad.

Sharon frequently gave speeches at military ceremonies as well as at commemorative events. Olmert, on the other hand, usually talks at financial gatherings or meetings of and local governments. Getenio says Olmert's proclivity is part of his strategy to strengthen the grassroots following of his relatively young party, Kadima. The party has only existed since late 2005, when Sharon broke away from Likud because of the continued hostility of many of its members over Israel's withdrawal from Gaza earlier that year. Olmert's penchant for addressing financial events, says Getenio, stems from his interest in forging strong ties with market movers and shakers. But sharing words at events concerned with social issues is very rare, the report claims.

A special chapter covers the prime ministers' custom of give policy addresses to the annual Herzliya and Caesarea conferences, on strategic and economic issues, respectively. "Prime ministers don't balance their attendance at the Caesarea conference with appearances at those with differing economic perspectives," the report argues. "A private-sector group has turned itself into the pulpit from which the country's financial strategy is announced."