This article examines the budget surplus debate that occurred during the Gillard minority government (2010-13) to broaden the range of linguistic phenomena that are typically scrutinised in relation to Australian political rhetoric. The budget debate reveals the persistent efforts of both major parties to compete for control of the normative force that derives from using what Skinner calls 'evaluative-descriptive terms'. In this case, 'responsible economic government' was the legitimating principle, yet use of this term became entwined with the issue of trustworthiness. Delivering a budget surplus by 2012-13 was converted from a judgement regarding prudent macro-management into an election promise. Thus, Labor surrendered rhetorical control of a flexible legitimating principle for an immobile test of morality, to its political misfortune.