His­tory is in the writ­ing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Rear View -

THE night of his elec­tion, Barack Obama de­liv­ered what might be the great po­lit­i­cal speech of our era. ‘‘ If there is any­one out there who doubts that Amer­ica is a place where all things are pos­si­ble; who still won­ders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time; who still ques­tions the power of our democ­racy, tonight is your an­swer,’’ Obama be­gan.

And his in­au­gu­ral ad­dress was shaped by the ideals of his three great pre­de­ces­sors: Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton, Abra­ham Lin­coln and Franklin De­lano Roo­sevelt.

To con­trast Obama’s ora­tory with Kevin Rudd’s two key set-piece speeches is al­most un­kind. The first African Amer­i­can in the White House is a big­ger deal than the first grad­u­ate of Nam­bour High in the Lodge. And the Prime Min­is­ter’s elec­tion night ad­dress ex­pressed all the ap­pro­pri­ate sen­ti­ments.

But there was noth­ing in the writ­ing of an ad­dress mark­ing the end of an era that sang ‘‘ We’re ready for hard work, we’re ready for the long haul. You can have a strong cup of tea if you want in the mean­time. Even an Iced Vo Vo on the way through. But the cel­e­bra­tion should stop there. We have a job of work to do. It’s time, friends, for us, to­gether as a na­tion, to bind to­gether to write this new page in our great na­tion’s his­tory.’’

Sim­i­larly in his Apol­ogy to the Stolen Gen­er­a­tions speech Rudd said ev­ery­thing that was ex­pected of him. But it was the emo­tion of the event, not the power of the ideas or their ex­pres­sion that made the speech a suc­cess.

It is easy to as­sume this re­flects a lim­i­ta­tion in mod­ern Aus­tralia, that we have no ear for the po­etry of pol­i­tics that speeches are. But the truth is we never have had it.

Dip­ping into re­cent col­lec­tions of Aus­tralian speeches edited by Sally Warhaft and Rod Kemp and Mar­ion Stan­ton demon­strates how we have al­ways been less in­ter­ested in ex­pres­sions of ideals than short state­ments on what the speaker in­tends to do about the is­sues of the hour.

Pub­lic ser­vants use a stan­dard tem­plate for drafts they send to the min­is­ter’s of­fice to en­sure speeches are risk free. It con­sists of a state­ment of how much money the Gov­ern­ment is spending on what­ever the sub­ject of the speech is, fol­lowed by a state­ment that ev­ery­thing is un­der con­trol thanks to the dili­gence of the of­fi­cials in­volved and a con­clu­sion that prom­ises ev­ery­body will keep their eyes open for any emerg­ing is­sue that re­quires more money.

Some­times the min­is­ter’s of­fice trans­lates this bu­reau­cratic back-cov­er­ing into English, but you can tell when they haven’t: the speech sounds rather like a list of dot points, which it prob­a­bly is, the dot point be­ing the Can­ber­ran’s na­tive form of ex­pres­sion.

There is not a great deal to be done about this but it di­min­ishes the prac­tice of pol­i­tics. Great po­lit­i­cal speeches can shape an iden­tity and de­fine a ca­reer in a way that no 30-sec­ond sound bite or tele­vi­sion in­ter­view ever can. It’s why most politi­cians never at­tempt a speech that trans­forms a de­bate, nails their moral colours to the mast of prin­ci­ple or says what is in their hearts. It is sim­ply too danger­ous and dif­fi­cult.

And in Aus­tralia it was ever thus. In 1902 gov­ern­ment Se­nate leader Richard O’Con­nor ad­vo­cated en­fran­chis­ing Abo­rig­ines, say­ing ‘‘ it would be a mon­strous thing, an un­heard piece of sav­agery on our part, to treat the Abo­rig­i­nals, whose land we were oc­cu­py­ing, in such a man­ner as to de­prive them ab­so­lutely of any right to vote in their own coun­try’’. It was 60 years be­fore enough peo­ple agreed with him. O’Con­nor did not last long in fed­eral pol­i­tics. He soon went to the bar.

In 1965 Labour leader Arthur Cal­well de­nounced the Men­zies gov­ern­ment for com­mit­ting troops to Viet­nam. Worked on by Gra­ham Freuden­berg, who is, with Don Wat­son, the only Aus­tralian speech writer with any­thing ap­proach­ing a na­tional rep­u­ta­tion, it was an ad­dress that put prin­ci­ple above pol­i­tics and it led in large part to the party’s decisive de­feat in the elec­tion the fol­low­ing year. Cal­well knew the risk he was run­ning: ‘‘ When the drums beat and the trum­pets sound, the voice of rea­son and right can be heard in the land only with dif­fi­culty. I of­fer you the prob­a­bil­ity that you will be tra­duced, that your mo­tives will be mis­rep­re­sented, that your courage will be called into ques­tion.’’

And last year then Coali­tion leader Bren­dan Nel­son sup­ported Rudd’s apol­ogy to the Stolen Gen­er­a­tion while warn­ing that gen­er­alised ac­cu­sa­tions of uni­ver­sal wrong de­nied the achieve­ments of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of nonindige­nous Aus­tralians and did noth­ing to ad­dress prob­lems in the present.

‘‘ In of­fer­ing this apol­ogy, let us not cre­ate one in­jus­tice in our at­tempt to ad­dress an­other. Let no one for­get that they sent their sons to war, shap­ing our iden­tity and place in the world. One hun­dred thou­sand in two wars alone gave their lives in our name and our uni­form, ly­ing for­ever in dis­tant lands; si­lent wit­nesses to the fu­ture they have given us. Abo­rig­i­nal and non-Abo­rig­i­nal Aus­tralians lie along­side one an­other.’’

It was a well-writ­ten speech with a morally de­fen­si­ble ar­gu­ment, one that un­doubt­edly ap­pealed to many Aus­tralians, but it was de­liv­ered at the wrong time and in the wrong place. In the way it demon­strated Nel­son’s po­lit­i­cal tin ear, it un­doubt­edly ac­cel­er­ated his demise.

And yet it is pos­si­ble to write an ad­dress that can change the course of pol­i­tics and not de­stroy the speaker’s ca­reer. Don Wat­son did it with his 1995 Red­fern speech for Paul Keat­ing, which ac­cepted re­spon­si­bil­ity for the catas­tro­phe for in­dige­nous cul­tures brought about by Euro­pean set­tle­ment.

It was a speech that tran­scended the end­less ar­gu­ments, the in­cre­men­tal ad­vances, the bru­tal fact that demo­cratic pol­i­tics is about only do­ing as much of what is right as ev­ery­body in­volved will agree to. It was a speech that met Wat­son’s def­i­ni­tion of the craft of the prime min­is­ter’s speech writer, to give the boss a text in which ‘‘ words can defy his­tory, cul­ture and rea­son and per­suade us that we are, to coin a phrase, one na­tion’’.

A good speech shines a light on the speaker’s soul and il­lu­mi­nates his or her ideals. Speeches are where poli­cies are an­nounced, but more im­por­tantly, where ideas are ham­mered out.

As Rea­gan’s speech­writer Peggy Noo­nan de­scribed her work, ‘‘ speech­writ­ing was where the ad­min­is­tra­tion got in­vented ev­ery day’’.

The job of the speech writer is to ex­press the boss’s ideas in a way that de­fines his or her prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion and moral worth. And they never, ever write in dot points.

match­etts@ theaus­tralian. com. au

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jon Kudelka

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