History is in the writing
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