STONE the crows! Julia Gillard is giving another big speech on Wednesday night. Rather than a door stop or collection of Q&A adlibs, it’s a dead-set oration, to The Sydney Institute, no less.
Smart woman Ms Gillard, (and a bit of respect please, could everybody stop addressing her as Julia?). A formal address is the best political pitch possible. It can set out a philosophy of government, it can establish a speaker’s credentials to lead, it can transform a political environment.
Abraham Lincoln’s debates with Stephen Douglas in the 1858 race for an Illinois senate seat and his February 1860 Cooper Union address in New York largely created his claim to the Republican presidential nomination. His Gettysburg Address transformed the way Americans understood then and understand now the nature of their republic.[i]
It is easy to underestimate the enduring authority of a speech.
As the Crows discovered when they flapped into Ottawa Illinois (don’t ask) last September, the number of people who actually heard what Lincoln and Douglas said on the afternoon of August 21 1858 wasn’t large. And their voices could not have carried far, over the noise of the town’s packed park. At Gettysburg nobody much grasped the implications of his argument, perhaps because the preceding speaker, orator Edward Everett, had banged on for two hours.[ii]
Speeches are also an excellent way to ruin a campaign, even a career. Nothing demonstrates that a politician stands for only their ambition better than an address that is badly constructed, poorly delivered and light on ideas
So when the Prime Minister speaks on Wednesday night, rusted on NSW Labor loyalists (both well, are you?) will have to hope she and her writers have had a read of Dennis Glover’s new guide to speech writing.[iii]
Glover, a Labor speechwriter of serious standing, applies the ancient rules of rhetoric to the craft of communicating policy and passion. As he puts it, “the role of the speechwriter is to make the complex simple, but without simplifying in the sense of dumbing it down.[iv]
As a critical anthology of addresses, Glover does not equal William Safire’s marvellous collection.[v] For a resource on rhetoric Gideon Burton’s Silva Rhetoricae remains the one to beat.[vi] But for anybody writing speeches, or wanting to learn how to, Glover is the guide.
It is easy to argue that speeches require too much effort and should be content light lest they get authors into strife. This is demonstrated by the appalling standard of most ministerial addresses, written by their departments (memo to public servants tasked with speech writing, dot points read out verbatim do not convince).
It is equally convenient to claim that in an age where slogans and sound bites are used to disguise an absence of ideas, the media does not know how to report a big speech. But ‘twas ever thus, demonstrated by Art Buchwald’s idea of how a White House press corps would have responded to the Gettysburg Address in a media debrief:
In talking about the government of the people, by the people and for the people, did the President have any particular group in mind? [vii]
And great speeches never need a lot of words, as Wills puts it, “economy had always been the ancient ideal.”[viii]
But good speeches are essential. The American political class understand that words matter as much as the numbers in public life, that the political starlet who sleeps with the writer is not stupid. In television’s The West Wing writers Toby Zeigler and Sam Seaborn are key characters because their work explains and, when Zeigler gets his way, extends their president’s agenda.
Zeigler is a core character, appearing in just about every episode of the seven part series. As he explains to Chief of Staff Leo McGarry:
You”re like the guys who say, “Are you telling me you could only find one African-American speech writer good enough to work at the White House?” I”m amazed I found that many. “Good enough to work at the White House” is a pretty small population to begin with. And guys who can write entire sections of a State of the Union? I”d be as surprised if there were as many as nine of us.’[ix]
But the oft advanced claim we have even fewer here does not get the PM, or any other politician off the hook, for delivering an ordinary address. For a start this country is not short of the policy knowledge and writing skills to argue a brief. Although Australia is a bit light on for words that changed the world, we have a heritage of political speeches which extends far beyond Paul Keating’s Redfern address, Ben Chifley’s “Light on the Hill” speech or Gough Whitlam’s 1972 campaign launch (which was more of a list of spending proposals than a social democratic manifesto). [x]
Perhaps the best statement of a political philosophy is Menzies’ “forgotten people” address, which transported him from the circle of hell home to failed prime ministers to the Lodge in just seven years. As Judith Brett puts it in her marvellous (psychoanalysing aside) study of the speech, “his transformation of the forgotten class of non-labour ideology into the forgotten people is a key move in shaping Australian post-war history.” [xi]
We have always had politicians who have spoken out for what they believed in, hopeful that a well-made argument can change society, albeit over time. While a political realist who made his support for White Australia explicit, protectionist senator Richard O’Connor still spoke out for the rights of indigenous Australians in 1902:
It would be a monstrous thing, an unheard Below are some examples of instances in which we may collect the first name and email address from kids on the trustedrxreviews.com s and require parental consent: (2) Use of Personally Identifiable Information Collected from Kids When we collect personally identifiable information from kids, we will only use that information for the express purpose for which it was collected. piece of savagery on our part, to treat the aboriginals, whose land we are occupying, in such a manner as to deprive them absolutely of any right to vote in their own country simply on the grounds of their colour, and because they were aboriginals. [xii]
Bert Kelly MP (Member for Wakefield 1958-77) spent his career speaking out against the fraud on the public, ie protectionism, long before just anybody else understood he was right:
The Scullin Government imposed an emergency tariff on almost every item in order to cure unemployment. But employment did not pick up until the economy picked up. Good employment figures cannot be obtained in a sick economy and the surest way to get a sick economy is to try to force the growth of one section at the expense of others, particularly at the expense of the exporting sections.[xiii]
It took quite a while, but ultimately both arguments were won – and it was their words, not their control of a caucus, not the cash they could pour into campaigns that did the job.
This does not mean the writing is all. Prime Minister Gillard delivered an excellent speech last month, which included an irresistible comparison between Gough Whitlam and Walt Whitman, but it did not have anywhere near the impact she might have hoped for. [xiv] Perhaps this was because the rhetoric and the politics addressed different issues and audiences. As The Australian’s Paul Kelly pointed out, her union-focused rhetoric of mateship and the fair-go is at odds with the claims she stands for improving productivity.[xv]
But the speech-writer’s craft includes creating texts that demonstrate to the boss where the inconsistent arguments and policy problems are.
Of course, it’s best if this happens when the drafts are being batted about, not when the address is delivered.
As Glover puts it, the speech writer’s job, “isn’t over when the first draft lands on the boss’s desk; its over only when the final draft appears with positive comment on the front page of the next day’s newspapers.” [xvi]
The Crows wish the PM – and her writers – luck.
[i] “The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit – as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as a way of correcting the Constitution itself without overthrowing it.” Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (Simon and Schuster, 1992) 147
[ii] Wills op cit 34
[iii] Dennis Glover, The Art of Great Speeches and Why We Remember Them (Cambridge University Press, 2010)
[iv] Glover, op cit 194
[v] William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears: great speeches in history (WW Norton, 2004)
[vii] Art Buchwald, “Getting the News is Always a Battle,” reprinted in Katharine Graham (ed), Katharine Graham’s Washington, (Alfred K Knopf, 2002) 671-672, 672
[viii] Wills, op cit 160
[x] both reprinted in Sally Warhaft (ed) Well May We Say: The Speeches That Made Australia (Black Inc., 2004) 351-356, 167-169, @ www.whitlam.org
[xi] Judith Brett, Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People (Macmillan, 1992) 26
[xii] Richard O’Connor, speech in the Senate, April 10 1902 (reprinted in) Rod Kemp and Marion Stanton (eds) Speaking for Australia: Parliamentary Speeches that Shaped our Nation (Allen and Unwin, 2004) 19-22
[xiii] Bert Kelly, speech in the House of Representatives, April 3 1962 (reprinted in) Kemp and Stanton op cit, 169-172
[xiv] “Speech to (sic) the Inaugural Whitlam Institute Gough Whitlam Oration, Sydney” March 31 2011, @ www.pm.gov.au/press-office/speech-inaugural-whitlam-institute-gough-whitlam-oration-sydney recovered on April 10
[xv] Paul Kelly, “Gillard caught in workplace trap,” The Australian, April 2
[xvi] Glover, op cit 233-234