But today, Labor is bested not by a modern Pericles, but Scotty From Marketing — a shrewd and shameless ad man. How good is Australia?
The long ascent of pollsters and ad agencies, and the primacy of advisors versus mandarins, has helped estrange us from history, policy and articulacy. Curiously, in trying to automate the divination and leveraging of public opinion, it has estranged leaders from the public.
It’s also been ruinous to the speechwriter. There’s no shortage of potential speechwriting talent in this country, but there’s a shortage of interest in empowering them. Writing cannot be divorced from thought, but that’s what’s commonly demanded of the modern scribe. Freudenberg might’ve been respected as “the Bradman of speechwriting”, but for a long time now, most writers have been treated like the driver of the drinks cart.
History’s most memorable speeches are often defined by national crises, but in this grimly historic year, when an attentive audience has been assured, can you recall a defining speech? A national moment of instruction and comfort?
I can only think of our Prime Minister, on that pivotal Black Friday back in March, saying that things were getting rather serious and come Monday, large gatherings would be outlawed — but that right now he was off to the footy. It was memorable, if accidentally, but chimed nicely with Churchill’s insistence after the first bombs of the Blitz that he was off to catch the second half of Spurs-Watford.
Also memorable was Morrison’s “we are all Victorians”, a platitude that quickly curdled into a lie, when within days the PM did what no Victorian could do, which was to drink beer and wave a scarf at the footy (again). Let’s go, Sharks!
If you’re a speechwriter today, you would only confess the fact to a priest or the exceptionally tolerant, unless you wanted to be thought either illiterate or wicked. Only ineptitude or sadism could explain Gillard’s notorious “We are us” line, or Morrison’s tortured homilies. In popular esteem, the speechwriter must rank below the butcher, and just slightly above the producer of asbestos.
Recent history is unflattering. Rudd’s speech was often a jambalaya of technocratic jargon and implausible slang — his national apology a famous exception — while Gillard’s speech was distinguished by a radical lack of ambition. Her language was fatally tormented by caution, like a kid who kills their pet bug by placing it in a jam jar, and it’s no coincidence that her most memorable speech was unprepared. Here’s a salient lesson: Gillard’s misogyny address “wasn’t some thought-through strategy with a wonderfully chiselled speech … I got a blank piece of paper and just scribbled down words to help guide me”.
Perhaps the fact of Gillard’s being a woman was thought sufficiently provocative to Australia, and there was no need to further risk their wrath with her actual personality — described by staff as unusually winning. No, better to suffocate her wit beneath an avalanche of inanity. But who would now say it was worth it?
Churchill once wrote “of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory”, but he said this before Zuckerberg remade the world, and well before Trump’s surreal pathologies leased it.
There’s no fireside anymore. No common place around which we gather, ears cocked to the wireless. I might’ve thought that a good thing once, but now it’s the infinite fractiousness of social media, fuelled by our barbaric yawps and agent provocateurs.
But put social media and the modernisation of politics aside. Great speeches — ones that offer instruction, pleasure, persuasion or a sense of unity — are derived from a courageous and well-defined ambition. If you have none for our country, other than protecting the status quo and appealing to the most complacent, unimaginative and punitive, then the speeches will reflect that. You’ll get lumps of coal as props, elites who scorn elitism, and faux-blokiness that masquerades as morality. But these aren’t ordinary times, and a pretence to “ordinariness” won’t serve our future — and certainly not younger Aussies, whose prospects on most measures are declining.
Our speeches reflect our ambition, and nothing comes of nothing.
Martin McKenzie-Murray is a columnist and former Labor speechwriter. His novel, The Speechwriter, is out in February.
Sean Kelly is on leave.
Martin McKenzie-Murray is a regular contributor and a former Labor political speechwriter.