Men and Women of Australia: The Decline of Great Speech Making
The first time I voted in an election was 1974. Gough Whitlam was about to be re-elected just 18 months after his historic 1972 victory. Like most of my friends, I was keen to see Labor returned and was caught up in a suitably watered down Australian version of a personality cult as we pulled behind the Whitlam Government. When I heard that he was going to address a midweek evening rally on Brisbane's north side, I had no hesitation in heading off to see the helmsman speak.
On the appointed night my sister, her husband, my girlfriend and I piled into my extremely unreliable car, a 1961 Triumph Herald which I had bought for $200 earned from mowing lawns during a particularly hot and wet Queensland summer. Our destination was a huge hotel in the seat of Petrie where we would enjoy a night of speech making. Getting to the venue - a tavern with seating for what felt like thousands - was half the fun. My car had suicidal tendencies and before I finally got rid of it later that year, one of the front wheels had twice fallen off while I was driving it. That night we managed to get to the hotel without any problems and on our arrival at about 7pm the proceedings were about to kick off.
Since the place was full, we were allowed to sit in the aisle right at the front, close to the stage. What followed was a seemingly endless line-up of speakers before we were to be treated to the great man's oratory. My recollection of the list of speakers on that night is imperfect, but it did make a lasting impression.
The politicians were all there on the stage lined up like a team of footballers ready to take to the field. Gough and Margaret Whitlam sat at their centre and waited to be introduced. The master of ceremonies, National President of the Labor Party Tom Burns, warmed up the audience.
What followed was an ascending hierarchy of orators starting with the State Opposition Leader, Jack Houston who was followed by the Lord Mayor, Clem Jones, who eventually passed the baton on to the Labor candidate for Petrie, Denis Murphy, an historian who demonstrated his deep knowledge of Queensland political history in a thirty minute oration. I seem to recall Queensland's leading Labor politician, Bill Hayden, also being among the speakers before the Prime Minister was finally introduced. By then we had listened to and applauded our way through at least two and a half hours of speeches in a smoke filled hall without the benefit of air conditioning.
When the great man rose to speak we were more than happy to listen to him for as long as he was willing to stand and deliver his case for a second term. It was well after 10pm by the time we finally left the venue and took the precarious drive back home. The following evening he probably repeated the exercise in Sydney or Melbourne with another line of dignitaries warming up the audience for several hours.
The remarkable thing about that evening is that none of us were put off by the conga line of politicians who preceded Whitlam to the lectern. This was how politics was practised in an era when arguments lasted for more than 140 characters and our attention could be held for longer than the next text message.
Graham Freudenberg, the legendary speechwriter for federal Labor leaders Calwell, Whitlam and Hawke once told me that when he worked for Arthur Calwell in the mid-1960s these sort of evenings of oratory, debate, interjection (and the occasional ejection) would go on for days. The campaign would start in say, Wodonga, and move through Victoria's regional centres like a travelling circus. In those days there would even be an intermission to allow the audience to revive and relieve themselves.
Today we don't even bother with rallies except for the official campaign launch and that is always a carefully managed invitation only affair - heaven forbid someone might interject. The reason for this change in campaigning style is that it is easier to impart information and rally support using Facebook, Twitter, television advertising and talkback radio. And when our leaders give speeches they are generally crafted to allow the seven second "grab" for the evening news bulletins. I am not deploring the use of the internet to disseminate arguments and information - far from it - but I do think we are losing the art of good speech writing and speech making as our collective attention span continues to shorten. Perhaps disappearance of the rousing speech has something to do with the inability of our current crop of political leaders to inspire and enthuse Australian voters.
Of course, there are notable exceptions to this rule - Kevin Rudd's apology to the stolen generation and Julia Gillard's "misogyny" speech were excellent, well-crafted statements which captured the attention and imagination of the nation. This Wednesday, February 13th, marks the fifth anniversary of Rudd's apology. The attention that this heartfelt and poetic oration received is proof that there is still an appetite for speeches which resonate with the electorate.
Interestingly, political rallies and exciting speeches are still alive and well in the United States where their politicians - particularly President Obama - are not ashamed to inject passion and lofty rhetoric into their attempts to mobilise supporters into voting for them on election day. Maybe the fact that we have compulsory voting, which does not require motivating your supporters to actually turn up to vote, is partly to blame for the dearth of this type of campaigning in Australia.
I recall watching a fiery campaign speech by the then Greek Opposition Leader, George Papandreou during his election campaign in 2009. He addressed a rally of more than 100,000 PASOK supporters and after he had finished speaking shook hands with supporters before returning to the dais to give an encore speech.
I hope that the decline of the well-constructed, convincing speech in Australia is only a temporary aberration. I don't pine for the days when there were four or five warm up speakers, but I do think our national attention span can do with some stress testing. Of course, that means our leaders will have to work even harder to say things worth heeding.
I’m interested to hear from anyone who has a view about great political speeches.
Watch and listen to some of the speeches mentioned above:
Rudd’s apology speech
Obama’s 2008 victory speech
Whitlam’s Blacktown Speech in 1972