Political pygmies could learn from giants of the past
Most Australians couldn’t give two hoots who runs the Australia Network. It is of no importance to them whether the ABC or SKY News is in charge of the television service this country projects into Asia.
Just the same, the spectacular botching of the tender process during the week has a political impact because it reinforces the impression of government incompetence.
The response of many voters to the scandal will be: “See, I told you. This mob couldn’t raffle a chook in a pub.”
It is hardly a great way for Julia Gillard and her team to end a political year that they want to be remembered for its legislative achievements.
There was also a significant development on the Coalition side - what amounted to an admission by Tony Abbott that his Abominable No-man approach has reached its use-by date.
Commenting on an opinion poll that showed another drop in his personal ratings, Abbott said that presenting a strong and credible alternative - that is, accentuating the positive “is going to be a very important focus as we go into the new year”.
His relieved followers will strive to hold him to the pledge in 2012, while the Government will be praying that old Abbott habits die hard.
As the political year wound down, though, the incident that interested me most was Gillard’s keynote speech to last weekend’s ALP national conference.
That’s the notorious “we are us” speech that I dismissed at the time as “pedestrian in its message, chocker with clichés, and containing some of the clumsiest rhetorical flourishes you’ll ever hear”.
It has raised questions among politicians, staffers and observers about the relevance of speeches in modern-day politics.
In an era when politicians get their messages across to voters primarily via brief sound-bites on television, aren’t speeches outmoded?
With the 24-hour news cycle shortening the attention span of the media and of voters, does it matter any more that the prime minister gives a woeful speech?
Well,yes, it does matter. Those who regard political speeches as anachronisms are misguided. I’ll let Peggy Noonan and Don Watson explain why.
Watson, of course, is a gifted wordsmith who was Paul Keating’s speechwriter. Noonan, author and commentator, penned speeches for US presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
In his book Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, Watson acknowledged the importance in modern political communication of “short grabs and appropriate gestures for the cameras, press releases, leaks, backgrounding and disingenuous conversations with the public”.
But he went on to say: “The speech retains its ritual function. It remains the principal means of flesh-to-flesh contact between the politician and the people; it is the best means of framing the philosophical dimensions of a policy and often it provides an opportunity to set a new direction, create a new story, nail an opponent or massage one’s way out of a predicament.
“A speech is a gesture towards order and respectability in a world which prizes spontaneity and tends towards chaos.”
Google Noonan and you find her describing a political speech as “part theatre and part political declaration; it is a personal communication between a leader and his (or her) people”.
Speeches, she says, “have been not only the way we measure public men, they have been how we tell each other who we are”.
Also according to Noonan, speeches shape what happens. She writes that, in the Reagan White House, speech-writing was “where the philosophical, ideological and political tensions of the administration got worked out”.
It is instructive to look at Gillard in the light of what Watson and Noonan say about speech-making.
With Labor Party support stuck disastrously at around 30 per cent, the PM certainly needs to set a new direction, create a new story, and nail the coalition. She blew the opportunity at Labor’s conference.
Gillard’s speeches - not just this one - invite the conclusion that she lacks the ability, or perhaps the interest, to frame policy in a philosophical context.
If a serious speechwriting process can help shape policy and work out tensions, the government needs it desperately.
And if speeches are the way we measure public figures, Gillard will truly be judged a pygmy. Abbott,too, given the way he stoops to pettiness on what should be great occasions.
Words and politics have always gone together. Good speeches still resonate.
A book published a couple of years ago called Great Speeches - Words That Made History includes Kevin Rudd’s “Sorry Day” speech. Some Rudd speeches were verbal sludge, but this one is not out of place.
Keating’s speech marking the Year of Indigenous People at Redfern in December 1992 is regarded as one of the best ever delivered by an Australian politician.
It is so good that he and Watson are involved in a long-running spat over its authorship.
No-one is likely to compete with Gillard for blame over the conference speech.
It should be said, though, that while she might have achieved only banality the speech showed signs of someone straining to reach rhetorical heights.
One commentator even suggested a failed attempt to copy the style of the legendary Graham Freudenberg, who wrote speeches for Arthur Calwell, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, and Neville Wran.
In her book, Simply Speaking, Noonan warns budding speech-writers and speech-makers against trying to imitate the greats, lest they end up sounding like the Mayor of Springfield on The Simpsons.
“Let the word go fawth in this time and place that the tawch has been passed to a new generation of, uh, snow plowers”.
The Noonan book contains great advice on writing speeches. Maybe someone should give it to Gillard for Christmas.
Laurie Oakes is political editor for the Nine Network. His column appears every Saturday in News Ltd papers.
Treasurer Wayne Swan copped some criticism for taking a hard line against the big four banks over their reluctance to follow the Reserve Bank and cut interest rates by 0.25 per cent.
Behind the scenes the banks were claiming they couldn’t afford it because of high borrowing costs.
Shadow Treasurer Joe Hockey, on an overseas trip, weighed in from Washington on the side of the banks.
“I don’t think it is acceptable that the government just keeps on berating them without finding out whether the banks actually do have a funding problem,” he said.
Asked if Australians should regard concern about the European debt crisis as a legitimate excuse for the banks, Hockey replied: “Yes,I do.”
Meanwhile, Hockey’s leader, Tony Abbott, was leaving him in the lurch and climbing aboard the Swan bandwagon.
Journalist: The rates - banks should pass these on in full, shouldn’t they?
Abbott: “Well, I think the short answer is yes, they should.”
On Thursday, in the face of great public and media pressure backing up Swan’s comments, the banks stopped crying poormouth and caved in.
Home-buyers, in particular, were grateful. Hockey should perhaps consider himself lucky he is out of the country
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