Interview: Public Defender
Legal: Craig's Story
Unions: Wrong Way, Go Back
Politics: Queue Jumping
History: Iron Heel
Economics: Waging War
International: Under Pressure
Poetry: Billy Negotiates An AWA
Review: A Pertinent Proposition
The Locker Room
Truth in Advertising
What a Woman!
It's Not Pretty
Men and Women of Australia
A decade and a half ago, Paul Keating made a telling comment on the treatment of speeches in modern politics. 'If Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address in 1992', he said,'the chances are the journalists wouldn't report the speech but the "doorstop" that followed it. And the first question they'd ask is,"How come you're talking about democracy and freedom when there's a war going on?" And there'd be learned articles at the weekend about whether it had been a lapse of political judgement for Mr Lincoln to deliver the Gettysburg Address in Gettys-burg instead of Philadelphia.'
Keating was right.The speech is losing the daily contest for media attention with the doorstop, the media grab and the press release.And yet it endures. The general level of background noise in politics has increased, but the single note of a good speech, well delivered, can still penetrate it.Why? Because there is no better way to deploy your argu-ments and develop your themes - and tell your story.There is no better way to convict a criminal, or defend an innocent, or prosecute a cause, or toast your gran's birthday, than with a speech. Every corporate meeting these days, it seems, features a PowerPoint presentation.Well, a PowerPoint slide never changed anyone's life, except maybe for the worse. Speeches change people's lives.
Speeches matter - in Australia no less than in any other country. Of course, our speeches are different from American or British ones. We don't go for the highfalutin kind. Being a laconic and rather vernacular people - 'taciturn rather than talkative',as Russel Ward put it - we have never been overly disposed to the big melodramatic set-piecer. Our speeches are leaner than most, and more direct. At their best, they are more honest.
At their worst, though, Australian speeches are as bad as any. Plant yourself in the public gallery of any of our parliaments on a typical sitting day and you will hear more chinless rhetoric than you can bear. People are always complaining about the poverty of our oratory: it's time we got organised.We need a speech lobby. If the interests of citrus farmers and accountants and pedestrians can be represented by well-funded pressure groups operating out of Canberra's parliamentary triangle, then why not the interests of audiences? We need to demon-strate to our elected representatives that there is a constituency for speeches - that there is electoral advantage to be had from decent speeches, and a price to be paid for hopeless ones.
Perhaps establishing a lobby group is too ambitious - and it might well take the fun out of the enterprise. We can make a modest start, though, by collecting Australian speeches of courage and humour, and reading them, and passing them on to others.'Men and Women of Australia!' comprises our greatest speeches of the modern era, from Federation in 1901 to the present. Each one is a time capsule - a window onto a debate or issue from our history. I hope that people are prompted to read around the speeches and learn more about the events which inspired them.Taken together, the speeches reveal rich themes and recurring features in the layers of Australian history, like a vertical cut in the earth. But they cannot tell the whole Australian story. A number of the important moments in our national development were free of notable speechifying. Some of our best and bravest public figures were doers, not talkers.
Furthermore, even if it were possible to record the entire course of Australian history through speeches, it would not make for the liveliest read.Weighty speeches delivered on big days are usually pretentious and overcooked. Often they are burdened with ambitions beyond the speech's capacity - like transporting an elephant on top of a Mini.The occasion, in other words, can overpower the speech. For this project, I was not so interested in speeches as historical texts: I was interested in speeches as speeches. Speeches that sing, speeches that engage the heart and the head, speeches you'd actually want to read aloud to your kids or your parents or your class or, in extremis, your cat. Historical salience was a factor in the choice of speeches - but readability was a bigger factor.
What appeals to me, as a speechmaker and speechwriter? Rhythm, colour, style and delivery: like iron lacework on a Paddington terrace, all these things attract an observer's attention and please the senses. Structure and logic to hold the edifice together: a speech is not a string of ten dollar words, but an argument. Above all, though, ideas. Every great speech has a big idea at its heart. If you don't have original ideas, you can't give an interesting speech.
The speeches in this collection have ideas in abundance, as well as wit and intelligence and spirit.All are good enough to survive the process of transcription, which can anaesthetise the most stirring performances. It is a diverse assembly: acceptance speeches and concession speeches; introductory remarks and concluding remarks;formal lectures and parlia-mentary sprays; memorials and launches and roasts and toasts; speeches delivered to US congressmen on Capitol Hill, to British grandees in St Paul's Cathedral, and to young people sitting on Coogee Oval. Australians cannot claim ownership of Demosthenes' exhortations to the Assembly or Abraham Lincoln's remarks at Gettysburg or Ronald Reagan's cry at the Berlin Wall. But we have our own ringing words, words of which we can be proud: Robert Menzies at the burial of Winston Churchill;Frank Bethune on holding the position;Paul Keating at the interment of the Unknown Australian Soldier; Richie Benaud on Donald Bradman; Vida Goldstein on the rights of women; Robert Hughes on an Australian head of state; and many more.
The book also contains some speeches which, though not delivered by Australians, nevertheless warrant inclusion in a collection such as this: Douglas MacArthur on the battle for Australia; John Paul II on Aboriginal civilisation; Bill Clinton on our ethnic diversity. Others were delivered by Australians abroad: to the D‡il ƒireann in Dublin and Royal Albert Hall in London; in a church in Interlaken, Switzerland; aboard a troopship on the Mediterranean Sea; on a battlefield of the Western Front; at the Dawn Service at Gallipoli. Regardless of the speaker and the venue, all have something to say about Australia. The speeches have been edited for length and are arranged according to theme:Australian history and culture;politics;causes worth fighting for; human rights; Australians at war; monarchy and republic; and remembrance.
No doubt criticisms can be made of the selection: that there are too many Labor speeches, or too few; that it privileges the republican debate,or federal politics,or our martial past.A panel of historians and bureaucrats charged with the same task might not have come up with the same list - I certainly hope they wouldn't have.This is a personal selection and, I trust, stronger for that fact.
So much for speechmakers - what about speechwriters? These days they are increasingly common. In relation to political speeches, they are probably essential, if only because modern politicos don't have the time to draft the huge quantity of product demanded by the media machine. Leaders who do not use speechwriters are disadvantaged in the long run. So are those who use too many speechwriters. Writing by committee is no more sensible than painting by committee, and equally unlikely to produce a masterpiece.
The speechwriter's code of silence requires that a discreet veil be drawn over the speechwriting process. Like the mafioso's omerta, this approach has much to recommend it from an organisational point of view, even though it makes for poor media copy. It is extremely tricky to disentangle the origins of a thought or a sentence, and often it is better not to try. In any case, the same person who receives the boos after a bad speech deserves to take the bows after a good one. As my former colleague Don Watson has written, 'ownership resides in the speaker'. Accordingly, the introductions to the speeches in this collec-tion describe the context of the remarks but not the drafting of them. I take my lead in this matter from John F. Kennedy's speechwriter and so-called 'intellectual blood bank', Ted Sorenson. In a masterclass on speechwriting conducted a few years ago in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sorenson was asked who had actually written the central sentence from Kennedy's inaugural address: 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.' Was it JFK's line, or his speechwriter's? Sorensen's reply was magnificent:'Ask not!'
Every time someone walks to a lectern, looks out into an audience, and begins to speak, they are taking a stand - and taking a risk.They deserve to be listened to and, when they say something worth noting, their words should be recorded. It is important that our kids grow up knowing that great speeches are not only delivered in a Churchillian growl or a Kennedyesque brogue, but in an Australian drawl as well. 'Men and Women of Australia!' aims to thicken that knowledge.
'Men and Women of Australia' is published by Random House
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