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Death of the speech

Sep 24, 2019 • 17m25s

Don Watson on the end of speech making in politics, and how the loss of narrative undermines bold policy.

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Death of the speech

86 • Sep 24, 2019

Death of the speech

[Theme music starts]

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. This is 7am.

ELIZABETH:

The death of Graham Freudenberg marks the end of a chapter in Australian speech writing. It happens at a time when speech making has all but left politics.
Don Watson on how the loss of big narratives could mean the end of big policy ideas.

[Theme music ends]

[Music starts]

Archival tape — Unidentified male newsreader:

“Well Laurie Oakes calls him the greatest speech writer this country has produced. For nearly half a century, Graham Frydenberg who's written speeches for Labor leaders, state and federal.”

Archival tape — Unidentified male 1:

“..for an all star cast of politicians including Arthur Calwell and Bob Hawke and Gough Whitlam, Neville Wran, Bob Carr and many others. He died on Friday at age 85..”

Archival tape — Unidentified male 2:

“He spoke to us in so many voices but in each of them he spoke with clarity and power. He moved us, he persuaded us in a world where so many words barely outlast the moment in which they are spoken; he made us remember...”

ELIZABETH:

Don when did you first meet Graham Freudenberg?

[Music end]

DON:

That is a good question. I had not met him when I went to work for Keating but he was a sort of legend already. And he'd been in the office with Hawky, you see. And as Paul used to say, I can still smell Hawky cigars in this office. I suppose I could still smell Graham's cigarettes because you were allowed to smoke in Parliament House up until about a year before Keating moved in. So I felt like I'd made him and I mean people never said a bad word about Graham and they an awful lot of good ones.

ELIZABETH:

Don Watson was Paul Keating’s speech writer. He wrote about Graham Freudenberg in the latest issues of The Monthly.

DON:

I'd been aware of him since 1972 with the election of the Whitlam government. Anyone who followed Labor politics, a lot of people who followed politics in general knew of Graham Freudenberg. I think he was a slightly enigmatic person, he was a very private person. And fantastically loyal to the Labor Party. It was in his bones. He was its poet really. I don't think he ever wanted to be the conscience of the Labor Party, I don't think he ever wanted to get along way ahead of the Labor Party; I think he wanted to articulate through the power of words what the Labor Party ought to be. In a way, what a speechwriter often does is put words in the mouths of political leaders who were too busy to think of them.

ELIZABETH:

What made a Freudenberg speech?

DON:

I think what distinguished Freudenberg speeches always was a sort of elegance. Everything but a tin ear, which politicians very often have, strangely enough. An ability to read or anticipate an audience. Now the other thing I suppose with Graham is that he always had a history to fall back on so he could create a narrative and his speeches generally had that kind of narrative. I don't know who his great influences were but I think probably he would be closer to Lincoln than anybody else.

Archival tape — Graham Freudenberg:

“I’ve borrowed from the whole range of literature, from the bible to Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, Churchill, Menzies, numerous politicians. The language grows by what other great writers have done previously.”

DON:

We were on the stage together once in this in the New South Wales State Library to talk about speech writing. And I got up and said this is what I think a speechwriter does. And I spoke for about five minutes about how, you know, you take a briefing and all this sort of stuff. And Graham got up and it was a very gentle but effective put down, he said ‘Well that's very interesting but all I was trying to do is get Labor elected’. Point taken. In a speech all you’ve got is the words and umm, I think he believed in words.

ELIZABETH:

Freudenberg said the most important speeches he wrote were the ones for Arthur Calwell —then Labor leader —against the war in Vietnam. Tell me about them.

DON:

I know it was a big call by Calwell because I mean it would have been easier to say no, we also are with LBJ, we're also with him with the Americans in this as we are in and everything. For once, they didn't take that line. And this is deep in the Cold War, what always happens with wars. It's very hard to oppose them without being accused of disloyalty to your own country.

Archival tape — Unidentified male newsreader:

“Next February, the first of our university graduates will be sent to Vietnam. Young doctors, engineers, teachers, agricultural graduates and scientists. But they won’t be used to heal and to teach and to give South Vietnam the benefit of their skills. They will be used to search out and kill the enemy. They will be destroying, not building. They will be….”

DON:

So it was a massive call to do this and it wouldn't have been Graham who made that decision. But it says something for his powers that he said it in a way that no one afterwards surpassed.

ELIZABETH:

Would you read a little section of it?

DON:

Yeah well this is Calwell, in the House and he's really addressing the rank and file. He's addressing the Labor Party here:

“I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, that your motives will be misrepresented, that your patriotism will be impugned, that your courage will be called into question. But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated. The generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless government wilfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labor Party was heard strong and clear on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity and in the interests of Australian security.”

ELIZABETH:

What makes that so special?

DON:

In some ways, it gave Labor a spine.

What's interesting about it is not in any way utopian, it's not actually trying to say, you know do, this and we will have the moral high ground forever. He's not actually attacking very vigorously the government which has led us into this war. He's really simply saying, this is a mistake. He's not saying you're wicked, wicked people. He's saying you're mistaken people and we're going to pay for this. Which indeed we did.

ELIZABETH:

And then there's the famous, It's Time speech from Whitlam in ‘72.

Archival tape — Gough Whitlam:

“There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time.” < CROWD APPLAUSES LOUDLY>

DON:

I credit Freudberg's words and Whitlam's persona with making me realise that the Labor Party did have the power to excite you to a new view of Australia and the world.

Archival tape — Gough Whitlam:

“It's time for a new team, a new program, a new drive for equality of opportunity. It's time to create new opportunities for Australians. Time for a new vision of what we can achieve in this generation for our nation and for the region in which we live. It's time for a new government.” [CROWD APPLAUSES LOUDLY]

DON:

What that speech does is take the idea of the great social democratic narrative, the possibility of Australia, setting Australia alight as it were. For those of us who were, you know, open to the suggestion was thrilling.

ELIZABETH:

In your mind, what was the last time an Australian politician of any stripe gave a speech of consequence?

DON:

I think there were probably many good speeches given over the last 20 years, but the only one we remember is Kevin Rudd, and the Sorry speech.

Archival tape — Kevin Rudd:

“The time has now come for the Nation to turn a new page. A new page in Australia's history by righting the wrongs of the past and so moving forward with confidence to the future. We apologise for the laws and policies…”

DON:

And that, good speech that is was, I’ve no doubt there were speeches as good as that written in over the last two decades. It's just that they're not reported anymore.

[Music starts]

It's a bit like second reading speeches in the parliament which used to be the place where the better speakers could rise to the occasion and deliver a fine speech that may get reported in the newspaper. They no longer do. Because no one’s around to report them. So the whole province of speech making is much shrunk. The art I don't think is declined with the willingness of people to listen has declined.

ELIZABETH:

We'll be right back.

[Music ends]

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ELIZABETH:

Don, the last major speech made by a Labor leader was Bill Shorten's campaign launch in Brisbane in May this year. Did you watch that live? And if so what did you say as you were watching?

DON:

I watched it on the telly. Mmmm.

Archival tape — Bill Shorten:

“My fellow Australians. [CROWD CHEERS] At this election. You have the power to change our country for the better.”

DON:

I had two feelings watching: one feeling was, good on you Bill, you know, for being brave and, this policy stuff is good.

Archival tape — Bill Shorten:

"...a pay rise for wage earners, help with the cost of living for families including cheaper child care and at long last: dental care for pensioners covered by our Medicare. [CROWD CHEERS]"

DON:

The other feeling was the loneliness. I mean I think that watching Bill’s speech was watching, was not a failed speech but the death of these speech which is a sort of been a long continuous process over the last 20 years. You know the geniuses in the office would generally say, you know, go away and wordsmith that, you know, ‘I’ll have the ideas mate, you just put them into words, put the commas in the right places and, you know, a few highfalutin words there, not too difficult, a bit of your poetry mate or something like that you know. That's how they would talk to you. It was a bit like telling a woman to go and do the photocopying. Now this is really stupid because if you write, anyone who writes, knows that thinking and writing go together. Anyone who writes knows that you can go back to something you've written and think: god did I have that idea, that idea was a good idea, I don't think I've ever had that idea before or since, but I had it then. So a good speechwriter if he's lucky, will be left to write.
I think Freudy brought with him such a reputation that no one was game to say, you know, you just go off and wordsmith it would you Graham. But I don't think every speech writer since the 1990s has had the same privilege accorded to them.

ELIZABETH:

And Don in your mind, what in your mind what killed the speech?

DON:

A variety of things. You know, we blame social media for everything but I think messaging is a powerful force. Keating would have said that when they decided to televise Parliament that was really a nail in the coffin of a great parliamentary performances, so Question Time became a sort of be-all and end-all of Parliament. Whether you won or lost was in question time.
So you know people started coming into sort of, waving flags and bringing lumps of coal and all sorts of things because it was a performance piece.

Archival tape — Unidentified politician

“Mr Speaker those opposite have an ideological, pathological fear of coal. There's no word for coalphobia officially Mr Speaker, but that's the malady that afflicts those opposite. But it’s that malady…”

DON:

Look, I'll tell you what an interesting measure, if you watch the old Yes Minister shows, in the early episodes of that there was a character who came from the Party who was in there and was absolutely reviled by the department people, by Sir Humphrey and these characters.

Archival tape — Yes Minister character, Sir Humphrey:

“Now go in there and inform me of their conversation.”

Archival tape — Unidentified Yes Minister character:

“Well I’m not sure I can do that Sir Humphrey, it might be confidential…’

DON:

This was a non-oxfordian grub who'd come up out of a red brick University and he was eventually sort of kicked out of the office.

Archival tape — Yes Minister character, Sir Humphrey:

“...I need to know everything. . How else can I judge whether or not I need to know it?”.

DON:

But in the real world he came back and he took over. The Sir Humphries went, the Mandarin public servants went the public servants with any influence went. And the officers became everything and the advisers became everything and I think, over time those sorts of people have become more powerful in the advertising agencies and the pollsters have all become more powerful than the people who provided the backbone of policy.

And I think that the more they depend on their immediate circle of advisers and their connections with the media, then the more words matter less.

ELIZABETH:

And what do we lose when we lose speechmaking?

DON:

I think we lose a hell of a lot. I mean I think we lose a certain amount of articulateness. We lose a connection with history which good speechmaking always has. We lose the sort of narrative of politics. We lose speechmaking as a kind of literary tradition. And that's not to say that Graham Freudenberg or any speechwriter since would compare himself with Pericles or Shakespeare but they keep politics within a sort of higher frame it seems to me. You can actually, through words, make people think differently, even if it's only to recognise something in themselves that they hadn't recognised before. You can actually lift people with words. And not just with slogans.You know you only need to read a book to a child to see the words still have real power. They really do.

ELIZABETH:

Without speeches, can we have big policy?

DON:

I think it's harder. I mean I think it's harder to find the sort of narrative bed for policy, which I think, in the end was what the Shorten campaign was lacking. And I don't think it was a fault of that campaign anymore than it was a fault of the Labor Party over the previous 25 or more years; that it hadn't really made the essential big adjustment, to comprehend this world and then to find the words that describe the sort of social democratic possibilities of this world. That's what I think speechmaking can do.

ELIZABETH:

And what can be done now Don. If we need to get speech writing back, how do we do it?

DON:

I don't think any shortage of people who are able to do it. It's not for want of speechwriters that speeches have sort of fallen off the radar. But I think they might have to. If you look at the moments in politics, if you take say the post-war moments, there’s Menzies after the war, The Forgotten People speech which becomes the sort of narrative for conservatism in Australia for the next 25 years. This Chifley sort of Light on the Hill which becomes the light the other Labor one and then there's Whitlam's It's Time; these actually set up the eras in a way. And I think if, not that I would ever be invited to such a project, but if I were sort of conducting the investigation into the Labor PartyI would begin by saying: well what the hell do you think? What are we about?

[Music starts]

What makes sense now for a social democratic party in a country like this one? It doesn't preclude hard nosed, concrete policy work at all. In fact it just gives it more direction. But I would not be leaving the expression of this out of the equation. I'd been making a central.

ELIZABETH:

Don, thank you.

DON:

Thanks, ta.

[Music ends]

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[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

The Australian Federal Police are investigating former SAS soldier and Victorian Cross recipient, Ben Robert-Smith over allegedly assaulting a handcuffed prisoner in Afghanistan in 2012. The Nine newspapers report that Robert-Smith is alleged to have kicked the man off a small cliff. Another soldier is alleged to have shot the detainee dead. Robert-Smith denies all allegations.

And a report co-ordinated by the World Meteorological Organisation has found climate targets would have to be increased at least three-fold if even the upper Paris targets are to be met. The report found that if emission targets are left as they are, global temperatures would rise 2.9 and 3.4 degrees celsius by 2100. The report comes ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit in New York which began on Monday.

This is 7am. See you Tuesday.

[Theme music ends]

The death of Graham Freudenberg comes at a time when politics has all but abandoned speech making. Don Watson on how the loss of big narratives denies us the possibility of bold policy.

Guest: Author and speechwriter Don Watson.

Background reading:

Graham Freudenberg’s time in The Monthly.
The Saturday Paper
The Monthly

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz and Atticus Bastow with Michelle Macklem. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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#speech #auspol #labor #freudenberg #policy




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86: Death of the speech