ON LINE  opinion  - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

With a few well chosen words

By Dennis Glover
Posted Thursday, 13 September 2007

In his political memoir, A Figure of Speech, veteran Labor speechwriter Graham Freudenberg recounts how in the late 1960s parliamentary banquets for visiting statesmen became jousts between prime minister Harold Holt and Opposition leader Gough Whitlam.

On one memorable occasion, Whitlam impressed his audience by concluding with the last line of Dante's Inferno: E quindi uscimmo a riverder le stelle ("and thence we emerged to see the stars again"). It was a minor event, to be sure, but one that announced the young Opposition leader had a touch of class.

Last Thursday in his address to the Chinese President, Kevin Rudd demonstrated once again the power of a startling speech to draw attention to a rising political talent. In this era of the truncated television grab, Rudd's speech was a touch of old-fashioned communication that shows good speech isn't dead yet.

There are many interesting elements to Rudd's speech, not the least of which is the fact that it took place at all. The Prime Minister's minders must have known that his opponent would seize it as an opportunity to upstage their man with his impressive grasp of all things Chinese. With just a little ruthless inventiveness protocols could have been altered, last-minute appointments arranged with Canadian and Filipino politicians and Rudd's invitation quietly withdrawn.

The best that can be said for giving Rudd such a point-blank set-shot at an unguarded goal is that it was recklessly and uncharacteristically democratic - and a sign perhaps that the Howard circle is losing its ruthless political edge.

In the speechwriting trade, ceremonial events such as the Chinese President's reception are epideictic: for display. In such a context tough-minded argument would be out of place, and open the speaker to the charge of gaucheness. It's the sort of diplomatic challenge with which politicians have had to deal since the birth of oratory itself. But within the rhetorical limitations of the ceremonial speech there's always the chance to impress, which Rudd certainly did.

At the end of a good 800-word welcome, which itself contained some considerable substance (and, breaking protocol, was longer than that given by the Prime Minister), Rudd broke into Mandarin, and in fewer than 300 words of pure charm illustrated - with a clarity that has eluded many professional political commentators - the essence of his remarkable appeal to the voters.

As a rhetorical act, the speech made a number of important statements: that the speaker is highly intelligent; that he values education; that he can cut it in the highest diplomatic circles, especially with the Chinese; and that he's a youngish father, whose own family symbolises the sort of nation he wants to create, one that's travelled, educated and as multicultural as it is possible to be.

The speech also said its speaker has a sense of humour and no little audacity and courage too (after all, John Howard's advisers were possibly hoping that Rudd would expose himself as the sort of figure Crosby/Textor research tells them the Howard battlers are supposed to despise - the tall-poppy smartypants, and an Asian-speaking one at that). Instead, Rudd proved that he wasn't just the smartest guy in the room, but possibly the smartest guy in the country.

But above all else, Rudd's speech said: "I am modern." And although by comparison rhetorically unremarkable (even receiving some ever-so-gentle grammatical criticism from learned Chinese language professors) Rudd's address in Mandarin, like speeches by the young John F. Kennedy (and, more recently, Barack Obama), said: "I can take you to the future."

The speech had at its heart an appealing strain of progressive idealism, which contrasted sharply with footage of the Prime Minister waiting around nervously for George Bush to arrive and, even more sharply, with Alexander Downer bragging to the cameras about his (publicly untested) proficiency in - wait for it - French.

This alerts us to something important about a remarkable speech: it works not just because it delivers with verve some well-chosen and well-arranged words; it works because it provides an authentic insight into the speaker's most profoundly held beliefs, especially when those beliefs contain ideas whose time is upon us.

It switches the dial in our brains to "yes". And conversely, when speech displays a deeply held commitment to the ideas of the past, its effect can be just as equally damaging.

Perhaps, though, the most amazing thing of all about Rudd's Mandarin speech was that at least 99.99 per cent of its intended audience - the Australian electorate - wouldn't have understood a word of it. To impress people who can't even understand what you're saying - now that's what I call a smart speech from a smart politician.

First published in The Australian on September 11, 2007.

Dennis Glover is a Labor speechwriter and fellow of the new progressive think tank Per Capita.


© The National Forum and contributors 1999-2022. All rights reserved.