The Language of Leadership - Speech, ANU





Words matter. That's truer now than ever before. In the age of Twitter and Trump, in the age of fast paced social media, the notion that leadership and rhetoric are inextricably tied together is a critical one.

I first came to think hard about the value of public rhetoric while working for Michael Kirby as his High Court associate in the late 1990s, then furthered that interest at Harvard, serving as teaching fellow to Michael Waldman, who had just stepped down as Bill Clinton's chief speechwriter. I have on the wall of my parliamentary office a large photograph of Barack Obama speaking in Manassas on the eve of the 2008 election – perhaps the best campaigning political speech ever given.

There is of course uniquely Australian style of rhetoric. For starters, we don’t like people who speak too long. My own rule for this is most public speeches should not exceed in length the average age of the audience, with a maximum of 21 minutes. Please hold me to that tonight.

We’re also we’re more cynical. I remember Don Watson once making the comment that political rhetoric which would make Americans cry simply made Australians laugh and shake their heads.

Yet, there have been some extremely important pieces of rhetoric in Australia’s national conversation.

First, there is the nation-changing rhetoric.

In his 1915 Gallipoli letter, Keith Murdoch wrote to Andrew Fisher "you would have wept with Hughes and myself if you have gone with us over the ground where two of our finest Light Horse regiments were wiped out in ten minutes in a brave effort to advance a few yard to Dead Man's Ridge. We lost 500 men, squatter's sons and farmer's sons, on that terrible spot. Such is the cost of so much as looking out over the top of our trenches."

In 1968, anthropologist W.E.H Stanner presaged debates over Native Title when he wrote: "No English words are good enough to give a sense of the links between an Aboriginal group and its homeland. Our word 'home', warm and suggestive though it be, does not match the Aboriginal word that may mean 'camp', 'hearth', 'country', 'everlasting home', 'totem place', 'life source', 'spirit centre' and much else all in one. 

In 1972 feminist Germaine Greer spoke about the role of women in the national conversation. "Now I think it really is time that newspapers in this country stopped perpetuating the dream and started talking about the reality. That they stopped running pages about fine living and started to consider how a woman with two kids is going to keep them on the thirty bucks a week that she's allowed. And why it is that a woman who's decided to have two children without a husband is going to be condemned to pauperism for the rest of her life".

The republican debate kicked off powerfully in the early-1990s. Take this 1992 speech by Malcolm Turnbull in which he said, "some conservatives fail to come to terms with the debate. The most common defence of the monarchy is a shoulder shrugging 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' caveman conservatism. Consider for a moment where human progress would be if that approach had been taken to art, literature, technology or politics? The truth is that all human progress has been based on the desire to make something which is better".

And aren’t we lucky that this that sense of republican urgency has never left Malcolm Turnbull?

Then there’s Linda Burney, in her first speech to the NSW Parliament: "growing up as an Aboriginal child looking into the mirror of our country was difficult and alienating. Your reflection in the mirror was at best ugly and distorted, and at worst non-existent. I did not grow up knowing my Aboriginal family". 

Second, there is rhetorical wit.  

In a 1975 adjournment debate marking Fred Daly's 32 years in the Parliament, his friend Jim Killen decided to read into the Hansard a poem which began "The time has come, Fred Daly said/ To talk of many things:/ Of parliamentary privilege,/ And how to pull the strings./ Of why we travel second class/ Though Gough still has his wings." 

Some months later of course there is of course Gough Whitlam standing on the steps of Government House with, "well may we say 'God Save the Queen', because nothing will save the Governor-General." 

Third, there is the rhetoric that is simply unforgettable.

Curtin's statement to the Melbourne Herald on the 27th of December 1941 that "Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom".

The Forgotten People speech from Robert Menzies in which he said, "are you looking forward to a breed of men after the war who will have become boneless wonders? Leaners grow flabby; lifters grow muscles."

The notion of leaners and lifters echoed down the decades to Joe Hockey – who used them with rather less political success.

Donald Horne's unforgettable phrase, "Australia is a lucky country run mainly be second-rate people who share its luck."

And Paul Keating’s 1992 Redfern Park speech: "We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional ways of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practised discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us."

A quarter of a century on, those words that were quoted again and again in the Parliament this week during the Closing the Gap speeches on the anniversary of the apology.

This book is filled with gems about the role of rhetoric in leadership.

It focuses on an issue that I thought I was the only one to have noticed - Tony Abbott’s obsession with Ben Chifley. The authors note that Abbott mentioned Chifley 28 times in the House before becoming Prime Minister. I’m afraid that many of my Labor colleagues would not have mentioned Chifley half as often - but it reflected Abbott’s use of rhetoric to try and win Labor voters to his cause.

In discussing Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech, the authors remind us that most commentators missed its importance on the day it was delivered. They quote Media Watch, "The gallery, to a man and woman, focused on the hypocrisy, as they saw it it, of Gillard attacking Abbott for sexism while defending Peter Slipper." Within 5 days though, the speech had been viewed 1.5 million times on YouTube. It resonated with women around the world who might have known nothing about Australian politics, but had faced sexism in their workplaces.

In discussing Malcolm Turnbull’s rhetoric, they note Aristotle’s three modes of persuasion - logos, pathos and ethos. Turnbull is a talented speaker - his eulogies for Margaret Whitlam and Neville Wran were remarkable. But he struggled to find his voice as Prime Minister. A chapter heading in this book sums it up: “What Could Have Been”.

There are greats through history to learn from. Adam Masters and John Uhr frame their book through Francis Bacon, a gifted speaker who served in the British parliament in the early-1600s. More so than Machiavelli, Bacon saw the importance of using rhetoric to improve people’s lives, rather than to accumulate power.

But rhetoric is also about testing ideas, and if I can leave you with one suggestion for a sequel it would be this. To look at what pairs of speakers can deliver. Think of the cabinet battles between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The election debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Debates in the British House of Commons between William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. An individual can persuade and inform. But two people can create a fresh synthesis of ideas that is better than any individual could produce alone.

It is my pleasure to help launch Leadership Performance and Rhetoric tonight. May it inspire, inform and engage.


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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.