The Prime Minister’s Speech

This piece originally appeared in The Age

Rattled, I sat upright in bed. My clothes were damp and my hands trembling. My breathing was fast and shallow. It was 3.00 in the morning and I’d just dreamt I was the Prime Minister’s speechwriter for the ALP conference. “Are you okay?” my girlfriend asked, half asleep. “Not yet,” I said, and cried.

Through the surreal, capricious cruelty dealt out in dreams, I found that the speech I’d handed Gillard read as if it had been written by a drunk Spaniard. I stood behind the curtains and watched the carnage unfold on a monitor.

“We are the people who share and stick together.” This can’t be happening.

“Labor says ‘yes’ to Australia’s future.” No. God, no.

“This is the Australian way. We follow it because we are us.” We are us? Oh, the humanity!

Jokes aside, the Prime Minister’s inarticulacy isn’t terribly funny. Laurie Oakes wrote, correctly, that the “we are us” speech was “pedestrian in its message, chocker with cliches and containing some of the clumsiest rhetorical flourishes you’ll ever hear.”

Yes, it was difficult to hear that speech as anything other than a malnourished shambles; a syntactically tortured mess of platitudes and boilerplate. Skirting substance, it was also cowardly.

And so, rumours that the hunt’s on for a new speechwriter for the PM. Crikey‘s rumour-mill is churning contentedly, fielding tips including one about Bob Carr spruiking the services of his former scribe, Carl Green. The Prime Minister’s office has denied that they’re looking, but my own sources tell me that the PM’s office hasn’t ruled it out.

True or not, it is no secret that our Prime Minister continues to struggle with her communications. The Prime Minister should be looking for a new speechwriter, but, that said, a new speechwriter will not be a silver bullet.

Let’s be clear: the person ultimately responsible for what comes out of the Prime Minister’s mouth is the Prime Minister. Let me explain, by way of Paul Keating.

Last year, the mutual antipathy between Keating and his former speechwriter Don Watson flared again over the authorship of Keating’s 1992 Redfern address. Watson has asserted authorship of the famous speech on the occasion of its induction into the National Film and Sound Archive.

Rubbish, Keating said, and decried what he saw as Watson’s breach of the speechwriter’s anonymity and confidentiality in exchange for “participating in the endeavour and the power.”

Keating wrote, in an op-ed for Fairfax, “The sentiments of the speech, that is, the core of its authority and authorship, were mine.” Initially I thought this a petty display of semantics, bordering on a vulgar and deluded sense of grandeur. I was wrong. As a speechwriter, I finally got it. Keating was right. Here’s what it means for Gillard.

A fine speech isn’t written in a vacuum. If the Prime Minister’s vision is as barren as her vocabulary, the speechwriter’s making castles in the air. Which is why it’s folly to blame the speechwriter for Gillard’s wan pronouncements. The speechwriter could be borderline illiterate, but it would remain Gillard’s responsibility to confer to him muscular sentiments.

It is Gillard’s responsibility to transpose her sense of purpose, philosophy and taste into guidance. This is the empowerment of the speechwriter, and Keating wrote well about it last year.

“…no speechwriter in Howard’s office would have had the Prime Ministerial guidance of the nature I gave Watson… It is guidance of this kind that provides the power to the speechwriter; the meat and drink, the guidance from which authority and authorship of the speech ultimately derives.”

Amen.

It is Gillard’s responsibility—or the responsibility of her senior staff—to appoint somebody who can clearly, convincingly, hell, even lyrically, tell a story. 

But it’s also Gillard’s responsibility to confer to her speechwriter the firm contours of a vision. This is the empowerment Keating spoke of.

A good speechwriter alone doesn’t matter. There are plenty of people in this country capable of becoming one. What makes great speeches are great occasions and great relationships—between the speaker, staff and speechwriter. Now, perhaps the PMO knows this. Perhaps. But if the idea of what’s wrong with Gillard’s communication is simply a dodgy speechwriter, then this is either ignorance or scapegoating.

If the PMO are seeking the perfect writer, I would tell them there’s no such thing. There’s only an ideal relationship.

The answer to Gillard’s problems lie not overseas, but squarely in her office. You could conscript Clive James himself—drag him kicking and screaming to his antipodean origins—but his graceful prose would be for nought if there’s nought behind it.

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