Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Event: For The True Believers - Great Labor Speeches that Shaped History Book Launch

This past Wednesday night, Shearer’s was host to the launch of For the True Believers. Edited by Troy Bramston, speechwriter and advisor to the Rudd government, For the True Believers is a collection of speeches from Labor leaders that have shaped not only the identity of the Australian Labor Party but Australia itself.

Darcy Byrne, the Mayor of Leichhardt, introduced the discussion by recalling the power of Gough Whitlam's 1972 'It's Time' speech over his mother, describing the way she burst into tears as Whitlam started “Men and Women of Australia-”, the way it brought back memories of the power of John Curtin’s wartime address and everything it entailed – the loss, and the unity of the people of Australia.

This shaped the tone of the rest of the night, an insightful and lively discussion between Troy Bramston and Geoff Gallop, former Premier of Western Australia, on the history and personality of Australian Labor speeches, as well as the importance and art of speech-making.

Geoff Gallop kicked the discussion off by describing his ideas around the makings of the perfect Labor speech. Contextualised by democracy, he explained, Labor speeches must pass two tests: the 'True Believer Test', winning over the 'mind and muscle' of party members, as well as the 'Marginal Voters Test', bringing the people at large together to form the majority. He went on to explain that Us Vs Them must be addressed, and throughout the discussion highlighted the importance of this idea today. Class struggle is still relevant today, with Us representing the people as 'workers, small business, farmers and professional types' and Them 'the privileged, wealthy and conservative'. Though many Labor targets have been achieved, such as fair wages, Medicare and Occupational Health & Safety, with Work Choices more recently overturned, there are still issues that affect the life chances of people such as lack of dental care, disability wages and gaps in the health system.

Bramston generally disagreed, explaining that to him a Labor speech was far more characterised by seeking to uplift rather than to divide people, that the Labor party seeks to represent everybody. He explained that the power of classic Labor speeches is their the bringing together of philosophy, policy and political stance. In his mind, the recent push of Us Vs Them is an error, instead bringing forth images of George Black's address at the birth of Labor party with men with pitchforks, farmers hats and muddy clothes, that Labor should still seek to “represent those who laid with mind or muscle, with hand and heart”. What is most important, Bramston says, is a speech-maker with intellect, courage and vision, with a solid argument and authenticity.

They both agreed, however, that a great speech is a breakthrough speech, one that presents a different understanding or interpretation of something already familiar.

Other topics of the night included a comparison of the views (such as Hawke and Keating's opposing views on the importance of speeches inside of parliament to outside), as well as Gallop's breaks into interesting and amusing anecdotes on the importance of build up, venues and even translations in speeches (such as a slight mistranslation of Kim Beazley's speech to repressed Papua New Guinea locals inciting them to action thinking he was literally joining the fight, and causing Beazley to have to flee the scene).

Bramston also explained the process in selecting the speeches featured in
True Believers, leaning on speeches that shaped the history of our country. As an example he picked a speech that would lead to the building of the Sydney Opera House – the transcription of which he had to dig through party achieves to find. It was with this one speech that Premier Joe Cahill won the people over, despite never seeing a symphony orchestra or opera himself. He urged the public “to aspire to the finer things in life” and said the cost would “only be a ripple in the ocean” - though in the end it cost ten times what he estimated. And with that, an Australian icon was given life.
As the night drew to a close, the pair concluded with a discussion on the direction Labor should take, and of where speeches go wrong. Troy Bramston implored the Labor party to take Bob Carr's stance, to avoid dead, stale language. He argued against the “diminishing art of the oratory”, that the reliance on sound bites and recycled keylines is a step backwards. A speech-maker instead should speak confidently and freely to an audience because the public want a discussion, not a lecture.

Hand in hand with this, and regaining the Labor Party's focus and identity, will ensure many more great Labor speeches in the future.

- Hannah

Watch: Troy Bramston looks at the greatest speeches by Labor leaders and asks if great political speeches are still possible.

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