Autobiography in Australian Parliamentary First Speeches

By McCooey, David; Lowe, David | Biography, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Autobiography in Australian Parliamentary First Speeches


McCooey, David, Lowe, David, Biography


Since the 1970s it has been axiomatic that "the personal is the political." But how political is the personal? In particular, to what extent can political speech contain--and strategically employ--autobiographical self-disclosure? That autobiographical self-disclosure can be employed for politically strategic reasons is observable in the acceptance speech that Malcolm Turnbull, the Australian Liberal MP, made when he became Leader of the Opposition in September 2008. Turnbull, who had previously been a merchant banker and who was, in 2009, listed as among Australia's top 200 richest, accepted the position by referring to his under-privileged background:

   I do not come to the position of leader of the Liberal Party from a
   lifetime of privilege. I know what it is like to be very short of
   money. I know what it is like to live in rented flats. I know what
   it is like to grow up with a single parent, with no support other
   than a devoted and loyal father.

This description of Turnbull's childhood, which mentions nothing of his attendance at elite private schools, is notably in tune with the descriptions that Kevin Rudd gave, just prior to the election in 2007 that saw him become Prime Minister, of the difficulties he faced during childhood after the death of his father. (Coincidently, Rudd is also a notably wealthy parliamentarian, albeit less directly, through the wealth of his wife, successful businesswoman Therese Rein). In both cases the stories told are partial, evoke the politicians' childhoods, and are clearly designed to elicit sympathy from, and instill trust in, voters.

The autobiographical statements of these senior political figures occurred in speeches and interviews, and were clearly designed to circulate widely as media speech (which they did). As such they are unmistakably part of a wider project of "spin" in which strategic self-disclosure is designed to make political leaders more appealing to voters by making them seem more like the voters themselves. But how present is autobiographical discourse in more formal political speech, and what function does it perform? To be specific, how does autobiography operate in the most formalized kind of political discourse, parliamentary speech? In this article we will consider these questions with reference to the First Speeches made by Australian parliamentarians in three post-1945 parliaments: 1950, 1976, and 1996. We chose three parliaments for reasons that are partly related to political circumstance and partly practical. In each case, a new government brought with it a sense of sea change, having defeated the previous incumbent by offering markedly different directions for voters, and in each case the new government also saw a high number of new Members take their seats, thereby offering rich pickings from First Speeches.

First Speeches have been chosen because they allow, relatively speaking, parliamentarians a degree of freedom, unavailable at any other time, in what they choose to discuss. This is because a newly elected Member normally makes her or his First Speech during the Address in Reply debate that occurs during the first session of parliament after an election has been held (Harris 141). As House of Representatives Practice notes, the Address in Reply debate is exempted from the rule of relevance, and thus the scope of the debate is "unlimited in subject matter and usually ranges over a wide field of public affairs, including government policy and administration. Members may not discuss a specific motion of which notice has been given, and a specific allusion to any matter which is an order of the day should be avoided" (Harris 229). Given these conditions, autobiographical self-disclosure is more likely to occur in First Speeches than in speeches made during question time or addressing specific pieces of legislation. The parliamentary tradition of not interrupting First Speeches may also make autobiographical self-expression more likely. …

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