Say It like You Mean It

By Glover, Dennis | Review - Institute of Public Affairs, January 2011 | Go to article overview

Say It like You Mean It

Glover, Dennis, Review - Institute of Public Affairs

A good speech can make or break a political career. And Kevin Rudd's inability to communicate effectively should be a warning to all aspiring politicians explains Dennis Glover.

Amidst the torrent of explanations devoted to the downfall of Kevin Rudd, one issue cannot be escaped: if he had been a better orator he'd most likely still be prime minister.

Having become Labor leader and then prime minister by pitching himself beyond the Labor caucus to the true believers on the Australian Left, Rudd not only failed to keep his followers inspired, he seemed to go out of his way to deflate them, starting with his plea on the very night of his victory for us all to calm down and have a cup of tea and an Iced Vo-Vo.

I wasn't the only one to find it depressing and dispiriting. There were alternatives. For instance, having achieved the goal he'd set himself-of climbing from Everest base camp to government in under a year-he could have told the watching millions that Labor had just planted the flag of progress on the top of the very highest summit. Imagine the roar it would have received, and the energy it would have generated.

Time after time, Rudd was warned by senior commentators and his own supporters to drop his long-winded, technocratic speaking style. The low point came when an editorial in The Australian gave him ?nought out of ten for delivery' for an address to the National Press Club and told him to peer beyond the lectern to the glazed looks in the audience and to do something about it.

But Rudd ploughed on until there was no one left listening-which was a shame, because he actually had a lot left to say.

And there lies an irony, because Kevin Rudd will be remembered mainly for a great speech: his uplifting apology to the stolen generations. It made him loved as few prime ministers before him. With more consistency of effort and style he may have held on to his followers and still be living in the Lodge.

This makes Kevin Rudd's tragic demise Exhibit One in my defence of oratory. I believe that to rescue our democracy from the slow strangulation of boredom we need better political speech-making. The era of politics dominated by managerialism-in which timid politicians bore us with endless discussion of ?process'-cannot go on.

Here are Exhibits Two, Three and Four: Barack Obama, Sarah Palin and David Cameron.

Just a little over six years ago Obama was a little-known member of the Illinois state legislature. Then a dramatic speech which electrified the 2004 Democratic Convention brought him to the attention of the world. Against his inspiring oratory, the calculated triangulation of the establishment's preferred candidate, Hilary RodhamClinton, seemed enervating and cynical. The rest, as they say, is history-making.

To counter Obama's oratory, and fire-up its own base, the Republican machine chose a little-known governor of a little-regarded state to be the slightly dismal John McCain's running-mate. Her name was Sarah Palin, and history records that she took a great speech written for her by George W Bush's old speechwriter and smashed it out of the park. Her Tea Party movement has changed American politics, which means it may change the world.

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom in 2005, having repeatedly failed to find someone charismatic enough to take on the charming Tony Blair, the Conservative Party was meeting to elect its new leader. An unknown outsider, considered too liberal to lead the party of Margaret Thatcher, stepped onto the stage at the Tory nominating convention and spoke brilliantly, courageously and word-perfectly for 17 minutes, completely without notes or lectern-all to an absolutely astonished audience. His name was David Cameron; he quickly became the leadership favourite and is now presiding over what may be a second conservative economic revolution.

The common thread in these success stories is oratory. Unlike Exhibit One, our Exhibits Two, Three and Four had the courage to appeal to the people using the weapon that has been the decisive factor in politics since the birth of democracy more than 2500 years ago: well-crafted rhetoric.

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