Our prime ministers are known, in no small measure, for the content and delivery of their speeches. Prime ministerial speeches on the floor of the Parliament, on the campaign trail, in good times and bad, help define them as political leaders and prompt a range of responses from the Australian people.

“Don’t sing ’em muck”: when Prime Ministers and their audience disagree

by Michael Cooney

Michael Cooney is Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre.  He was speechwriter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard 2010 to 2013 and is author of The Gillard Project: my thousand days of despair and hope (Penguin, 2015). 

Michael Cooney
Art Atelier/MoAD
Michael Cooney

During her time in office, I often pondered Julia Gillard’s deeply Australian character and often inwardly compared her to classical Australian types: Ned Kelly, Mary McKillop, Steve Waugh. But Julia Gillard was no Nellie Melba. 

As well as differing from the soprano of the nineteenth and early twentieth century in making just one farewell, Gillard was nothing like the Dame in another important respect.  In 1917, Melba's advice to a soprano about to travel to Australia was simple: 'Sing 'em muck.'

Julia Gillard, for all her strengths, frequently failed to give an audience what it wanted to hear.  Instead, and like James McAuley’s Jesus  she often told them 'nothing that they wished to know'. 

This didn’t always fail, by any means.

On 30 May 2012, the Prime Minister addressed the Minerals Council of Australia’s annual dinner in Parliament House.  In what became known as the “You don’t own the minerals” speech, she told the large black tie audience:

Now, I know you're not all in love with the language of ‘spreading the benefits of the boom’. I know everyone here works hard … Australians don't begrudge hard work and we admire your success. 

But I know this too: they work pretty hard in car factories and at panel beaters' and in police stations and hospitals too. And here's the rub: you don't own the minerals. I don't own the minerals. Governments only sell you the right to mine the resource. A resource we hold in trust for a sovereign people. They own it and they deserve their share …

What was interesting about the night and day that followed was that the audience’s reaction, while hardly delighted, was also hardly hostile.  

Recall that the speech came two years after the Rudd Government’s first announcement of a ‘resources super profits tax’ arising from the report  Australia's Future Tax System – known as the Henry Review after its principal author, Treasury Secretary Dr Ken Henry.  The Minerals Council dinner that year had the atmosphere less of an industry occasion and more of a Tea Party – then-Prime Minister Rudd played the better part and discreetly sent his Minister, Martin Ferguson, in his place – and came during the crescendo of the furore over government policies and processes that year, which just three weeks later would see Kevin Rudd vacate the prime ministership.  

Yet on this same night just two years later, and with many aspects of the re-named Minerals Resource Rents Tax still controversial, Prime Minister Gillard could generate headlines like …


… and find the industry lobby on radio the next day effectively conceding the point.

TONY EASTLEY: Minerals council chief executive Mitchell Hooke hosted the dinner in Canberra last night and he joins us on AM. Mitchell Hooke, good morning. How were the Prime Minister's remarks received at the dinner?

MITCHELL HOOKE: Oh pretty well. I think it was stating essentially what we all know and that is that the sovereign state owns the minerals.

How did she manage that?

Well, there may be a lesson in the contrast with a very different response to a different speech to a resource audience, her address to the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies in Perth in September 2012, six months after that brave outing at the MCA. On this occasion, while the Prime Minister was much less confrontational, largely avoiding the difficult questions surrounding taxation of mineral rents, the reaction to her remarks was far more negative.

The West Australian’s headline – PM LESSON LACKS CLASS  – the Australian’s headline – MINE GAMES GO DOWN LIKE LEAD – and the more prosaic but equally pointed industry newssite miningbusiness.net GILLARD SIDESTEPS MINING ISSUES - were among negative stories that ran for several days.

The complaint? Not that the Prime Minister had insulted the audience by disagreeing with it, but that she had offended the audience by ignoring it.  As the West Australian memorably reported in that ‘lacks class’ story:

A few hours after Gillard’s speech, celebrity academic Peter van Onselen received rapturous applause when he opened his address by pointing out that it was unbelievable the PM had spent so much of her address to a mining conference talking about education.

There’s quite a bit to unpack here – including the analysis that the mining industry didn’t need to worry about education and the practice of comment as news – but what was clear to those of us in the Prime Minister’s office who saw the reaction to both speeches was that we had played entirely the wrong card.

Back in May, we had been acutely conscious of the possible negative reaction to the speech both in draft and in delivery, widely workshopping the sharpest parts of the text to get it just right while also preparing to defend the draft against sceptical advisers (or Ministers) who might seek to water it down.  In September, we never anticipated the need for such wargaming over what was a far ‘softer’ speech.

Yet our feisty tone at the Minerals Council in winter was far more warmly received than this superficially friendlier speech which, as it turned out unwisely, nevertheless dwelt on the school motto of Perth’s Kent Street Senior High (‘courage’) nearby the convention venue and repeated a little half-homophone of investment in, or pipelines of, ‘mines’ and ‘minds’, to illustrate the harmonies between the government and industry approach.

(As Gareth Evans had said in another infamous speech nearly thirty years’ earlier, ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’.)

I think the lesson is above all audiences want to be noticed by the Prime Minister.

Just as a Prime Minister teasing you about your new beard can be a memory to tell your grandchildren about – and I should know – a Prime Minister firmly disagreeing with your industry’s policy argument is at least a statement that you are important to her and the Government she leads.

If you’re not going to sing ’em muck, at least sing a song about them.

From campaigns to classrooms: why political speeches are important 

by Brooke Gizzi-Stewart

Brooke Gizzi-Stewart is an APMC Summer Scholar 2015-16. She is a PhD candidate at the University of Newcastle, undertaking research on contemporary Australian political speeches.

Brooke Gizzi-Stewart
Brooke Gizzi-Stewart

Why care about political speeches anymore? 

Keynote speeches are no longer the only way for members of the public to engage with their political leaders, or for our leaders to connect with their local constituents and the national community.

These days we can comment on the Facebook status of a State Premier who’s at a Taylor Swift concert, ‘like’ Instagram selfies of the Prime Minister and an explosive detection dog in Iraq, and share live tweets of cabinet minister’s daily meeting schedule while they’re on diplomatic visits abroad.

Then there’s the new digital language of the emoji; some politicians who have jumped on the emoji bandwagon often answer social media questions in emoji. Gone are the days of town hall meetings, radio broadcasts and televised debates – that was so twentieth century.

The ultimate power couple: the 24-hour news cycle and online blogosphere, has successfully created a fast-paced, ever-dynamic and multi-faceted communication channel between leaders and their publics. To such a degree that it seems as if increased levels of citizen participation and transparency of the actions of our elected representatives is drawing us back to the true essence of democratic politics.

But never fear traditionalists, the age of political oratory in Australia is not dead and buried yet. In fact, political speeches and the rhetorical language within these speeches become more valuable as we move closer towards a more direct form of democracy.

Democratic politics is all about persuasion, and strategic communication lies at the heart of a speaker’s ability to effectively persuade their audience, or a political leader’s ability to persuade voters.

But if likes, sound-bites, selfies and tweets form the vital nexus between a government and its people in the twenty-first century, why do our prime ministers continue to make set piece speeches?

The answer lies in the power of the speech itself. The political speech is the original and most powerful transmitter of persuasive language in the political sphere and has endured as an object of use for over 2000 years.

It was the classical Greek philosopher, Aristotle who first understood rhetoric as the “art of persuasion” and a savvy tool for both speakers and audiences alike in a democratic forum. The art of using language to appeal to, persuade or motivate an audience is an important form of strategic communication because it is synonymous with a central premise of the exercise of political power: winning.

And its not all one-sided; the use of rhetoric in political oratory gives the audience another way of critiquing and weighing up the credibility and leadership capacity of competing candidates and parties.

Two millennia later, rhetoric remains a crafty weapon in the battle of words that is a contemporary election campaign and provides citizens with evidence for deliberation, opinion-forming and reflection. 

Free, fair and frequent elections are defining features of a democracy. Every three years when the Australian federal election race begins, parties are compelled to drive a campaign that convinces voters that they are worthy of being granted the authority to represent the needs of the public.

It makes sense then that politicians will attempt to use a language that they feel best helps them to connect with the sentiments and culture of the Australian people as part of a larger campaign strategy of selling the nation to itself.

The campaign launch is the most important speech of the election campaign as it forms a party leader’s sales pitch; a vehicle to articulate their vision for the nation, policy platforms and rationale for seeking a mandate to be Prime Minister of Australia. It sets the agenda, vocabulary and tone of a party’s campaign narrative.

Without tools of persuasion and audience appeals, the campaign launch speech of the PM and the Opposition Leader would be pure political speak and policy talk and would fall short of connecting with the hearts and minds of the audience. Persuasive language which expresses ideological positions, potentially shared social traits and cultural idiosyncrasies acts as a bridge of words to connect the intentions of our leaders to the Australian public.  

Take the last federal election campaign as an example. Looking between the lines of Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s 2013 campaign launch speech provides an insight into the anatomy of a speech and its rhetorical tools.

The short, punchy and largely repetitive speech consisted of three overarching narratives: the fight to protect Australia’s future, values, and nation-building. Together these narratives appealed to a collective sense of belonging to the Australian nation and, through various rhetorical devices, served to situate the PM’s leadership ethos and Labor’s founding ideologies within quintessential features of Australian national identity.

First, Rudd’s combative rhetorical style alluded to the fighting spirit of the ‘Australian legend’, often drawing parallels to the enduring sense of optimism in the face of hardship that is a distinctively Australian quality. Here, Rudd’s language drew on rhetoric of stoicism and hope to associate himself with his message and the audience, therefore paving his path in the speech towards leadership authenticity and conviction. 

In this election we are now engaged in the fight of our lives. It is a fight about the values which underpin Australia’s future.

Another key rhetorical strategy the speech employed was linking core ALP values of collective responsibility and social equality to two definitively Australian cultural idiosyncrasies: egalitarianism and the ‘fair go’. 

These are universal values. They are Australian values. They are also Labor values. The values which inspired people to dream of a better Australia.                                                             

The theme of nation-building also featured throughout the speech in the form of a house metaphor: the house symbolising a micro version of the Australian nation. Through the use of this metaphor and emotive language, the speech sought to identify the ALP as being the proven champion of offering a more prosperous vision for building Australia’s future. 

Because we are in the business of building the house up. We have been building this vision – brick-by-brick over the last five years.

Sure, election campaign speeches are primarily about electoral pragmatism, but the rhetorical techniques and audience appeals found in the speech can sometimes act as a mirror image of the national character. We are a representative democracy after all. 

Recently I invited a group of undergraduate students in my Australian politics course to deconstruct an election campaign speech using a similar method of analysis that I used above.

Having located key rhetorical techniques and identified the strategies behind framing certain messages, the students started to understand the motivation behind my incessant ranting on the importance of political speeches and speech analysis in assessing the evolving nature of democracy and political culture in Australia.

Some of the classics and history majors appreciated the ancient Greek and Aristotelian links, while the law students found the exercise to be a helpful crash course on logical and persuasive argumentation. Others took away vital essay-writing tips and most found the exercise a more interactive and empowering way of learning about Australian election campaigns, campaign strategies, policy frameworks and political communication. Their grades improved too.

So, why care about political speeches anymore? 
The answer to this question can be found on the campaign trail and in the classroom.

Political speeches are the key medium of communication through which leaders appeal to their national audience and they provide the data that allows citizens to be directly involved in the decision-making process.

Likewise, rhetoric is one of the most understated mechanisms of the democratic process in twenty-first century Australia, having prevailed through 2000 years of use and inquiry, criticism and commendation.

Political speeches can also be used to illustrate to students, friends and family alike that politics is a discipline and practice that is surprisingly accessible, extremely quirky and something that everyone can and should engage with.

It is true that those who are gifted speakers and writers in the political sphere possess power. On the other hand, those who understand rhetoric at work in the political messages they receive move closer to becoming empowered citizens. Provided of course you’re willing to keep an open mind, be an active listener, and read between the lines. 

Ray Saunders/News Ltd

‘…. the essence of a speech is that it should reach the hearts and minds of our immediate audience. It must therefore be made to them and not merely in their presence.’

Robert Gordon Menzies, Speech Is Of Time, Cassell & Company Ltd, London, 1958, p. 187

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