April 2010

The Nation Reviewed

Strictly speaking

By Alan Saunders
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

“I’m not going to bore you with a lot of oratory, because I’m not an orator,” Sir Les Patterson once remarked. “I’m an Australian politician.” He was unfair to his breed and to his country as well. Australia’s reputation for tongue-tied inarticulacy or, at best, strong silence, still much cherished in the Old Dart, is ill-founded; our politicians attain considerable eloquence. Think of the solid decency of Menzies’ ‘Forgotten People’ speech, the passion of Paul Keating at Redfern and Kim Beazley’s concession speech in 2001 – a noble oration so good you were left thinking that had he made more speeches like that, he wouldn’t have had anything to concede.

Political oratory is clearly in decline, though. It’s easy to blame TV, particularly the sound bite, for this but I suspect the real problem lies elsewhere. As Canberra and Westminster creep steadily towards a more presidential style of government, parliament – which ought to be the great arena of the nation, the one place where you can be confident of hearing good argument and fine rhetoric – has steadily become less important. William Hague, the former leader of the British Conservative Party, was a victim of this. He regularly outperformed Tony Blair in Prime Minister’s Question Time, but because it happened in parliament, hardly anybody noticed.

Oddly, this has not happened in the great home of presidential government. Barack Obama is certainly a fine speaker (and, let’s be fair, even George W Bush could occasionally muster eloquence, as he showed when he stood with a bullhorn on the ruins at Ground Zero), but then Washington is full of good public speakers: American politicians have to be good because the constitution ensures that Congress still has an indispensible role to play in government. These speeches may be careful and lawyer-like, but they are good speeches.

Another thing Americans have in their favour is the sermon. We have sermons too, of course, but not like American sermons, not like the Baptist sermons that furnished the armature of one of the greatest speeches of the last century: Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’, which combines biblical quotation with reference to classic American texts, and is not afraid of repetition (four consecutive sentences begin “Now is the time” and “I have a dream” is reinforced eight times).

Needless to say, to turn from American political rhetoric to Strictly Speaking, ABC TV’s new public-speaking contest, which will air later this year, is to lower the tone a bit both emotionally and intellectually, but let’s not be too harsh. The host, Andrew Hansen, is trying far too hard, but the judges are serious and helpful and the contestants (each delivering a two-minute prepared speech and a second off-the-cuff, one-minute number on a subject they’re given) are never less than capable. Sadly, though, this is not one of those blood-drenched talent shows over which Simon Cowell looms like Titus at the Colosseum, and we don’t get to hear the ones who didn’t make it to the competition proper, with, one assumes, their sweaty brows, their rambling speeches and a fixed, hunted look in their eyes.

The theorists of classical oratory – the personal trainers of the guys in togas – typically divided speeches into three categories. There were the forensic, addressed to a jury and concerned with the evaluation of a past action such as a crime; the deliberative, addressed to an assembly and concerned with the evaluation of a proposed action; and the epideictic, delivered in honour (or dishonour) of its subject (the sort of thing you get today from the best man and the father of the bride). Most of the speeches on Strictly Speaking tend to mingle the deliberative with the epideictic: you take a subject and try to persuade the audience to agree with your viewpoint.

Unfortunately, there is a fourth mode – unknown to the Ancients – and it proves almost impossible to avoid in these speeches. That mode is stand-up comedy. You soften them up with a joke and you’re away; sometimes you also carry on with a joke and sometimes you end with a joke, though some of the best contestants manage to start with a joke and then turn things around so that the audience suddenly finds itself staring at a serious point. I particularly like the guy who starts with observational comedy about dunnies and then takes us to the problem of depression in our society. Something similar happened with World Series Debating, the ABC’s earlier oratorical TV show, on which I appeared a couple of times. The pressure was always on not so much to argue persuasively as to make people laugh. Audience applause determined the winners, but I never knew whether they were judging our logic or our jokes.

The other problem here is content. It’s all very well to make a speech about public speaking itself or why there’s nothing wrong with being a single mother, as two of the contestants here do, but this is not the sort of thing that the orators of ancient Greece and Rome cut their teeth on. They were told to imagine, say, what Achilles would have said when he was given the news of the death of Patroclus. The task was to illuminate the motivation of the character they had assumed and to convey the emotional impact of what they were describing. There was a weight to what they did, which we seem unable to shoulder these days.

Sometimes, I listen to ‘I Have a Dream’ much as I might listen to Bach or Miles Davis. The peroration is sheer music. King soars, free of his notes, and leaps from summarised travelogue (“the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire”, “the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado”) to a conclusion he is not ashamed to borrow from an old spiritual: “Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” My soul soars when I hear this – and there are no laughs in it at all.

Alan Saunders
Alan Saunders was a writer, philosopher and broadcaster who contributed to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin and other publications. He was a presenter on ABC Radio National for 25 years where his programs included The Philosopher’s Zone and By Design.

There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

In This Issue

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Mortal coil

Classical complex

The Sydney Symphony’s Mahler Cycle
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Bad hotel

As long as it’s black

Michael Haneke’s ‘The White Ribbon’ and Jan Kounen’s ‘Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky’


More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Letter from Dunkley

As a byelection draws the nation’s focus to the scrappy suburb of the author’s childhood, a visit reveals the damage wrought by the housing crisis

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Lines in the sand

By failing to take Indigenous knowledge seriously, a scientific paper speculating on the origin of WA desert ‘fairy circles’ misses the mark

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Serving time (after time)

Australian citizens are being held in supervised facilities after they have served their prison sentence, amounting to indefinite detention

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Might as well face it

Lively discussions take place around the country every week on ethical non-monogamy, love addiction and how much sex is too much


Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality