September 2019


A time to remember

By Don Watson

Graham Freudenberg in 1976. © Greg Lee / The Sydney Morning Herald

The passing of Labor’s great speechwriter Graham Freudenberg highlights the party’s absence of a clear rationale

“What survives the wreck of time is the force of the imagination and the power of expression.” 

— Lewis Lapham

Long before he died, Graham Freudenberg had entered the Labor pantheon. He was one of very few to get there by means other than a parliament or trade union. Graham floated in on the graces of his sentences and the synthesising powers of his mind. He was Labor’s great articulator, its poet.

Australians first heard of him around the time of the 1972 election when it was reported that he had written Gough Whitlam’s mighty Blacktown address – one account adding the romantic detail that to compose some of it he had taken a room in the Hydro Majestic Hotel at Medlow Bath, in the Blue Mountains.

Historian that he was, he would have known that, 15 years earlier, a kilometre or two up the road, the great prehistorian and one-time Labor adviser and speechwriter Vere Gordon Childe had fallen from Govetts Leap – it is reasonable to suppose that he killed himself. The author of the 1923 classic critique How Labour Governs, Childe had recently returned to Menzies’ Australia, and despaired at the lack of social progress. He told a Melbourne audience that their suburban culture was in substantial ways inferior to 10th-century Iceland.

Fifteen years later, there was Graham Freudenberg writing the manifesto for an Australian social democracy. Labor would seize the chance to “re-create” Australia, “liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people” and “revive in this nation the spirit of national cooperation and national self-respect”. Labor would do this and more through “the most carefully developed and consistent program” ever offered to the people. This last, the speech assayed at length. A saviour had arrived and Labor was alight with hope at last. Modern Australia was about to be born.

Graham’s belief in Labor was unbreakable. It was his church. For all the flaws of its machinery and the corruption of its personnel, all the failures and contradictions that Childe had trenchantly analysed, Labor still held the keys to that immanent but elusive prospect of social justice and the fulfilment of national possibility.

For nearly 50 years Freudenberg wrote speeches for Labor’s cause. The ideas and arguments he made articulate and persuasive over half a century were Labor’s. The policies and prospects described in speeches for Calwell, Whitlam and Hawke were Labor’s. But his purpose needs to be separated from his achievement. Those speeches were laid before the nation. His triumphs lie in the realms of Australian politics and Australian history. He belongs in the national pantheon.

It is well known that Freudenberg and Whitlam had an uncanny affinity, but his speeches did not need Whitlam’s distinctive rendering. The plain, sinewy phrasing of a speech he wrote in May 1965 retains its power on the page and just as uncannily summons the voice and persona of Arthur Calwell from otherwise faint memory.

With calm precision this speech put before the national parliament the case against the Vietnam War. It proposed an alternative to the government’s strategic view. It predicted a bloody quagmire from which the United States would eventually retire humiliated. And, in a passage explicitly directed to Calwell’s Labor colleagues and the party rank and file, it faced the consequence of “doing our duty as we see it”.

I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, that your motives will be misrepresented, that your patriotism will be impugned, that your courage will be called into question. But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated; that generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless Government wilfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labor Party was heard, strong and clear, on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity, and in the interests of Australia’s security.

The speech pays re-reading, not only for the force of the argument, but as an early example of the writer’s art. Freudenberg did not set out to take audiences soaring on rhetoric to another plane but, as Lincoln did, to fasten them to an idea.

A command of reasoning and evidence is essential to this, as it is to a newspaper article, or any argument. Something like a poet’s imagination helps. But what distinguished Freudenberg’s speeches, and gave them force, was the poise of the words and the dignity they granted the person speaking them. They were seemingly compelled by nothing but their own logic and the rhythm of the language.

And then there is Blacktown, 1972, and the speech dedicated to the men and women of Australia:

The decision we will make for our country on the second of December is a choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future. There are moments in history when the whole fate and future of nations can be decided by a single decision. For Australia, this is such a time.

Language technicians might be able to tell us what made the cadences so effective, why when we heard Whitlam utter those words our hearts thumped, and even when later in the speech he was talking about bringing sewerage to the outer suburbs the tears had not dried in our eyes.

The mechanics aside, the speech cashed in on the sense that one era was passing and another beginning. History was the element in which, intellectually, Graham Freudenberg lived, and from which his thoughts and sentences flowed. His big speeches never wandered far from his awareness of the flux of time, and it was this as much as his technical mastery that gave them the gravitas and drama to stir an audience.

If it did not quite live up to the memory of 1972, at least for those who thought Labor’s time had come again, the party’s campaign launch this year was galvanising. What Bill Shorten’s speech lacked in poetry was balanced by the combination of policy weight and cordiality calculated to reflect the Labor family’s outward empathy and inner harmony. As a performance piece it worked.

The whole show wanted for nothing – except a sign that people were listening. For all the excitement in the Brisbane room, at home in front of the television one felt very alone; worse, one fought a palpable sense that Shorten might as well have been spruiking non-stick saucepans while the rest of the country watched My Kitchen Rules. It was no fault of his: what we sensed was not the failure of a speech, but the death of the speech.

The news cycle began to kill it 30 years ago. Now governments and Oppositions must feed the monster 24 hours a day – not with speeches but with messages, for which read, mainly twaddle. Meanwhile, trillions of tweets and images have licensed lies and stupidity, allowed thugs and ignoramuses to prosper, bigotry to flourish, triteness and shallow optimism to replace even cursory analysis.

Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Stolen Generations aside, it is hard to think of a speech any politician has made this century. It’s not for want of good speechwriters – there have been plenty of them, including Bill Shorten’s. It’s because speeches have little value in the political culture. The media has no need for them, and the public no appetite, nor probably the attention span. The political speech has been all but reduced to a meaningless bow in the direction of tradition.

With the overthrow of the speech much else is overthrown, including the experience of feelings such as those generated by Whitlam in 1972, or Lenin in 1917, or any number of others, for better or worse, including some written by Shakespeare. So much connective tissue is lost: argument, irony, imagination, knowledge – the confluence of past and present. The story is lost. The loss of the speech is a loss to politics, and to human culture. Childe might have noted its disappearance from both realms.

It’s been missing for so long we hardly notice it anymore, but that was the other thing missing from this year’s Labor policy launch. Bold policies demand a compelling narrative to bed them in. Labor did not have one.* Either it saw no advantage in declaring a philosophy, or years of messaging have left it without one worth declaring. In truth, at no time in the past 20 years has the party effectively laid before the people a form of words to give voice to its ambitions, the national sentiment it wishes to foster, the community and nation it wishes to create – nor convincing evidence that, thus armed and directed, its time has come.

It says a great deal for Graham Freudenberg that a speech he wrote nearly 50 years ago still resounds today. It says less for Labor. Any number of reasons will be given for the devastating defeat this year. It’s unlikely the people investigating will decide that before doing anything else, the party should steel itself against the cultural trend, look hard toward the horizon and find an eloquent way of saying what they see. But if they did, and found themselves believing in a social democracy for these times, they would honour Graham Freudenberg and do something to dispel the current despair.


* Labor’s campaign slogan, the moth-eaten cliché “A fair go for Australia” is a symptom of the problem. The term “fair go” does not appear in the Blacktown address, which shows a speech can be written, and Labor can succeed, without it.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author and former speechwriter for Paul Keating. His books include Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PMAmerican JourneysThe Bush, the Quarterly Essay ‘Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump’ and There It Is Again, a collection of his writing.

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