What makes a great political speech? Let’s talk about oratory, my fellow citizens | Paul Daley

Of all the millions of words uttered on the hustings during this unedifying election campaign, few, if any, will be remembered as having soared to any great oratory heights.

These days election stump speeches tend to be quickly devoured in the voracious churn of the perpetual news cycle and largely parsed in disconnected chunks for their strategic and market-tested messaging rather than their cadences and artistry.

Most party leaders’ transcribed speeches – those of ministers and shadow ministers – are readily available. But few beyond pundits and political tragics would seek them out and read them for their craft or evocation of emotion.

Sometimes a line or two from a leader’s campaign speech resonates – or echoes – to perhaps evoke something of a more optimistic, inspirational political epoch. So it was during Anthony Albanese’s campaign launch a couple of weeks ago my attention shifted from an AFL match on my laptop screen to the TV as the Labor leader was speaking.

It was three words: “My fellow Australians.”

I started paying attention.

The echo in my memory said: “My fellow citizens.” It was the voice of Gough Whitlam, and the line was from his 1972 Blacktown campaign launch, a speech regarded as one of the more memorable in the pantheon of Australian election orations and exceptional even by Whitlam’s standards.

In this speech, Whitlam referred to “fellow citizens” three times, and a recent reading reminds me he also absolutely referenced “my fellow Australians” towards the end. These repeated words set something of the rhetorical pace of this Whitlam stump speech. Just as Albanese’s repetition of “my fellow Australians” (he said it, with careful measure, seven times) set the meter of his speech, perhaps with the intent of evoking the anticipation and “it’s time” optimism of 1972.

Structurally Albanese’s speech was not entirely dissimilar to Whitlam’s half a century ago (but don’t get me wrong; the former does not have the captivating oratory power of the latter).

Paul Daley

Sean Scalmer, a historian at the University of Melbourne and author of On the Stump – a book about campaign oratory in Australia, the US, and Britain – says the 1972 Whitlam speech is powerful and memorable because of its direct, down-to-earth appeal to its audience as if he is speaking with equals, rather than down to them.

“Whitlam [spoke] about everything he said his government would want to do. And then at one point, part way through the speech, he sort of pauses and says, ‘I need your help’,” Scalmer recently told the Seriously Social podcast.

“He invites the participation, the enthusiasm, and of course, the votes of those listening to him. So I think that idea that a speech is not a delivery of wisdom from on high, but rather is inviting a response or reciprocation from the audience, is enormously important to an effective political speech.”

Whitlam, with whom humility was not necessarily synonymous, was socially and politically equalizing himself with the audience with the repeated mention of his fellow citizens. He was inviting them to share the space and the ride. Albanese may not be a Whitlam-esque orator. But he sure knows Labor history.

For the most part, in Australia, at least, there are probably better and more memorable political speeches delivered outside of a campaign context. A few years ago, together with the playwright Katie Pollock, I co-wrote two plays – The Hansard Monologues – based entirely (don’t yawn) on Hansard.

As someone who’d watched parliament professionally for many years, the dramatic and occasional comic potential was no surprise. It was rich pickings. The challenge lay in what to omit (our first drafts were many tens of thousands of words!).

What made a great parliamentary speech entirely differed from what made an effective election stump oratory, although they sometimes shared similar characteristics. That is, a willingness – or impulse – to speak beyond the confines of party politics, to demonstrate humanity, honesty, and raw natural emotion.

Perhaps the top two speeches in the house in the parliaments covered by The Hansard Monologues are then prime minister Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech and then putative prime minister Malcolm Turnbull’s condolence speech for Robert Hughes.

(Meanwhile, the most extraordinary speeches I heard from all corners of the parliament were delivered on 19 June 2000, when distressed MPs lamented the suicide of the Labor MP Greg Wilton. Incidentally, the very next day was one of the most viscerally ugly and partisan in recent memory!) the emotion was palpable, the honesty raw, disarming – even distressing. One of the most moving ones was delivered by Tony Abbott. The words were spoken with tears and brittle sentiment as members and senators decried the brutality of politics and called for more human and caring politics.T

Paul Keating’s Redfern speech, followed closely perhaps by his speech for the unknown soldier, were exemplars of a politician’s powerful oratory delivered away from an election and parliament.

It seems authenticity – a trait that can desert a politician who is too tightly controlled or overly cautious – is everything in political stump speeches.

“I think you see that … [with] leaders who are often … good communicators before they take on the highest office. I’m thinking of Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull,” Sean Scalmer says.

“When they weren’t prime minister … they were seen to be more authentic, honest, and persuasive. And then immediately when they became prime minister, they seemed to be stilted, controlled and all of the things that people react against.”

He points out that until the late 19th century, political “stumping” in Australia and Britain were often viewed as uncomfortable and tasteless. Charles Gavan Duffy, a radical Irishman who became premier of colonial Victoria, started making stump speeches all over the state to shore up his position.

“He’s accused of importing American methods. So, this method doesn’t help him to stay in power, but what it does is it encourages his treasurer, Graham Berry. And it’s Graham Berry, about four years later, who begins to use the stump speech to try and build up a mass political party,” Scalmer says.

“And all around Australia, people are watching what Berry’s doing. And in other colonies, they say, ‘well, we have to adopt these methods too, even if we think they’re a bit distasteful’.”

Bella E. McMahon
I am a freelance writer who started blogging in college. I am fascinated by human nature, politics, culture, technology, and pop culture. In addition to my writing, I enjoy exploring new places, trying out new things, and engaging in conversations with new people. Some of my favorite hobbies are reading, playing music, making crafts, writing, traveling, and spending time with my family.