Election 2013 media panel

Election night speeches show Caesar triumphant, the rambler in defeat

It was a night that confirmed Australia’s political expectations, by and large, and the two leading protagonists certainly performed their parts.

Tony Abbott gave the speech that this campaign has taught Australians to expect from him these days. He claimed victory, of course. He did it in a way that encouraged and rewarded his supporters. It was not particularly generous to his opponents — but not overtly spiky either.

The attitude towards adversaries was one of the most interesting features, really. As of now, Abbott seems resolved to say the very least about them that he needs to: thank Rudd for his public service; acknowledge the 54% or so of voters who gave their first preferences to non-Coalition candidates; then get back to rolling out the new governing agenda.

In the last few days of the campaign, several government and News Corp figures showed signs of a looming ramp-up of the ‘culture wars’ that bitterly divided John Howard’s government from the non-Labor left in Australia. This speech indulged none of that.

Another feature was less novel, but it stood out in the victory speech. This came at a moment when numerous past winners in this country have flicked the switch to dullness.

At that moment, Abbott reminded us that he cares about speechcraft. This was not a flamboyant performance, but it was far from drab. The policy priorities were clearly heartfelt, whatever you make of their wisdom. Abbott clearly used the moment to spell out his version of what had just happened – his version of what electoral decision making means, including the honour and responsibility he feels it bestows upon him.

Stylistically, as in content, the speech was clear about its main points and efficient in making them. I have gone back to Bob Hawke’s 1983 victory address, but am yet to find a newly elected prime minister who took up less time on election night (although Julia Gillard came very close in 2010, acknowledging an uncertain result).

Abbott’s three-part propositions were more muted than in his campaign stump speeches; his alliterations and anaphoras were less showy; but the phrases were crafted nevertheless. If this was how the New Statesman Abbott speaks from now on, his rather metaphoric verbs and his agenda-filled noun phrases resonate strongly with several of his heroes: Winston Churchill, Edmund Burke, Cardinal Newman, even Julius Caesar.

I still reckon Abbott made a tactical error with his second debate slag, ‘Does this guy ever shut up?’ — but only because he bared his teeth unnecessarily. The main point he was making then, as last night proved, is that Australians want a prime minister who can cut to the main point. It will be a mighty asset now he has the agenda-setting advantages of incumbency on his side.

Kevin Rudd also gave a speech that we expected him to give, and our expectation got truer as the speech went on.

We expected he would concede defeat, and indeed he did. We expected he would talk more about himself than about the party, the electorate, or especially his audience, and indeed he did.

What is more, in retrospect, we should have expected that he would go on too long. At almost 22 minutes live-to-air, it was 5 minutes longer than the 2010 speech to journalists that drew such ire for Rob Oakeshott.

So Rudd is a windbag with precious little empathy for his audience, but we should not lose sight of a deeper problem for his future on the professional lecture circuit: he has no idea how bad some of his speeches are.

Aside from all the personal indulgence of Rudd’s speech, I was greatly struck by the shambolic appeal to party mythology in claiming that Labor nurtures a deep sense of purpose to keep it going through such a heavy defeat. Rudd used Chifley’s ‘Light on the Hill’ metaphor extensively, to ostensibly rapturous applause from his live audience, to make no discernible point at all.

This is highly reminiscent of Rudd’s 2007 election victory speech, in which he took our essentially boring, insincere national anthem as the central image for a speech even more boring, even less sincere.

It is not just that Rudd’s central arguments in these speeches are vacuous, or that the logics he marshals as a speaker are weak. Equally fundamental is the hammed-up delivery: overemphasis is a melodramatic technique, but when you overemphasise the wrong words or syllables then you expose a credibility gap. It is a mistake that dehumanises the speaker in her or his listener’s ear. Julia Gillard had a similar problem with finding her stresses, as do many politicians across the spectrum, but the newly elected prime minister certainly does not.

One unalloyed positive of Rudd’s career is his 2008 national apology speech. This success rested so heavily on a moment of performance – as the hapless counterexample of Brendan Nelson showed – that it is clear he had the right stuff somewhere in him, and sometimes he could produce it brilliantly. Many other speeches he delivered have also supported this point. But he has turned out shockers far too often.

Rudd ended as he began. One suspects Abbott has begun in the manner he will end.