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In an age of rhetoric, Australian politics is missing the American flair

From Pericles to Trump, a good speech has been an integral part of the democratic process. William Chew/Flickr, CC BY-NC

In an age of rhetoric, Australian politics is missing the American flair

The busy schedule of elections and plebiscites in the Anglophone world has brought with it an increased interest in rhetoric – the art of public speaking. In particular, the recent Democratic convention in Philadelphia saw some major speeches, not the least by Barack and Michelle Obama, and others including Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Michael Bloomberg.

The notable speeches at the convention, including Hillary Clinton’s own serviceable contribution, helped to get her a bump in the polls at the right moment. The stakes were high, following on from the Republican Convention, where Trump’s long speech had a mixed response, but the controversial speeches of Melania Trump and Ted Cruz, in particular, held the nation’s attention. Trump himself is no mean orator, with a kind of aphoristic, syntax-free style, and an unrivalled capacity for getting his message and profile across.

The Australian political scene of 2016 could scarcely be more different. Campaign launches used to provide an important opportunity for a flurry of rhetoric on a political leader’s part, as Gough Whitlam’s did in 1972. But these events have lost much of their prominence now because election campaigns are constructed differently.

Party launches now occur nearer to the end of campaigning than the beginning, because the parties have to fund themselves after their launches. In the 2016 election the two main political parties launched their formal campaigns with only two weeks (ALP) and one week (Liberal Party) to go before the vote. After six weeks of three-word slogans about policies which had already been announced, interest was minimal in the speeches at the official campaign launches.

Indeed, as far as the speeches were concerned, the main interest was election night itself – that is, after the voting, not before it. Malcolm Turnbull offered up a rather graceless speech on the night of July 2, one which he probably regretted. Bill Shorten did somewhat better on the night, and in the campaign generally, although that was partly because expectations were so low.

It is worth reflecting on the ancient origins of “rhetoric”, which is a Greek word for the art of speaking in public. It developed in a very significant way in Greek antiquity with the rise of democracy.

Political power was a great stimulus for learning how to craft an impressive speech. Pericles, for instance, most famously, held the reins of power in democratic Athens by virtue of his great powers of persuasion. His prominence was such that, according to Thucidydes:

in what was nominally a democracy, power was really in the hands of the first citizen.

Pericles’ own speeches have not survived but we get a sense of them in the pages of Thucydides, notably his Funeral Oration, for fallen Athenian soldiers. His actual speeches must have been magnificent, given their impact within a city-state that was so focused on political rhetoric.

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz, 1852.

But it is important to stress that, even before the advent of democracy, speaking well in public was an important ancient Greek virtue. For instance, the main Greek princes in Homer’s Iliad, our earliest European text, were expected to fight well, but also to speak well in the various assemblies.

And there were significant competitive elements to both activities. Some heroes in the Iliad are good speakers, but others are not. Achilles is a wonderful fighter, but he is ill-at-ease in the gatherings of the princes; whereas Odysseus, the wily craftsmen of words, is much more at home in the assemblies.

The greater level of interest in rhetoric in modern American political life is paralleled by its profile in the tertiary sector there. For instance, The University of California, Berkeley, has a Department of Rhetoric offering a full undergraduate program and graduate program. It describes itself as “committed to the study of rhetorical traditions from the classical to the contemporary eras”.

The University of Texas has a Department of Rhetoric and Writing offering a diverse range of courses focused on rhetoric and rhetorical traditions. Harvard has an endowed chair, the Boylston Professorship of Rhetoric and Oratory, once held by John Quincy Adams, although it has a poetic focus these days (and was duly held by Robert Fitzgerald and Seamus Heaney).

Many other American universities offer rhetoric within other disciplines, like English, Composition, or Communication Studies. There is some interest in the study of rhetoric in Australian universities too, although not usually as a discreet area of study.

On the whole, Australian political culture is far less concerned with rhetoric than ancient Athens, or the contemporary United States (which is not to say that we haven’t had some fine political speeches). There is nothing necessarily wrong with this. Indeed, some people would see it as a positive virtue, given the extended history of good speeches leading to bad policy.

Paul Keating’s 1992 speech on Aboriginal reconciliation is widely admired as a great speech.

But one wonders whether some great political opportunities are currently being missed more than they were in the recent past. Gough Whitlam, a scholar of Greek as it happens, and an admirer of Pericles, set his campaign on track for victory with a memorable speech at Blacktown in November 1972. It ended,

I do not for a moment believe that we should set limits on what we can achieve, together, for our country, our people, our future.

It was uttered by Whitlam, but it could easily be Pericles.

There is no reason why our political leaders couldn’t have benefited from major speeches in the recent election, in the mould of Whitlam or Pericles or Obama. They might indeed have captured the imagination of the voters. But this would have required far more attention to speechcraft, and laying out an imaginative vision for the future, and far less to the costs of running a campaign.