By Judith Ireland
The nation stopped this week. But it wasn't just for a deathly feather-decorated horse race. The Sydney Town Hall, breathing room only, was utterly transfixed as Noel Pearson spoke about Gough Whitlam.
"Raised next to the wood heap of the nation's democracy, bequeathed no allegiance to any political party, I speak to this old man's legacy with no partisan brief," Pearson began in that quasi-terrifying preacher cadence.
The speech was hailed as a great one even before Pearson had finished. Immediately the "Noel for PM" jokes began. And they were only half-joking.
This was not just because Pearson was able to make Gough's achievements seem afresh, even though his life has been heavily obiturised for the past fortnight. Or because of that Monty Python reference. Or even because of his delivery, which made the Oscar winner who preceded him seem like an amateur theatre performer in comparison.
It was Pearson's ability to make politics seem bigger than the day-to-day. And bigger than the individual. As Pearson asked: "Who would not say the vitality of our democracy is a proper mission of government and should not be renewed and invigorated? Who can say that liberating the talents and uplifting the horizons of Australians is not a worthy charter for national leadership?"
We are not used to speeches such as these. Survey the last two decades of the Australian political habitat and you would be pressed hard to find examples where speeches have captured the imagination.
There is Julia Gillard's misogyny effort, Kevin Rudd's apology to the Stolen Generations, Paul Keating's Redfern Park speech and his eulogy to the Unknown Australian Soldier. On the Coalition side, you could nominate Malcolm Turnbull's parliamentary tribute to Robert Hughes and John Howard's speech after the 9/11 attacks. And then, the tumbleweeds roll.
In part, we have ourselves to blame for this great speech desert. University of Sydney associate professor of history James Curran points out that Australians are naturally suspicious of grandiose talk. Invoking Don Watson's line, he notes that if our politicians spoke in the purplish hues of some of their American colleagues, "Australians would throw a brick at them".
Curran notes that when Howard was elected in 1996, he made a point of saying he did not have a speechwriter (although he did actually use speechwriters). He wanted to pursue a practical, no-nonsense politics — something that could be easily differentiated from Keating's approach. It was a style later taken up by Labor. Despite his wonkish tendencies, Rudd's speeches were more about speaking directly to people. Not crafting narratives.
The fact that Australia does not have the history that say, the United States does, to conjure up heady feelings also contributes to the problem, Curran adds. We have no civil wars or universal moments of national liberation to draw on. As Tony Abbott recently discovered, talking loftily of 1788 gets you into all kinds of trouble.
Could it also be argued that the speechwriting profession is not valued as it used to be? As we saw this week, Whitlam's speechwriter Graham Freudenberg was so much of a sidekick that he was one of the select few to speak at the former prime minister's memorial.
But we know from James Button's book, Speechless, that he wasn't even housed in the same building as Rudd during his brief tenure as prime ministerial speechwriter in 2009. And barely met or talked to his "boss". The chapter entitled, "Kevin, USE MY STUFF!" says it all.
The ol' 24/7 politico-media spin frenzy is not helping either. Where is the room to think of something interesting, let alone say to say it these days? And would people even listen if you did? Keating has famously observed that if "Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address in 1992, the chances are the journalists wouldn't report the speech at all, but the doorstop that followed it".
Imagine if Lincoln had given it in 2014? No one would have even gone, because the whole thing would have streamed live on Sky, before it was interrupted to go another press conference.
Or would they?
The sheer fact that people have responded to what Pearson had to say proves that there is an appetite for great speeches. As Michael Fullilove, editor of Men and Women of Australia! Our Greatest Modern Speeches, argues, "people are not interested in mealy-mouthed talking points and language that is crafted to obfuscate" (despite what the focus groups say).
Granted, a great speech is no simple feat. And one cannot simply be zapped up in a microwave at two minute's notice.
But Australian politicians – and their various hangers on – please take note: people do want something more from politics than how much the other side sucks, who did a backflip, what the polls say and who gaffed on a banana peel.
Some might even say they need it.
This article was originally published in Fairfax Media