A couple of years ago, on a frosty Canberra morning, I was out walking. It was early and there was nobody else about except for a family: mum, dad and a couple of kids. As I power-walked past Old Parliament House, the dad commanded the steps and began to wave his hands. ‘Well may you say God save the Queen,’ he roared, his melodrama cutting through the frigid air, ‘because NOTHING will save the blah blah blah blah blah blah.’ With that, he hopped off the steps, clearly delighted with himself. The family trundled off, probably in the (forlorn) hope of finding somewhere open for breakfast.
Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s grand, furious sentence still resonates, more than three decades after the Dismissal. Our household even has a ‘Well may you say . . .’ tea towel, one that I’ve found more absorbent than any other tea towel I’ve ever used. It’s a great line – a great soundbite – in an enraged speech.
Another former Australian prime minister, Julia Gillard, also gave one of her greatest oratorical performances in a moment of anger. The potency of Gillard’s misogyny speech, delivered in parliament, came, in part, because of the way the speech expanded like a balloon, and because of the way it distilled so much more about feminism and resistance to feminism than the specific parliamentary motion that provoked her response. Its potency came also because the initial object of the Prime Minister’s scorn – ‘this man’ – was sitting a few metres away, wondering how a balloon could grow and grow but never burst.
And then there are these words, uttered in answer to a journalist’s question: ‘Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.’ Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s artful muddying of the waters – on the subject of the artful muddying of waters – shares an important quality with the speeches by Whitlam and Gillard: Rumsfeld spoke words that became emblematic of a moment in history.
Julia Baird has written that, ‘Political speech-making in Australia today is almost completely lacking in thunderbolts. Political oratory is a lost art, and we are all poorer for it . . . We are all craving inspiration, and leadership, but are deeply bored.’ I agree, which is one reason that I have asked several Australian writers to write a speech on behalf of a politician of their choice. Australia is full of savvy and subtle wordsmiths, and I’d also argue that it is full of political figures and other citizens who do actually give a shit. And yet our national conversation has become straitjacketed, tenaciously earnest, resistant to shades of grey, and – most especially – bogged down in rancour for rancour’s sake. Rhetoric is a response – a fun response, I hope – to these concerns.
I asked Michelle Law, John Birmingham, Jane Rawson and David Hunt to contribute to Rhetoric because I admire their words they write and the imaginative ways they interpret Australia and the world. Writer and screenwriter Michelle Law takes serial politician Pauline Hanson into the near future. I find myself fond of the new Hanson (and it gives me hope, even if it’s false hope, that I can recognise the new Hanson in the old). John Birmingham, one of the smartest writers to ever display his love for ’splosions, gives a twenty-first century makeover to the text of Robert Menzies’s famous speech, ‘The Forgotten People’. Novelist and climate change writer Jane Rawson channels environmentalist Bob Brown as he waves farewell to the human race (and from time to time Brown’s own words slip into Rawson’s speech). And just as he did in his hilarious Girt: the Unauthorised History of Australia, David Hunt delves into Australia’s colonial past, giving Governor Lachlan Macquarie a chance to bemoan republicanism. Accompanying the not-actually-real words of Pauline Hanson, Robert Menzies, Bob Brown and Lachlan Macquarie are portraits by talented young cartoonist Luke Marcatilli.
As with Hunt’s Girt, the speeches in Rhetoric are unauthorised: I can almost guarantee, for example, that Robert Menzies has not come back to life (although nothing’s impossible given that, as I write, Australia are playing a test match against England at Lords, the home of cricket). The English writer Angela Carter once said that Frank Moorhouse’s writing ‘makes you laugh, and think’. I hope the appropriated speeches in Rhetoric have a similar effect.
This project was made possible by support from the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund