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Why you should vote for a poet?

By johnboy - 28 March 2011 9

CJ Bowerbird’, ‘a performance poet from Canberra gave a speech at last week’s Pecha Kucha which I thought worthy of consideration as Canberra’s thought begin to turn to the ACT Government election scheduled for next year.

Below is an edited version of the script used.

Earlier this month, Ken Henry, the outgoing Treasury Secretary, presented a lecture at the University of Tasmania. He said that we know what we need to do to keep Australia a successful country, but what we don’t understand so well is how to get it done.

I share Ken Henry’s pessimism, but perhaps for different reasons. I do not think our current political leaders are capable of introducing the changes needed to meet our current challenges. My reason: none of them can tell a story and none have poetry in their voices.

There has been significant social and economic change in the past thirty years in Australia, introduced by both major political parties. Consider removal of trade tariffs, centralised wage bargaining, floating of the Australian dollar, Medicare, the Sex Discrimination Act and the GST. The Prime Ministers who led Australia through these changes could tell a story and had the orator’s gift. They could use language to inspire, motivate and lead. And they had to. Not all of these changes were popular. In fact, many of them were extremely unpopular.

Gough Whitlam’s ability to craft a sentence is well known (‘well may we say…’). He used this ability to introduce changes as diverse as free tertiary education and abolishment of the death penalty for federal offenses. Bob Hawke could hush a bar full of blokes with his stories, which convinced unions and socialists that floating the dollar and opening Australia to trade were necessary. Paul Keating’s Redfern Speech is one of the best known of the 20th Century. He expressed thoughts never before heard from a Prime Minister. And John Howard told convincing stories in a simple voice to middle Australia. Think gun control and budget surpluses.

So what do we have now? A speech where the PM uses the phrase ‘moving forward’ twenty-three times in fifteen hundred words. It was painful to listen to and condescending. It was compared to training a dog to sit through repeating the word ‘sit’. Weeks later, Julia Gillard had dropped ‘moving forward’. But her allegedly unscripted campaign launch was uninspiring. It was highlighted only by her addressing the audience as ‘friends’ twenty-seven times. Perhaps it was a wish (I do believe in fairies, I do, I do).

In the blue corner, Tony Abbott’s campaign launch had its own nauseating slogans: end the waste, stop the boats, stop the big new taxes. His speech began negatively, emphasising the failures of the Labor government. Then he seemed about to move to a positive theme. He said ‘We must offer the Australian people a better way’. But we were quickly deflated when the better way was revealed to be ‘stop the boats, stop the great big huge new taxes…’ By this stage, our ears had RSI.

And this is all without mentioning Kevin ‘Programmatic Specificity’ Rudd. On the whole, our current political leaders are failures with the spoken word. Well, that’s not entirely true. These politicians take clichés to the next level. In fact, as a poet I am almost envious. They seem to invent clichés whenever they speak.

Our leaders do not seem to read creative works or listen to creative people. They are guided by media advisors and not by their humanity, in an environment where the slogan rules over the narrative, where the subeditor always trumps the journalist.

I think this is important. Stories matter. Poetic language matters. Themes, rhythm, imagination, pleasant surprises, rhetoric – these all matter. It seems the only tools available to politicians today are hyperbole, repetition, repetition and repetition.

The way politicians speak today lacks empathy. It does not connect with people with any depth. It is a poke rather than a hug. This is great for talkback radio hosts, but not for people who want to move the nation.

Our current political vernacular is unimaginative. It betrays the underlying (or should I say underpinning) lack of creativity and thought in development of policies. Thinking and writing are intrinsically linked. If you cannot write a speech that is creative and compelling, then most likely you cannot make policy that is creative and compelling. I am not saying no one is creating thoughtful policy. It is just that it is not our politicians.

Ultimately, this means our political leaders are not. If you cannot communicate, if you cannot motivate, if you merely reflect opinions instead of changing minds, then you cannot lead people through change.

When was the last time during an Australian political speech you heard a story, that touched your heart and delighted your ears? We will not get the change our country needs until you do hear a story like this. For this reason, I think climate change policy in Australia is doomed. No one is telling us a convincing, consistent story about why it is needed and what it will look like. And this is just one example of the creative policies we need.

So how do we fix this? Vote for a poet at the next election. I am only half-joking. Only someone who can use language in a compelling way and link ideas to our deep emotions will be able to lead Australia to a prosperous, peaceful and healthy future. Until our major political parties install leaders who can do this,
we will not get the changes that we need.

What’s Your opinion?


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9 Responses to
Why you should vote for a poet?
EvanJames 11:06 am 29 Mar 11

Good words that needed saying. We are being ruled by faceless men, PR flaks, people who measure public response to everything before it sees the light of day. Many of our politicians go in with dreams and desires to make things better, and they get swallowed up by these people and spat out wearing the appropriate clothes, expressions and mouthing platitudes and phrases scripted for them after extensive testing. It’s horrible.

I think our last great leader was Keating, and look what happened to him. Now we get these cardboard cut-outs… what’s with all the white jackets Gillard is suddenly wearing? Why did Wong and Plibersek and Shorten suddenly become boring?

Suddenly everyone in public life is terrified of those two words: I’m Offended. Suddenly, it’s vital to avoid offending anyone. Everyone must be pandered-to, no one can fail.

dtc 10:52 am 29 Mar 11

As much as I hate question time, Julia does very well there – why doesnt she display that passion outside the chamber?

triffid 10:23 am 29 Mar 11

I-filed said :

I disagree – politicians should still be politicians. But they need to hire poets as their speechwriters. Gillard’s speeches are only as poor as her departmental speech writer.

Yes, of course they need to be politicians. That, after all, is the game being played. But, they would do a much better job of it by being possessed of the characteristics suggested as lacking in recent times. The simplest piece of music can be either increadibly moving or dull as dishwater depending on the manner of its performance.

I’m not talking about speeches in isolation, either. I’m talking about the character of the prosecution of a myriad of policy arguments before the electorate. Leaving aside the content of those policy positions, their various manifestations and whatever contestable merits they may, or may not, have, the arguments made for them lack the passion (for want of a better term), or possession of relevent critical insights, required to be in any way persuasive or that act as a demonstration of understanding. It’s interminably and inevitably the dull-as-dishwater performance. It’s also the lacking of a vital indegredient in that critical factor called leadership. And, the polls currently reflect the unconscious recognition of that situation being made by the electorate.

housebound 9:46 am 29 Mar 11

I-filed said :

I disagree – politicians should still be politicians. But they need to hire poets as their speechwriters. Gillard’s speeches are only as poor as her departmental speech writer.

That would be Michael Cooney.

Pommy bastard 7:36 am 29 Mar 11

What Gillard needs is instruction in how to talk through her mouth like the rest of humanity. Talking through her nose, or indeed any other orifice, does her no favours at all.

I-filed 8:07 pm 28 Mar 11

I disagree – politicians should still be politicians. But they need to hire poets as their speechwriters. Gillard’s speeches are only as poor as her departmental speech writer.

triffid 4:55 pm 28 Mar 11

dtc said :

There is clearly only one solution: bring back Keating and Don Watson.

Indeed, Don Watson came immediately to mind when I read this.

“Our leaders do not seem to read creative works or listen to creative people. They are guided by media advisors and not by their humanity, in an environment where the slogan rules over the narrative, where the subeditor always trumps the journalist.

I think this is important. Stories matter. Poetic language matters. Themes, rhythm, imagination, pleasant surprises, rhetoric – these all matter. It seems the only tools available to politicians today are hyperbole, repetition, repetition and repetition.

The way politicians speak today lacks empathy. It does not connect with people with any depth. It is a poke rather than a hug. This is great for talkback radio hosts, but not for people who want to move the nation.”

There is a very good reason why our current crop of politicians lack empathy and are this way. They lack empathy because their frame of reference and experience of ‘the human condition’ is limited. And that limitation has, in my view, come about for a variety of reasons. In large measure it is, I think, because of the professionalisation of politics. Wheras once we even had train drivers becoming our PM, now we have kiddies schooled in the dark arts from their grade 13 experiences at university (while undertaking the mandatory law degree) continuing on, working with ‘the machine’ in a union, or some other defacto trade of politics. This gives them the gift of a very particular prism through which they view life.

Look, too, at the folk advising them. Yes, many are very clever . . . bright young things indeed they are. But, seriously, what experiences do they have to form their views? They, too, are cut from the same cloth and have walked — and are walking — the same path as their masters.

When a world view is so much formed by (what I regard as) an insulated and semi-removed position in the world, one of the head and not of the heart, one free of pain and overflowing with privledge, one of experience once removed rather than experience from which one needs to dust themselves off, then we ought not be surprised at our current choices on ballot papers.

dtc 11:35 am 28 Mar 11

Johnboy, how did your presentation go?

People need to remember that, nowdays – with Abbott a prime but by no means sole cause – anyone who has a ‘vision thing’ just gets shot down. There will always be people opposed to your vision, the bigger your vision the stronger the opposition. Say something creative and imaginative and you just leave yourself open (Rudds climate change speech comes to mind). Politics nowdays really seems to be ‘keep your head down’ (which is why the proposed carbon ‘tax’ is quite unexpected).

Plus, of course, Howard, Rudd and Gillard are hardly great orators. They probably wouldnt feel comfortable in giving speeches that were inspiring or emotional.

There is clearly only one solution: bring back Keating and Don Watson.

gentoopenguin 10:00 am 28 Mar 11

Agreed. Although he forgot Rudd’s nauseating tick of beginning sentences with “when it comes to…”
Do politicians think Australians are that dumb that they need to speak like the Teletubbies? Lala Newspoll, Lala Newspoll….

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