Politics

Sep 7, 2013

Martin McKenzie-Murray on the culture of timidity in political speechwriting

Bethanie Blanchard

Writer, critic and Liticism blogger

When I meet with Martin McKenzie-Murray, a former speechwriter for a Federal department during the Rudd government’s first time in office, his frustration at the structure and culture of Canberra speechwriting is palpable: “I was never the speechwriter there, I would say, because the culture of the place was the speechwriter. A million people would look at it, a million rival policy factions would look at it, they’d all want to inelegantly shoehorn their projects into it, and so everything read like a shopping list of expenditure and policies. It wasn’t a fucking speech, it wasn’t an act of persuasion, it wasn’t an act of instruction, it was garbage.”

McKenzie-Murray’s award-winning site, Feeding the Chooks, invokes Joh Bjelke Petersen’s notorious view of news conferences and speaking to the press. But it alludes also to parts of  the 1946 Orwell essay Politics and the English Language of which McKenzie-Murray says he thought constantly during his time there.

I ask if there is anything he wrote while working for the Department that he was proud of? “If I did, they would’ve been abandoned or discarded. Anything that I might have been proud of would’ve fallen by the wayside, or been chewed up by the machine.”

It does indeed appear to be a structural issue. Frustration at access to the speechmaker, and the decision making process that informs the policies announced was something all writers I interviewed for this series noted.

“You need to be with the person — it’s an act of mimicry, speechwriting. I think you need to be close to the person to know their personal preferences, where their passions lie, how they speak, the kind of language they prefer. You have to pick that up through immersion. You can’t be divorced from the person you’re writing for. I think the idea of situating the speechwriters in the department rather than the minister’s office is awful.”

“The speech almost always fell apart. There are a thousand bureaucrats adjudicating the work – if you hand a document to twelve people to look over, you’ll have twelve different sets of changes. Even if Theodore Sorensen had written it and it’s a beautiful well oiled machine, there will be twelve changes because people feel compelled to make changes. Out of insecurity or whatever, people feel they have to add something.”

The destructive effect of bureaucratic language on policy and speechwriting is something McKenzie-Murray highlights: “The way jargon catches on, it’s like a virus and it’s highly contagious, it affects thinking because words are how we express our thoughts, they’re framed and finessed and constituted by words. If those words are clichés, if it’s jargon and you’re using it simply to fit in, I think your thinking is affected, and certainly your communication is affected.”

McKenzie-Murray has landed himself  in trouble before for comments about political speechwriting, with a piece for The Drum in late 2011 which was highly critical of the speechwriting culture and his role within it. He had left that particular department, but was still a Federal Government employee at the time of its publication. “They saw it as an act of treachery, an act of defiance, but the actual measure of what I had written was not taken. It was just, ‘don’t do this again.’ But I was very angry and frustrated at the quality of communications in Canberra, particularly speeches.”

“Some of the stuff in Canberra which frustrated the shit out of me was the timidity, and it falls into communications. You have advisors who come up with all these too-clever-by-half strategies to avoid doing things because they see potential gaffes left right and centre. The whole thing is managed [to] within an inch of its life. That level of timidity sickens me and it’s also ruinous to language, it’s ruinous to soulful and instructive communication.”

“I don’t find it an attractive way of thinking about politics – that everything is a potential gaffe to avoid, and you deploy this wily cleverness to avoid it. To me that’s a really soulless way of approaching politics and when I left Canberra I could never understand why people kept getting out of bed. That level of strategic cleverness is a perversion of what politics should be about, which is ideas and policy, and I think that damages language.”

He talks about Rudd’s rhetorical style, which he doesn’t view as strong or persuasive. “I think he developed a reputation as a good speaker because of the Apology. But if you go back, I think there’s a lot of platitudinous talk in his speeches. Rudd would always do this thing where he would emphasise process rather than principle. In a speech, particularly to a broad general audience, you want to tell them why you’re doing this thing, you don’t want to necessarily focus on how. That’s not to say the process isn’t important, it’s just less important for the purposes of a speech.”

Though McKenzie-Murray believes Abbott is articulate, he is critical of his performance too, “You can see the strain, the psychic strain in a sentence. There’s very rarely a sentence, let alone a speech or a passage in a speech that is fluent – it’s truncated with pauses and ums and ahs. He’s not that inarticulate – he’s a Rhodes scholar. That is psychic stress, where everything is impossibly considered and filtered and you end up having this really stilted, unusual, inelegant and frustrating speech, though Abbott certainly doesn’t have a monopoly on that.”

We discuss American politics and the example of Obama. I note that Rudd and Obama came to power at a similar time, and that the reception of his speeches worldwide suggests there is still clearly an appetite for strong political oratory. Is the lack of powerful speechwriting simply an Australian thing?

“We don’t have a culture of speechwriting as the Americans do. There’s a suspicion in Australia of highfalutin talk, but a great speech needn’t be Sorensen’s JFK speeches, a great speech can be a vernacular speech and still be good. But we don’t privilege it or emphasise it like the Americans do. You wouldn’t find something like the Lincoln memorial where Lincoln’s words are inscribed in granite, metres high.”

For McKenzie-Murray, the most interesting speeches in Australian politics are the commencement speeches upon entering parliament. “People can be a little freer and a lot more personal in those speeches. But by and large we don’t have a culture that stresses them, we’re not terribly interested in them.”

I ask whether social media and the constant access we now have to politicians is changing political speechwriting, and if it is indeed relevant at all? “In a culture where they’re less important than say America, I think we’re at a time where it’s even less important than it was, which is not terribly.”

“There’s another question within your question which is what should a speech do? If it’s simply a vehicle for getting out your message for that day – whether it’s a political attack or a it’s a policy announcement, and you can do that via Twitter, Facebook, and then traditional media, why not? It’s more targeted as well, you can specify your audience, you can target your audience better. But that suggests that that’s all a speech should be about, rather than it be an act of beauty or an act of soulful instruction in times of tragedy, an act of solidarity, any sense of imagined community as a nation.”

“If you’re just sending out tweets and it’s all fractured, you lose any sense of that. That sounds peripheral or romantic but it’s not, because it plays into the quality of policy. If we’re not having these grand speeches that speak to us collectively, we’re less likely to give support to parties who give some sense that things are larger than ourselves.”

See Part I of the series: James Button on the death of the campaign speech.

See Part II of the series: Tom Switzer on political ventriloquism and the pace of speechwriting. 

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