May 3, 2014

PMs err on wrong side of umm

I cannot believe Tony Abbott. Is it not possible for our Prime Minister to say something that’s not delivered in a slow, robotic and repetitive — I say again, repetitive — cadence? Or that isn’t prefaced with the stuttering ­utterances of “err” and “well”? 
For goodness sake, man, you are a Rhodes Scholar. Act like one, or at least speak like one. Show us the ­lucidity of your thinking through the fluency and the eloquence of your language. Surely there’s a sharp mind in there, somewhere. Hello?

Not that his predecessor was any better. Tell me that Kevin Rudd did not utter to President Barack Obama in front of the world’s media the term “programmatic specificity”? Please tell me this is an urban myth.

Kevin, what were you thinking? You are at best the head of a colony from the farthest edges of the known world. Your place in Obama’s presence is to look smart, pose for pictures, be grateful for an audience and use language that is pre-eminently forgettable. I know this is a hard concept to get your head around, Kevin, but “blend in”.

Do not get me started on Julia Gillard. I understand that, like Rudd and Abbott, she too could well be a delightful conversationalist, but as prime minister her plodding through the paragraphs of a prepared statement was painful. Palpably painful. For everyone and anyone within earshot!

I’m not sure whether Julia improved her elocution throughout her term or whether it was that my ear plasticised to the Gillard auditory form, but towards the end I quite liked her twang. It was oddly reassuring. It was distinctively Australian. I did not care for the substance or indeed for the context of her now famous, or infamous, misogyny speech but as a piece of spontaneous oratory it was powerful, fluid, gladiatorial and magnificent. And that is why it is memorable.

John Howard’s oratory did not offend me. Regardless of what you might have thought of his politics, Howard found a way to deliver his message without the delivery getting in the way.

Paul Keating was an orator on a grand colonial scale. He delivered daily what Gillard managed once. His language was direct. His imagery was as colourful as it was grandiloquently biblical.

It strikes me that the oratory skills of the Australian PM genus have diminished within a single digital generation. And I suspect that this outcome derives in turn from the effects of the ruthless process of natural selection. Either the verbally skilled are being naturally ­diverted to other occupations — such as advocacy, perhaps — or they are having their language curated and mightily managed during the apprenticeship years. The net effect is a muted, perhaps even a neutered, newspeak political form.

No PM can now truly speak their mind. Every utterance is examined. Every verbal misstep is captured, dissected and displayed to the hawing masses as evidence of wider incompetence. Far better to play it safe and stick to the script even if it deprives our public discourse of the passion that would naturally flow from the frisson of people of verbal skill and conviction. And this is why Tony Abbott and his successors will forever be advised to always choose their words carefully.
Bernard Salt

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