John Faulkner Remembers Whitlam’s 1972 “It’s Time” Policy Speech

Senator John Faulkner has delivered a speech tonight in honour of the 40th anniversary of Gough Whitlam’s 1972 ‘It’s Time’ policy speech.

Senator John FaulknerFaulkner, the ALP’s unofficial historian and Whitlam confidante, spoke at Bowman Hall, Blacktown, site of the famous campaign launch that propelled Whitlam to the prime ministership.

Faulkner paid tribute to the power of political speeches: “We may be cynical about politics and politicians, we may be sceptical of the motives of those men and women who aspire to represent and to lead us – whether in Parliament, in community organisations and campaigns, or in social movements – but it is still their words which have the potential to express our aspirations, our beliefs, and our deepest sense of collective self.”

Whitlam’s 1972 speech embodied those qualities, Faulkner argued. He claimed that political speeches are more relevant than ever in a technological age that allows wide and immediate dissemination.

  • Listen to Faulkner’s speech (20m)

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  • Whitlam’s 1972 Policy Speech

Text of speech by Senator John Faulkner at Bowman Hall, Blacktown.

40th Anniversary of Labor’s 1972 Campaign Launch

When Gough Whitlam strode onto the stage, here, on this day, in 1972 and addressed, with Curtin’s ringing exhortation, the ‘men and women of Australia’, I have little doubt that he had little doubt he was striding into the pages of Australian history as well.

Yet, Gough’s superb and – usually – justified self-confidence aside, there was little reason to imagine that the words he spoke on this stage on that day would endure as they have in our political and popular imagination. That their message of hope and purpose would still have the power to make hearts beat a little faster four decades later. That they would echo down the years to move and inspire men and women of Australia not yet born when Labor won that 1972 election.

There is a tide, as Shakespeare wrote, in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.

And there is no doubt that there was a rising tide that lifted Labor, and Labor’s Leader, Gough Whitlam, in 1972. The cultural changes that swept the world in the 1960s, sharply contrasting with Australia’s long years of stultification under Menzies and his Liberal successors, made the 1972 campaign a pivotal point in not only Australia’s political landscape, but our social and cultural climate as well.

There is no doubt, too, that much of that tide was the result of Gough’s hard work, and the hard work of all of us in Labor, in the months and years before – tapping into the public mood for change, for modernity, and channelling it into the belief that a Labor government would provide that change and that modernity. So the 1972 launch speech was the culmination of years and years of work. By the time Gough strode into this hall, ‘it’s time’ was for many as much a statement of fact as an expression of political partisanship.

It was a moment of great potential. And with his speech, Gough seized that moment.

There is a power to a great political speech that no other creation of language has – no poem, no novel, no play, however dazzling, moving, or brilliant they may be.

Not, by any means, all political speeches. Hundreds of thousands, millions of words are spoken every year around the world by politicians that are at best forgettable, and at worst, better forgotten.

But those few which say exactly what must be said, at exactly the right time – when our elected representatives speak both to us and for us – inspire citizens and define nations.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg address – Ben Chifley’s light on the hill – Churchill’s ‘never surrender’ – draw their power not only from the potency of their language, but also from the inextricable combination of authority and duty democracy bestows upon our leaders.

We may be cynical about politics and politicians, we may be sceptical of the motives of those men and women who aspire to represent and to lead us – whether in Parliament, in community organisations and campaigns, or in social movements – but it is still their words which have the potential to express our aspirations, our beliefs, and our deepest sense of collective self.

Those who represent us accept both the right and the responsibility to speak for us as well. And, very often, they speak for us at the moments of our greatest triumphs and our sharpest grief; they both ask and seek to answer the most pressing questions of our age.

The political speech is the fusion of rhetoric with politics – politics, that ‘honourable profession’, as Gough has called it, through which we steer our country’s course, address our differences with ballots rather than bullets, and seek to meet the needs and unlock the aspirations of all in our community.

The political speech is designed for the moment of its delivery and it is shaped as much by its purpose as it is by its author. Paradoxically, no speech will stand the test of time unless it passes the test of its delivery.

Political speeches must take the tide at the flood.

But of all the occasions for political speechmaking which might provide that opportunity to seize the moment, to define the debate, to crystallise the argument, I think any politician would agree that a Leader’s policy speech is the least likely candidate.

Of all types of political speeches, a Leader’s policy speech is the most meddled with, the most unwieldy, the least artistic. It is the camel of political speeches – designed by a committee. And that committee is often composed of Ministers, Premiers or State Opposition Leaders, party officials and advisors, all with their own opinions and their own priorities.

On one particular occasion I still shudder to remember, that committee was composed of two people working until dawn the night before the policy speech was to be delivered. One of them was me.

We lost that election.

On another occasion, recounted by Graham Freudenberg in A Figure of Speech, a speechwriting committee was supplemented by South Australian premier Don Dunstan meeting Gough and Freudy at Adelaide airport and, using the hood of the Comcar as a desk, red-penning entire paragraphs and ripping out entire pages.

Subject to multiple revisions and subservient to the need to shoehorn into its pages every skerrick of Party policy, often written and re-written under the shortening shadow of the deadline, while the crisis of the day – or the hour – intrudes on the Leader’s attention, the policy speech has to buck the longest odds to achieve greatness.

But in 1972, Gough’s speech transcended all of that.

It is not a short speech. (Few of Gough’s speeches ever are!)

In its twenty-odd pages it canvasses – with what Clem Lloyd once termed Gough’s “remorseless didacticism” – Labor’s plans not only for health, education, defence and foreign affairs, but for local government and rates, sewerage, urban transport, telephone charges, insurance, wine, building costs – the list goes on.

And yet it does not strike the ear as a shopping list of disparate policies, as so many such speeches do, from both sides of politics here in Australia and from political leaders around the world.

It is bound together by a vision – a clear and a passionate vision – of a future Australia, an Australia in which all of these policies fit, and fit because they further the aims that Gough set out so memorably:

  • to promote quality
  • to involve the people of Australia in the decision-making processes of our land
  • and to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people.

That vision is a grand one, but grand statements in political speeches are often disregarded as hollow rhetoric. What set Gough’s declaration of intent apart from so many others, what makes his speech so much more than a flourish of ideals, is the concrete, complex policy agenda that follows.

And in that interplay between the idealistic and the pragmatic, the vision and the visible, lies the power and the greatness of this speech.

The detailed policy makes Gough – and Labor’s – “three great aims” tangible and believable, while those great aims knit together seemingly disparate policy elements across the breadth and width of government.

From Gough’s opening words on Australia’s “choice between the past and the future, between the habits and fears of the past, and the demands and opportunities of the future” to his final confident declaration that with the help of the Australian people, “I do not for a moment believe that we should set limits on what we can achieve, together, for our country, our people, our future”, no other speech could have served so perfectly the complex and competing demands a campaign launch brings.

As a speech launching an election campaign, it was a speech more purely about politics than perhaps any other. And it is a measure of the power of that vision, of those words, that it is impossible to read the speech today – as it was impossible, listening to it then – without believing once again that politics can and should serve our highest goals and not our basest interests.

Much of what is written about the practice of political speechmaking these days is infused with an air of nostalgia, even eulogy. We live, we are told, in the age of ten-second sound-bites, not well-turned sentences. Commentators decry the prevalence of spin, of ‘lines of the day’, of communication professionals practiced in the dark arts of ‘the message’. Speech-making, with its demands of eloquence and endurance, of reason and rhetoric, is supposedly a lost skill beyond the abilities of modern politicians, and outside the attention spans of today’s voters.

It is unquestionably true that politicians today have many more ways to tell their fellow Australians what they believe, what they plan, and what they are doing, than did their predecessors. For generations, the political speech was the main and, aside from the occasional pamphlet pushed into a letter-box, the only way to persuade, to explain, to motivate.

Now daily news and 24-hour news channels bring our words directly into the homes of millions each day, albeit for mere seconds at a time. The engaged citizen not only accepts but expects that their representatives will explain themselves on Twitter, and chronicle their work on Facebook and Instagram.

And today, Australians have many more ways to inform and entertain themselves, without traipsing off to a school hall on a Tuesday night to hear a speech from their local MP or community activist.

It has become accepted wisdom that attention spans today are too short, lives too busy, attitudes too cynical, for the soaring rhetoric and the detailed rationale of political speeches.

But, and I think that recent weeks have made this case irrefutably, speeches that frame and are framed by key moments in our nation’s political and social life have not been made impossible or obsolete by new technologies and new ways to communicate.

Rather, I think political speeches are potentially more powerful, and more important, than ever before. Today, two million people can see and hear a speech given in a venue that, physically, can hold only the tiniest fraction of that number. They can watch it and listen to it as it is given, or moments, or hours, or even months, later.

Distance and the pressing demands of modern life are no longer a barrier to hearing our representatives set out, in their own voice, their values, their opinions, their reasons and their goals. The ‘Twitter generation’ is the YouTube generation as well.

Two million views of Prime Minister Gillard speaking in Parliament, one million in one day of President Obama speaking on election night last week, five and a half million of former President Clinton addressing the 2012 Democratic Convention should tell us all that the internet does not sound the death knell of the political speech – quite the reverse.

If political campaigns are fought on the field of the ten second sound bite or three word message, as they seem so often to be; if those who aspire to lead us seem to have no desire to inspire us; if the memory of the hope and belief that Gough Whitlam gave to all who heard him, here forty years ago today, seems only the echo of a long-lost past: we must look for reasons somewhere other than the technology which carries our voices.

Not in how we communicate, but in what we communicate. Not in the medium, but in the message. The sophistication and immediacy of social media, the importance to modern campaigning of advertising, and the demands of the nightly news spot may make it possible to rely on slogans, and evade the dangerous and demanding challenge of arguing policy and principle.

But they do not make it mandatory to do so.

Those of us privileged enough to be elected to represent our fellow Australians still have every opportunity to speak to them, and every responsibility to speak for them. We may not hope to do so with the eloquence and elegance of Gough Whitlam – but do so we should, all the same.

And if we fail to even try, the fault lies, to quote again from Shakespeare, not in our stars, but in ourselves.

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