Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Why vote for a poet?

Here is the talk I delivered at Pecha Kucha last week:


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 create 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.

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