Australian politics has farewelled a legendary wordsmith but now is not the time to underestimate the power of a well-chosen word.
Graham Freudenberg recently passed away. He was speechwriter to Prime Ministers Whitlam and Hawke and Premiers Carr and Wran, and others. The speeches Freudenberg wrote soared with deft, graceful, powerful movement.
The legend remains but the legacy of how he used words in political combat has been compromised. The words used in our political discourse today seldom elevate, surprise or assure. Not all words deployed today lack purpose; some are consciously direct and dangerous.
Freudenberg had an affinity with words. He enjoyed their company. He understood their potency. He experienced their effect. His legend lives on in the minds of those who fondly recall a moment in Australia’s history in which words were used to wrestle with competing visions for a growing society.
Modern devices were not for him. Freudenberg did not use a computer, and dictated speeches to stenographers, one of whom timed his utterances at three words per minute. The perfect word was often bounded by long periods of silence.
The speech that launched Whitlam’s election campaign in 1972 consisted of 20,000 carefully chosen words. The excruciating process to produce this speech was the price for words that describe ideas that endure.
It felt, at that moment, like we had a chance. A generous, vibrant and independent Australia was within reach. This unique place in the world was worth the intellectual struggle, the effort to change, the courage to depart our safe mooring and chart an independent course.
Vale Graham Freudenberg. An Honorary MEAA Media member, having joined the union in 1952. A towering contributor to Australian life and an outstanding wordsmith. pic.twitter.com/tndTmqXScC
— MEAA (@withMEAA) July 26, 2019
Freudenberg believed the spoken word to be the essential equipment of any politician. There have now emerged more popular, simpler methods of communication. Social media is favoured.
Technology allows for faster, regular dissemination of messages, through videos or a handful of written words. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It remains possible to select, as carefully as the limitations on time and space allow, words that persuade.
In political discourse in modern Australia, it is not only the manner in which these words are deployed but the sentiments behind them that beg reflection. Australia’s adolescence seems a distant memory, and the wrinkles that now appear speak of a harsh, weather-worn face reflecting a content, ungenerous character. The words of elected representatives and public commentators are often evidence of a society that lacks compassion and gratitude; both a political class and society in which self-interest smothers higher purpose or common good.
Freudenberg believed political speeches to be a mixture of high endeavour and pork barrelling. Pork barrelling for votes is now more evident than high endeavour. The professionalisation of politics may be partly responsible. Over the course of a generation, our attitudes have hardened as we continue to permit words that should be considered impermissible in an enlightened society.
To our Pacific neighbours, climate change presents an existential challenge. Our elected representatives have in recent times made jokes of the disappearance of Pacific islands, and suggested their people would come to Australia to fulfil menial tasks. To trivialise these lives, and the way of life of a living culture, dehumanises.
Words are important. In the early 1990s a radio station repeatedly referred to the Tutsi as “cockroaches”, creating an atmosphere of racial hostility that led to the Rwandan genocide. The words we use, and those we permit in public life, shape our society and inform our actions. Our words are our choices.
How, then, in a country in which domestic violence is shamefully prevalent, can a public commentator retain his position after suggesting our prime minister “shove a sock down” the throat of his New Zealand counterpart, Jacinta Ardern? Alan Jones has form. He has previously suggested Julia Gillard be put “in a chaff bag”. He remains in the public eye. His words are heard. He is not irrelevant, as some suggest.
The legend of Freudenberg is assured. His legacy is for future generations to uphold, through the words we use and those we accept from our public figures.