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Word power

By Peter Botsman - posted Monday, 11 December 2006

It’s a fine line between pleasure and pain
You’ve done it once you can do it again
Whatever you done don’t try to explain
It’s a fine, fine line between pleasure and pain

What is a fine line? Is it the words in themselves that matter? Is it the saying of them? Words that once burned with meaning can fizzle. The shifts and changes in our perceptions and remembrances of words and ideas are what interest me in putting this volume together. Is it possible to track the way we value words? Our lived relationship with them, our enunciations and pro­nouncements?

Meaning emerges from a conjuncture of times, institutions, practicality, people, character, moments. The same is true of actual techniques of using words. The meagre, humble words of Ben Chifley are capable of being etched in stone, because as his biographer Fin Crisp tells us so well, they came from his deep, felt beliefs in a period of world crisis and deliverance. With Chifley, and Curtin, we search for more words than are actually there.


For the Menzies and Whitlam generation in Australia the “word quip” was king. A witty one liner was capable of flooring a heckler, like a right to the jaw. But the word plays and witticisms of Menzies, Whitlam, Eddie Ward, Jim Killen, Fred Daly and others fell by the wayside in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Big ideas” fuelled politics. Paragraphs and pages of words became the forté of politicians and their minders. It is hard to find memorable witticisms from Bob Hawke. Hawke reached his intellectual zenith as President advocate of the ACTU. As Prime Minister he was a manager rather than an innovator. He liked to dominate an interviewer on television and scowl at journalists. But he never dominated parliament, probably because he had such a steep learning curve during his rapid escalation to the prime ministership.

Paul Keating was the dominant parliamentary performer of the 1980s and 1990s. Whereas Hawke was relatively unprepared for the parliament, Keating was “born in the briar patch”. He combined the cleverness and sharpness of the old school of orators with concepts and big pictures. His short jabs and combinations of sharp words awed his colleagues and as he matured, his parliamentary performances became less about the political shirt-front and more about getting “the big picture” across.

To appreciate the full power of Keating you had to be there hearing a full onslaught in the parliament. You had to see him as much as hear or read his words. When he rose ready to slay his opponent the parliament inside and outside the chamber stopped. Keating could deliver a punch - but frequently there was a sparkle in his eye; underneath brutal words there was a playful larrikin.

He would come into the chamber armed with news clippings and dot points and the ticking of his brain was almost palpable. The famous words “precis please”, noted in fountain pen, were well known in his office. It wasn’t for lack of reading, it was just that for Keating everything came down to reducing a big idea or report or historical moment to a series of crisp, unforgettable phrases.

Words on their own don’t do justice to the Keating persona, many of the lines and ideas in this volume will not have the ring or power of their original performance. This was Keating’s problem in a way. Without being able to see the twinkle in his eye, we heard the nasty asides or powerful phrases and they could appear crude, scary or too smart by half. To the public Keating could be a strong figure. John Howard worked out that it was better sometimes to lose debates to Keating and to simply hold up a mirror to the man and disappear.


The 1990s saw the rise of Indigenous Australia’s 21st century statesman, Noel Pearson. Pearson’s oratory power has something of the power of Keating. Early on Pearson was influenced by Keating’s crude, smashing words. As time has gone on Pearson has become a more original thinker than Keating and he, perhaps more than anyone else, has taken what was innovative from the 1980s and 1990s and put it together in a new system of thinking and action at his Cape York Institute.

Pearson learned from his elders a love of traditional language and a love of the Queen’s English in all its rigour. But like Keating, to appreciate Pearson one has to be there for a sustained performance. Pearson is so powerful because he senses the moods of the nation and his burning concepts, often derived from intense discussion with his peers, or from the wisdom of elders, are delivered at just the right time and place.

I was a foot soldier in the contests of words and ideas in the 1980s and 1990s. In 1988 I became the inaugural Director of the Evatt Research Centre, and was flung into the world of politics. I like everybody else who worked passionately for the Labor movement in this period burned myself out writing hundreds of articles, press releases, speeches and reports, some under my own name, many under other peoples. Nothing in academic training prepared me for the sheer hard work from 1988-1996.

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This is an extract from Fine Lines by Peter Botsman.

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About the Author

Peter Botsman is Chief Editor of Australian Prospect and a former director of the Whitlam, Brisbane and Evatt Institutes. Peter's Working Papers can be found here.

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