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The art of oratory - Kevin Rudd's fine words

By Greg Lees - posted Friday, 18 July 2008

All politicians have a deep desire for attention, like a comedian's deep longing for approval from the applauding crowd. And just as the most hilarious laughs come from the edgiest comedians, then similarly the most arresting politicians tend to be ego-maniacs.

This is the case with Kevin Rudd, who loves the big stage and the grand gesture.

At the World Youth Day rally there were a couple of pithy lines, packed into a sound bite that caught my attention: "Some say that faith is the enemy of reason, I say they are wrong" he said with such vigorous authority. Apart from such an audacious proposition, worthy of philosophical debate, what strikes me about this man is his “Generalissimo” projection in front of the adoring crowd.


The occasion could have been any youth rally, in Sydney or around the world as the atmosphere would have been much the same for the participants - stoked with the hormone laden enthusiasm of youth, which is always the enemy of reason.

While some American and British politicians remain aware of the allure of oratory's power to enchant, it has in large part been lost in Australian politics, until Kevin Rudd's recent reintroduction of it.

This is not to be confused with election jargon like the very dead cliché of “working families”. That phrase now invariably sends “the worm” south, unlike good oratory which holds the attention and stimulates the listener.

Along with his admirable study and mastery of a foreign language, perhaps the first Australian prime minister to attain this, as a politician he may have been intrigued to study Chinese political culture as well. Chinese leaders are given to effusive rhetoric, sometimes metaphorical, and often expressively poetically in form. The utterance is everything, and there is no need to follow up the words with any action.

Along with conjugating Chinese verbs, I think Kevin Rudd has also picked this up: that the power and drama of rhetoric can be so sublime that all action crumbles in awe before it.

Kevin Rudd's mastery comes from using this technique to create political capital. By saying wonderful things to the right audience, they will love him for it, and then when the policy fails to deliver, they will forgive him, because they don't remember if there was any practical follow through beyond the day's fine words.


An example of this was the “Sorry” speech in Parliament house which was a wonderful piece of theatre, and truly a sentiment that needed to be expressed. The practical innovations to counter Aboriginal disadvantage are forgotten because they were not remarkable, rather, they were just a bit of fine tuning of the previous government's intervention.

The government's green declaration in Bali where Australia climbed aboard the Kyoto caboose made us all feel proud, and world leaders threw him olive laureates to express their satisfaction. The government's actions however are less noble and are not set towards the green future for which Australians clamoured. The “actions” are more towards maintaining the status quo. He did say he was an economic conservative and he is keeping his word.

Last November I too wanted change from the grey skies of Howard's winter, and voted with the majority. After a period of stagnancy the promise of spring enlivens the senses and infuses one with hope and joy. The Rudd springtime is passing, and little has come from those optimistic fancies. May the summer not be too long or too dry. You never know, with some luck it might rain.

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About the Author

Greg Lees was born in Bendigo and educated there, majoring in Environmental Studies and Philosophy. He is now retired and 'settled' in Melbourne for the last four years, after much travelling in this country and overseas.

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