Rudd’s launch speech lacking

September 2, 2013

By Dennis Glover

Labor supporters with tears should prepare to shed them now, because Kevin Rudd’s campaign launch speech is unlikely to save his government from defeat.

As speeches go, the Prime Minister’s address to the Labor faithful on Sunday was a solid enough affair. It had a slogan about building for the future, a long list of Labor values, another long list of things worth fighting for, and a further long list of policies of supposed interest to tradies.

And Rudd delivered his long lists with considerable energy to a crowd that responded with loyal enthusiasm.

His best line? “If you’re not sure how Tony Abbott’s $70 billion of cuts will affect you, don’t vote for him.”

Rudd’s speech wasn’t pretty but it was pretty effective, at least inside the room. For a short, fighting moment, it worked.

Something, though, was missing. What was it?

Some hints were provided by Anthony Albanese’s warm-up speech, which carried off its interrogation of Tony Abbott’s record and character with considerable aplomb.

How about this: “If you want a bloke who can jump through tyres, vote for Tony Abbott. But it you want a bloke who can take you through the next global financial crisis, vote for Kevin Rudd.” And how about this: “There is no issue too big for Tony Abbott to show how small he is.” Ouch!

Albanese demonstrated in his modest way how just a little bit of speech-craft can enliven even the most difficult message with character, charm and wit – all the things that Rudd’s stump speech so obviously lacked.

Where was Rudd’s central argument, his vision, his intelligence and his big story? Where was the elevating poetry to make what he said memorable beyond a single news cycle?

This failure to give Rudd a memorable speech in his big moment says much about the state of the modern ALP. In its eagerness to embrace social media campaigning, Labor has neglected the true essence of political communication – the speech.

It’s no coincidence that political oratory and democracy were born together, so there’s a fair chance that if you’re lousy at the first, you’re going to be lousy at the second. There’s a message here for the next generation of Labor leaders – stop the backroom conspiracies and start becoming better communicators if you want to win elections.

But perhaps the most extraordinary thing about the launch is that it only happened on Sunday. How can you give purpose to your election campaign if your first big set-piece speech only comes after the campaign has been lost?

Lacking purpose, this campaign has been a mess from start to finish – the social media can’t provide it.

Since the start of the campaign, my email inbox has been bombarded by messages from the Labor team asking me to doorknock, stuff letterboxes, make phone calls and even hold an election night party. Taking retail politics to a new high, they asked me to buy a $30 T-shirt in support of gay marriage.

Think about it: they have managed to do all this, but it has taken them 29 days into the campaign to try to win me over with a speech. There’s a message here for the next generation of Labor campaign managers too: social media campaigning may have worked for the Democrats, but only because they had a great product to sell  the world’s best orator and communicator, Barack Obama.

A few months ago Julia Gillard’s chief media strategist tried to gee-up a flagging Labor staff meeting by playing the famous “sons of bitches” speech from the George C Scott movie, Patton. Looking at the Labor members huddled tightly around their leader on his circular stage yesterday brought to mind the scene from another war movie Zulu, where the Welsh troops, having fallen back to their final redoubt, saved themselves by calmly obeying the words of their blond leader, Michael Caine: “Front rank, volley fire, reload; second rank fire, reload”. The outnumbered Welsh went on to win that battle, but one suspects that Tony Abbott won’t be spending this week committing suicide the way the Zulus did at Rorke’s Drift or John Hewson did in 1993.