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Rise of the campaign speech

25 minutes


Sean Scalmer

University of Melbourne

Episode Notes

What makes a speech, especially a political speech impactful, memorable and stirring? And why does it always feel so long between those times when we hear a good one? In this episode of Seriously Social, political historian Professor Sean Scalmer joins us to discuss the origins of the stump speech, and what it takes to move hearts and minds with words.

Speaker 1 (00:05):

Hi Ginger. You asked me the other day about a speech that I always remember, and I got to say it was Julia Gillard, former Prime Minister, her speech on misogyny. It was an amazing speech. 

The Hon Julia Gillard (00:19):

[crosstalk 00:00:19] …the opposition, I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not.

Speaker 1 (00:25):

A really excellent speech to give as Australia’s first female Prime Minister. I was really taken by this speech.

Speaker 2 (00:33):

I can still recall exactly where I was the first time I heard this. It was riveting. It was David Morrison in uniform, down the barrel of the camera, being super direct.

David Morrison (00:43):

The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

Speaker 2 (00:47):

Here is a senior leader being really clear that upholding the values and working together is critical to success.

Senator Jacqui Lambie (00:54):

But I know what opportunity means to many in those rural and regional areas of Tasmania.

Speaker 3 (00:59):

Hi Ginger. You are asking about memorable speeches, and for me, one of them is Jacqui Lambie’s speech about university fee increases.

Senator Jacqui Lambie (01:06):

…Further away, and I’ll be damned if I’ll vote to tell those kids in those rural and regional areas of Tasmania, that they deserve to have their opportunity suffocated in a way they’d never even know.

Speaker 3 (01:18):

For me, I grew up on a farm in regional Victoria on Yorta Yorta lands, and I was the first in my family to finish high school, first to go to uni and the first to finish graduate studies. It was scholarships and hospital jobs that made it a less risky privileged pathway of possibility for me.

Speaker 3 (01:33):

And so when the government framed education as a cost rather than an investment, it felt like intergenerational theft entrenching further inequity. And especially from leaders who largely had a free education.

Ginger Gorman (01:43):

These are all powerful speeches. Is there another one that moves you like this? My spine tingles when I hear Winston Churchill say, “We shall fight on the beaches.”

Winston Churchill (01:56):

We shall fight on the landing ground. We shall fight in the fields and in the streets. We shall fight in the hills. We shall never surrender.

Ginger Gorman (02:07):

Of course, I wasn’t alive back in 1940 when he first gave that famous speech, but there still is something about it even now. There’s something that just makes me sit up and pay attention and really think about the power of words. Whether it’s a brilliant political speech or words that inspire us for a cause or to help right a wrong, is there a secret sauce to all of this? What is the secret sauce that gives a speech the power to win hearts and win minds?

Professor Sean Scalmer (02:37):

I’m not sure if there is. I’d probably be making much more money and not working in universities if I knew what the secret sauce was, and I think that it changes over time.

Ginger Gorman (02:48):

Sean Scalmer is a Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, and he’s also a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Professor Sean Scalmer (02:56):

The expectations of an audience shift over time and our sense of what’s compelling and what’s persuasive shifts over time. So if you went back to the late 19th century, a politician’s speech would be sometimes several hours in length, and that seemed to be part of the appeal and part of the experience.

Ginger Gorman (03:15):

Yeah. I don’t know many people who would happily sit through one politician’s speech for hours. Remember in 2010 when federal independent MPs, Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott announced they would give their balance of power to Julia Gillard’s Labor. Rob Oakeshott kept us on tenterhooks for 17 minutes before finally confirming what we all knew that he was there to say, and Australians were not impressed.

Ginger Gorman (03:44):

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman, and today on the podcast, what makes a speech, especially a political speech impactful, memorable and stirring? And why does it always feel so long between those times when we hear a good one?

Professor Sean Scalmer (04:16):

We probably tend, especially those who’ve been intellectually trained, want to compare it with a rational debate or with perhaps like a presentation of a case to a judge, where logic and order and evidence are the primary criteria that will apply to whether it’s a good or a bad contribution. Whereas what an election speech is, a campaign speech is, is an exercise in persuasion in which the capacity to draw on emotions is part of what makes it successful.

Professor Sean Scalmer (04:46):

There’s also the fact that part of what you’re doing in a campaign speech is you’re not just trying to win an argument about you should vote for me, but you’re actually trying to present yourself as an object of admiration, and sometimes adoration.

Ginger Gorman (05:02):

While Sean doesn’t buy into my secret sauce theory, he says good campaign speeches usually have a couple of things in common. It’s a topic he knows a lot about. Several years ago, he authored a book on the subject.

Professor Sean Scalmer (05:16):

One is taking the audience seriously. So addressing yourself directly to the audience and having faith in their reason and their conscience, and appealing to that.

Ginger Gorman (05:28):

Take for example, Gough Whitlam’s 1972 campaign speech.

Professor Sean Scalmer (05:32):

As you went back and listened to that, you’d hear Whitlam talk about all the things that he said that his government would want to do. And then at one point, part way through the speech, he sort of pauses and he says, “I need your help,” and he runs through what he invites the participation, the enthusiasm, and of course the votes of those who are listening to him. So I think that idea that a speech is not sort of delivery of wisdom from on high, but rather is inviting a response or reciprocation from the audience is enormously important to an effective political speech.

Professor Sean Scalmer (06:07):

And then the other thing that I’d note about campaign speeches and what separates them from other forms of oratory is the willingness to use very direct speech and demotic speech, and to not be constrained by formality. A democratic speech in an age of democracy is more likely to be direct, and of course, to be understood by its listeners.

Ginger Gorman (06:27):

If you’re about to take me to task for lumping campaign speeches like Whitlam’s in with other political speeches like Churchill’s, don’t worry, Sean already pulled me up for that.

Professor Sean Scalmer (06:39):

Being an annoying academic, one thing I’d say is that we are talking about speeches for different purposes. So for Churchill’s speech, he’s trying to summon a response to an incipient invasion and trying to rouse the people to oppose Hitler. So that’s quite different than a campaign speech where you’re trying to win votes.

Ginger Gorman (06:58):

And then different again, is a speech like some of the stirring speeches mentioned earlier. Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech or Jacqui Lambie’s speech in the Senate about university fees. Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins aren’t politicians, obviously, but their addresses to the National Press Club in February 2022 are two recent examples of truly moving and electric speeches.

Professor Sean Scalmer (07:24):

They’re not campaigning for office, they’re campaigning to convince their listeners about the importance of a cause. There are things that all great speeches have in common, and one is a carefulness with language and an attention to rhetoric. And I think in the case of Grace Tame and Brittany Higgins, one thing I think they throw into relief is the ways in which they speak from their own experience and they draw upon their own experience to ground their statements.

Professor Sean Scalmer (07:51):

And so that gives their speeches much more resonance than I guess, what many of us think of as a kind of devalued contemporary Political speech, with a capital P, which is much more likely to have been market tested, to have been passed over to make sure that no one was offended, and as a result is bleached of any of the kind of passion and personality that are necessary in order to persuade.

Ginger Gorman (08:17):

That is a real problem in modern political speech, isn’t it? That everything’s been polled and market tested. And we know as punters when we listen that this is not an authentic speech that we’re hearing, and it almost makes us turn away. It’s in my view, a big reason for political apathy. Why have we got to that place, Sean?

Professor Sean Scalmer (08:40):

One reason is the fear of a mistake. So much of the reportage of the campaign, of the narrative of the campaign is around… as if it’s a horse race. So who’s ahead, who’s behind, but also the idea that someone has made a great mistake. And if someone is seen to make a great mistake, then that becomes the basis of reportage and of next questions and a journalist framing of, “Oh well, things are going badly for campaign X or campaign Y.”

Professor Sean Scalmer (09:14):

So that fear of making mistakes is like a straight jacket, I think, for our leaders. And I think you see that when you see leaders who are often seen as good communicators before they take on the highest office. I’m thinking of Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull, both of them were contrasted when they weren’t Prime Minister, with Prime Minister, and they were seen to be more authentic, more honest, more persuasive. And then immediately when they became Prime Minister, they seemed to be stilted, controlled and all of the things that people react against. So there’s an enormous pressure on our political leaders in the context of contemporary media cycles, and I think that plays a role.

Professor Sean Scalmer (09:56):

I think also if you think back to the textures of public life, when our political parties were mass parties with mass involvement, in order to make a career, you needed to be an effective speaker. That was part of the way in which you rose up through the ranks. But in our contemporary party system, it’s much more technocratic. It’s much more a passage from being a staffer or someone inside the machine to the next spot that you might take.

Professor Sean Scalmer (10:25):

And so those skills of persuasion, you don’t have to develop in order to enter the upper echelons of politics. So I think we sort of in a sense, we reap what we sow.

Ginger Gorman (10:37):

So interesting listening to you talk about that, and it’s making me think about, for example, Paul Keating’s Redfern speech, but even how John Howard addressed the crowds after the Port Arthur massacre. Those were often deeply authentic speeches that didn’t seem to have that blandness that you’re talking about.

Professor Sean Scalmer (10:57):

That comparison shows us something that both of those speeches have in common, which is they’re both delivered to a live audience that is to begin with critical of both speakers. So if you think back to the Redfern Park speech, one of the things that you notice is the disengagement, and in some cases that sort of hostility of some of the Indigenous people who have gathered to listen to what they expect to be a conventional speech.

Professor Sean Scalmer (11:23):

And then you hear their changing reactions as they recognize the significance of what Paul Keating is saying.

The Hon Paul Keating (11:31):

It begins, I think with an act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases and the alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion.

Anna Hartley (12:03):

Hey Ginger. It’s Anna Hartley here from Brisbane. I love this question. It actually really got me thinking, and as a journalist of many years, I read and heard a lot of speeches.

Grace Tame (12:15):

They thrive when we fight amongst ourselves and weaponize all of our vulnerabilities.

Anna Hartley (12:21):

I have to say, Grace Tame’s speech is the first one that came to mind and I just watched it before giving you a buzz. And it has the same effect as it did when I first heard it.

Grace Tame (12:35):

Every voice matters. Just as the impacts of evil are born by all of us, so too are solutions born of all of us. I was abused by a male teacher.

Anna Hartley (12:50):

Even if you just heard her voice and heard the words, it was impactful. And if you watched it on mute and saw her expression and the emotion and saw her presentation, it was impactful too.

Ginger Gorman (13:04):

Let’s step back a few years before Howard and Keating and Whitlam, even before Churchill. Sean said in the late 19th century, that politician speeches would sometimes be several hours in length, but how did that change without YouTube, TikTok, or even the wireless radio? Who brought those changes to our shores?

Professor Sean Scalmer (13:27):

Before the early 19th century, the ways in which most elections were held was that there was a notion that… well, for a start, the franchise is highly restricted. So it’s only men and it’s men who possess a great deal of property who can vote and who can stand for office. And that influences how we think about it as a campaign, because the campaign is primarily waged by bribery, by what was called treating, giving people, usually alcohol and by violence, by having a kind of gang on your side, who could compel others to vote for you.

Professor Sean Scalmer (14:03):

Now, that begins to change in the early 19th century in the United States because it’s a different context, because white men, irrespective of property are now able to vote. And so that means that in order to win elections, those old techniques aren’t going to work in quite the same way. So it’s in that context, that what they call stump speaking becomes a new kind of campaign method. And it’s really in the states of Kentucky and Tennessee and the Southwest of the Republic as it’s then configured that candidates begin to make speeches in their own favor. And there’s particular things about those communities that probably mean that it develops here first.

Professor Sean Scalmer (14:47):

First of all, that they did extend the franchise beyond the rich more quickly than elsewhere. These are communities without mass literacy, so you can’t rely upon written appeals in order to try and win an election. And it’s also that they have traditions of religious oratory outdoors, that habit of religious oratory then is sort of transposed into campaigning.

Ginger Gorman (15:12):

And it’s amazing that this kind of a speech was unconventional, whereas now it’s par for the course, and that when it came to both Britain and Australia, we were so resistant to that idea of the American campaign speech.

Professor Sean Scalmer (15:26):

Yeah, that’s right. That’s what struck me as well. So, in the early part of the 19th century where this takes off in parts of the United States, but it’s sort of 60 years later that it begins to take off in Australia, and it’s sort of 90 years later when it begins to take off in Great Britain. So it’s a very, very slow process. It takes so long because of the political assumptions that underpin parliamentary government in Britain and in Australia.

Professor Sean Scalmer (15:52):

So the assumption there is that what you want from a representative is someone who is an existing member of the elite and who is willing to serve their fellows, is willing to serve the community. So if you were to actually campaign actively for office, then that would almost disqualify you from being one of these people because it would admit that you didn’t necessarily want to serve others, but you wanted to get into parliament yourself.

Professor Sean Scalmer (16:17):

And so they associated in Britain, the idea of ambition for office and self-seeking, and the professional politician were all associated with the United States, and that was seen to be vulgar, money grubbing, and Britain thought of itself as above those things, or at least the British elite thought that they were above those things.

Ginger Gorman (16:39):

It was Charles Gavan Duffy, an Irish radical who brought stump speeches and campaigning culture to Australia. Sean writes about him in his book, On the Stump.

Professor Sean Scalmer (16:51):

He was a leader of what was called the Young Island movement, and he comes to Australia as a political celebrity for the Irish. And he actually comes to Australia saying, “Well, we don’t have self-government in Ireland. I want to be able to prove that the Irish are capable of self-government by participating in government in Australia.”

Ginger Gorman (17:10):

Eventually, Duffy is elected to parliament and in the early 1870s, he became the Premier of the colony of Victoria. But Sean told me this is an age when there aren’t really clearly identified parties. So, just because you are a Premier doesn’t mean that you will hang onto the top job.

Professor Sean Scalmer (17:30):

And so he has to try and find a way to try and encourage or threaten those other parliamentarians to keep supporting him. And what he decides to do is to go on a banqueting tour, an electioneering tour of the state of Victoria. So he organizes… the main people who support him are the people who live in rural Victoria on the edge of what are the train lines that he has extended. He goes out to these mass banquets in all of the old Goldfields towns. Sometimes he’s met by hundreds of people and he gives a series of speeches.

Professor Sean Scalmer (18:05):

Now these speeches are seen to be highly controversial because the rule, or the norm is that if you are in parliament, you should only give a speech within your own electorate because you’re representing your own electorate.

Ginger Gorman (18:19):

So Duffy breaks convention by traveling all over the colony making these speeches, a bit like the election buses of today, except I guess maybe they were horse-drawn back then.

Professor Sean Scalmer (18:31):

He’s accused of importing American methods. So this method doesn’t help him to stay in power, but what it does is it encourages his Treasurer, Graham Berry, and it’s Graham Berry, about four years later, who then begins to use the stump speech and also to try and build up a mass political party. And he develops these two things together and through campaign speeches and through developing a mass party, he wins what was then the greatest majority in Australian political history, and becomes the leading figure in Victorian politics.

Professor Sean Scalmer (19:08):

And all around Australia, people are watching what Berry’s doing. And in other colonies, they say, “Well, we have to adopt these methods too, even if we think they’re a bit distasteful.”

Ginger Gorman (19:19):

Mass party politics is familiar to most democracies and definitely most Western democracies, but I can’t help wondering if the two party system which we see in Australia, the UK, and also the US, is beginning to fray. And also, if the politicians aligned with the major parties are too cautious or too beholden to their pre-selectors and donors, who will be left to deliver risky but rousing campaign speeches? And how will a board or disengaged electorate reward them?

Ginger Gorman (19:50):

Take Donald Trump as a recent example of a politician who threw caution to the wind, proudly ruffled feathers throughout his own party, and according to the fact-checkers at the Washington Post, told more than 30,000 misleading claims in his four-year presidency, but he didn’t seem to care. And for the people who voted for him, he was a breath of fresh air.

Professor Sean Scalmer (20:13):

When many of us think about Trump, we think about him as a singular figure. And of course, he is in many ways, but when you attract the history of campaign speech, what you find is that the grounds on which Trump was criticized are exactly reproduced 150 years ago in other criticisms that were made of other campaign speakers. So, one of the things I look at in my book is an essay by Thomas Carlyle called The Stump Speaker, published in 1850. And here he is, the great Scottish essayist imagining and reviewing political life and saying, “Isn’t it terrible? We have now the emergence of this figure who is not concerned with truth, is not concerned with morality, will say anything to flatter an audience, will lie and will win doing so.” And Carlyle is enormously alienated from it. He sees a stump speaker as a symbol of the degeneration of public life.

Professor Sean Scalmer (21:13):

So I guess the message is that when we think about a campaign speech, we may want to, and it may be valuable of course, to hold people to account for when they lie and to deprecate their attempts to whip up people’s emotions and passions in a partisan cause, but this is what the form allows.

Julia Gillard (21:32):

Well, I hope the leader of the opposition has got a piece of paper and he is writing out his resignation because if he wants to know what misogyny looks like in modern Australia, he doesn’t need a motion in the House of Representatives. He needs a mirror. That’s what he needs. Let’s go through…

Senator Jacqui Lambie (21:50):

I refuse to be the vote that tells poor kids out there, although sitting on that fine line, no matter how gifted, no matter how determined you are, might as well dream a little cheaper because you’re never going to make it because you can’t afford it.

Grace Tame (22:06):

I remember him saying, “Don’t tell anybody.” I remember him saying, “Don’t make a sound.” Well, hear me now. Using my voice amongst a growing chorus of voices that will not be silenced, let’s make some noise Australia.

Professor Sean Scalmer (22:32):

It’s the sense in which someone is speaking much more directly from their experience that allows the speech to have an impact. As the campaign speech has become and as the sort of party has become more and more an agent of control, and as our political leaders have become more and more risk averse, that’s made moments in which those things are laid aside in which people speak much more directly, much more unusual, and sometimes much more impactful. Those kinds of speeches are those that then become hinges for culture and political change.

Ginger Gorman (23:07):

Well, I for one hope our future is filled with more engaging, uplifting, and honest speeches that stay with us long after they’ve been spoken. Did we miss a speech that has inspired you, or helped you consider the latest speeches you’ve heard in a different light? If so, let us know via our socials. We are always keen to engage with you.

Ginger Gorman (23:29):

Thanks for listening to Seriously Social, I’m Ginger Gorman. If you’re enjoying the podcast, one of the best ways to support us is to subscribe. And if you listen through Apple Podcasts, drop us a review in there as well. We love reading them and it helps other people find us. Seriously Social is produced by Kim Lester, engineered by Mark Gargeldonk, AKA Baldy, and executive produced by Sue White and Bonnie Johnson. It’s an initiative of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.

Ginger Gorman (23:59):

Next time, dictators, what drives them and how do dictatorships really work behind the scenes? See you soon.

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