On 2 June, the NSW Branch of the Labor Party hosted a dinner for Graham Freudenberg, former speechwriter for federal and state Labor leaders, including Arthur Calwell, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Neville Wran, Barrie Unsworth, Bob Carr and Simon Crean. This is a transcript of his speech at that dinner – personal reflections and recollections of the people he has travelled with in his more than 40 years of service to the Labor Party and to Australia.
I suppose I should be the last person in Australia to say I’m speechless. But I am truly overwhelmed with gratitude and amazement by the honour you are doing me tonight by your attendance and by what you have done and said. The trouble with being third or fourth speaker is that they take your best lines. It’s hard not to get carried away. So I must be especially careful not to be dithyrambic.
Tony Whitlam told the story about Gough and me discussing the difference in our writing styles – not to mention the differences in our lifestyles. He said “My problem, comrade, is that I am too inspissated. Your problem is that you are too dithyrambic.” Well, who could argue with that! He added: “We complement each other”. As soon as I decently could, I went away to look up the dictionary. “Inspissated” is dry, excessively dense in details; “dithyrambic” is hyperbolic, extravagant, as in a Bacchanalian dance.
I have been a great recycler and a great borrower. And setting aside Shakespeare, Lincoln and Churchill, this room tonight is packed tonight with my creditors, people I have borrowed from and used in speeches.
How moved I have been by things you said, Bob [Hawke] You used to say that I was the “chameleon” of speech writing – meaning that I took on the style of the person with the responsibility for delivering the speech.
I have never been sure whether I’ve written 1000 speeches or the same speech 1000 times. But most them have had one purpose: to persuade people to vote for the Labor Party.
But let me say immediately – and I know Evan [Williams] and Stephen [Mills] and Carl [Green] will agree – you don’t get to write good speeches unless the persons you have the privilege of writing for are speech makers in their own right – or, at least, willing to work very hard at making them.
As to the recycling and borrowing, it’s a matter of economy. Neville Wran said in one of the McKell Lectures: “It was said of Caesar Augustus that he found Rome of brick and left it of marble. It will be said of Gough Whitlam that he found the outer suburbs of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane unsewered and left them fully flushed.” A few years later (and I’m proud to think that all these relationships deepened when I was off their official staff) Gough quoted Neville on Gough, adding “I accept Neville Wran’s compliment”. And here am I, in 2017, quoting myself, quoting Gough, quoting Neville quoting some Roman historian – the full circle.
I don’t drag this in just for the sake of a story. I want to illustrate something that is precious, priceless about Australia and Australian history: the continuity of things and the interconnection of things, our own connection with the history of our own country, something, I think, unique to Australia. And this room overflows with the spirit of continuity and connection. There’s bound to be a lot of nostalgia. But I also want this sense of continuity and connection to convey something about the future – a confident future for Australia and the Labor Party.
Talk about continuity! Talk about connections!
I note, for example, with delight, the presence of Kim Beazley. We all think of Kim as the great Prime Minister we never had. But I always connect Kim up with that unforgettable night in June 1951. It was the 50th anniversary of the Federal Parliament. Kim junior – all of two going on for three – was being baby-sat by Mrs Elizabeth Calwell at the Hotel Kurrajong while his parents and Arthur Calwell attended the ball in the King’s Hall in that magic place, Old Parliament House. Menzies, who had just narrowly won an election and seemed definitely on the way out, stopped the music to announce that Ben Chifley had just died – in his room at the Kurrajong. Kim senior was the finest parliamentary debater of my time. This was in a Parliament that included Gough and Eddie Ward and Jim Killen and Les Haylen. Wayne Haylen’s father , Les, tongue-lashed Menzies mercilessly. Kim senior was marked for greatness until the Split of 1955 wrecked everything.
A little more than 30 years on, the baby was one of the most successful Ministers in our most successful government – I mean really the most successful Cabinet, because it was Bob Hawke’s understanding of the nature and potential of Cabinet government that was the basis of that success. In 2001, as Leader of the Opposition, Kim asked me to draft a speech for that marvellous time in Melbourne for the centenary of Federation and the centenary of the Labor Caucus. I was able to perform the same service that night for Gough. There never was a more hopeful time. Then came 9/11 and the shame and the shameful exploitation of Tampa. And, as Bob Ellis said, so it goes. But you see what I mean by continuity and connection.
I myself, a mere 83, have known personally every Prime Minister since Sir Earle Page, caretaker between Lyons and Menzies in 1939, except John Curtin and Ben Chifley. That’s a huge gap. But working for Arthur Calwell, who was a Minister in both their governments, certainly helps fill that gap. Arthur introduced me to Earle Page in 1961 – just before my first election, my first campaign, my first Labor policy speech – about 25 of them, Federal State – when unemployment of just over two per cent drove Menzies to within one seat of defeat. Sir Earle said to me: “Young man, let me give you some advice. When you get to my age, never pass a lift or a lavatory”. I must say I take his advice more seriously at 83 than I did at 27.
Whatever else one may say about Sir Earle Page, he gave Billy Hughes his come-uppance in 1922. More importantly, he was in charge of the Medical Staff at Gallipoli in 1915. My father served under him as a stretcher-bearer, with the Second Light Horse.
There is a great Australian paradox. There are at least four of us here tonight who are Depression babies. Bob Hawke was born a month or so after the Wall Street crash. Barrie Unsworth, who beats me by a month, and Evan Williams, my dearest and lifelong mate, arrived at the tail end. The First World War with the conscription crises, and the Depression, formed fault lines in Australian society, but it was our parents who bore the brunt.
By contrast, we Depression babies belong to the luckiest generation ever in the lucky country. I have argued this elsewhere and won’t go into it here. But the Australian paradox is that our great good fortune occurred against the background of the most terrible and dangerous events in human history.
Not that we were remote or uninvolved. You couldn’t grow up during the Second World War, particularly as I was in Brisbane, without a sense of history, enormous events happening in the dangerous world around us. And without – and I’m sure I speak for Bob in this – without a sense of indebtedness and obligation for the privileged life we have enjoyed as Australians.
For our generation, the idea of building a new world has always been strong for many of us, and it’s captured in the title Dean Acheson, Truman’s Secretary of State in the early years of the Cold War which so tragically followed so needlessly and quickly the end of the Second World War, when he entitled his memoirs Present at the Creation.
I more modestly thought of calling my own memoir Friends and Flukes, because so many of the wonderful things that have happened to me have been through the agencies of mates, friends, or incredible flukes, or most usually, a combination of both. How I got the job as Arthur Calwell’s Press Secretary in 1961 – truly the genesis of this very night – is the classic example. You can find the account in my book, A Figure of Speech.
But to keep Dean Acheson’s biblical allusions, I might say I was present at the creation of the first Labor Government after 23 years – which is as good as an Eternity in politics – present at the creation of the next Labor government, the Hawke government, and two long-running governments of New South Wales. There was my conversion to Labor – a real road to Damascus (though it happened over Suez in 1956), two salvations and three resurrections. I hasten to say I am speaking in a strictly secular sense.
I resist the temptation to say the Dismissal was a crucifixion. But certainly, the perseverance of Paul Kelly, Troy Brampton and Jenny Hocking ends the story of the Dismissal with revelations of biblical proportions.
You need to read the whole Hansard of October-November 1975 to grasp the full extent of Gough’s tour de force in those weeks, in Question Time as much as in the speeches, and comic masterpieces like Fred Daly’s account of the Khemlani visit to Canberra.
But the speeches – about ten of them – were the centrepiece of our strategy, which was to use public opinion, especially through Parliament, to force the Senate to vote – accept or reject Bill Hayden’s budget. And we learn now how near to success we were – 24 or 48 hours more would have done it. But our trouble was that we had no second string to our bow. There was no Plan B – or any other sort of plan.
After Joy O’Brien had toiled uncomplainingly all night, I used to take these speeches over to the Lodge in the early hours. On the last night, 10-11 November 1975, I waited at the Lodge for Gough to return in triumph from the Lord Mayor’s Banquet in Melbourne. He’d given Malcolm Fraser and Philip Lynch a lift back to Canberra and they were to meet the Prime Minister’s office at 9 o’clock, Tuesday morning of the 11th, to have the last negotiations.
We really thought it was all over – that the Senate would crack that week, if not that day. The Bulletin was preparing its cover for the Wednesday edition which would show a star-dazed Malcolm Fraser with the caption: “Malcolm – the Man in the Muddle”.
I was keen for Gough to reveal a fact well-known in Washington: that, as Minister for Defence, Malcolm had urged the Americans to bomb the rice-field dykes in Vietnam, to drown or starve the population. Even the Americans, with all their bombing and killing, thought this a bit over the top. So I put it in this last-push speech for 11 November. At the Lodge about 2 am, Gough as usual flicked through the pages of by now well-worn arguments, handed it back to me, with his only comment: “Comrade, you don’t think we’re being a bit hard on Malcolm, do you?” Ten hours later, Malcolm was installed as Prime Minister.
It’s somehow very fitting that Vietnam should feature in this last magnificent failure of that great crisis, because it had dominated all those years, even when the war itself had ended. You can’t fully understand what is happening in the US without some understanding of Vietnam and its consequences for the polity of the United States to this day.
I suppose I wrote 30-40 major speeches on Vietnam between 1965 and 1975. It became my deep bonding with the Labor Party – and, may I say, with each faction. I drew a lot from Jim Cairns. And if I was able to articulate a viable, rational policy on Vietnam, it was the party that gave me the moral compass to do it, to solve our almost insoluble dilemma of denouncing the war without denouncing the American alliance.
I always saw my main task on Vietnam not as speaking some great truths about the course of the war, but as keeping the party together.
Two years ago, Michael Fullilove did me the honour of holding a seminar under the auspices of the Lowy Institute to mark the 50th anniversary of Arthur Calwell’s speech on 4 May 1965. It’s hard now to recall how indescribably implausible the central thesis of the speech seemed at that time – that the United States could be humiliated by its intervention in this civil war. It seemed plain silly. Yet so it turned out. But to get the perspective, the really devastating speech of the day was Menzies’ reply. His grand thesis – totally accepted at the time – that Vietnam was “part of the downward thrust of China between the Indian and Pacific Oceans” was his sole justification for Australia’s participation.
Arthur had acknowledged that Labor’s stance would be unpopular. I will never forget the glee and the gloating on the benches behind Menzies as he concluded: “If I may end on a horribly political note, it is a good thing occasionally to be in a big majority”. In fact, by 1969, the coalition’s opportunism in Vietnam had all unravelled.
In the 1969 policy speech at the Sydney Town Hall, the first policy speech televised live, Gough was able to say: “I will go to Washington to explain why we are withdrawing our troops. My deputy, Lance Barnard, will go to Saigon to make the arrangements.” The late great Clem Lloyd, Lance’s indispensable adviser, said to me: “I know the economic theory of the division of labour, but this takes the cake”.
I never had a moment’s doubt after the 69 election, with its seven per cent swing to Labor, that we were destined for victory in 1972. We had a secret weapon. Its name was Mick Young – as Gough said, and meant it, “the best thing to happen to Labor in my time”. Among all these privileges I celebrate tonight, none is greater than to have known and loved Mick Young. Gough could never have won his battles for party reform and education reform without Mick.
It was Mick’s idea in April 1971 to seek an invitation for a Labor delegation to the People’s Republic of China, Red China. I was a complete sceptic about the whole thing. Again it’s hard to reconstruct the political risks. Of course, when the invitation from Zhou en-Lai finally arrived, and Gough chose a timing for his visit which, quite accidentally, took him to Beijing five days before Henry Kissinger followed him, my doubts and caution evaporated entirely. It might have had something to do with the fact that Gough said: “I want you to come too”.
And so we went on the road to Blacktown Civic Centre in 1972, largely by following John Menadue’s formula: “The party, the policy, the people”. The result, as John Faulkner has so finely said, was that “Whitlam made the party electable and, more importantly, he made it worth electing”.
These things sound simple but they are as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. And I am absolutely confident, Bill, (I’m honoured by your presence) that if you and the team can identify in these more daunting and complex times the priorities set out in these simple but profound formulae framed by John Menadue and John Faulkner, your grand task will be crowned with success – and a Labor victory.
By 1972, Gough had adopted what was called the fluffy look. Someone in the Rubensohn agency claimed the credit for the make-over. The truth is that he had run out of Brylcreem in Beijing. On his arrival home in July 1971, Carol Summerhayes said: “Oh Leader, you do look nice”. He never wore Brylcreem again.
I might mention that calling Gough “Leader” was never a case of his Führerprinzip (Führer principle) as people like Clyde Cameron suggest. It was a special mark of familiarity, used by those closest to him like Carol and Race.
We had developed between us – I don’t know exactly when or how – a little ritual whereby he would tap me on the shoulder for luck before an important speech. He didn’t forget it amidst all the excitement and turmoil of Blacktown and said: “It’s been a long road, comrade, but I think we’re there”. And we were.
Just one week after the election we had a great celebratory party at Sim Rubensohn’s home at Dural. Some of us went on for dinner at the Four Seas Restaurant in Redfern, later the first Chinese consulate in Sydney – Bob Hawke, Hazel, Sue and Roz, Mick Young, John Ducker among others. There were of course speeches. After all it was a Labor occasion. When my turn came, I said: “Bob, we are celebrating the end of 23 years in the wilderness. But this won’t last forever (I had in mind three terms and 10-12 years) but the day will come when you will be leader of the party and you will be Prime Minister and I will be your speechwriter.”
On 3 February 1983 Bob rang me from Brisbane: “Do you remember what you said at the Four Seas? Yes. Does it still hold? Yes. Right, I’ll see you in Sydney this afternoon.”
The pivotal event in that intervening ten years had been Neville Wran’s victory in New South Wales by the narrowest possible margin. It was only six months after the Dismissal. It galvanised, revitalised the party throughout Australia. Brian Dale and Peter Barron had recruited me for the campaign while I was writing A Certain Grandeur – Gough Whitlam in Politics.
I went back to Gough for the 77 campaign – perhaps the most painful of all our results because, unlike 75, it seemed an ultimate rejection by the people of Gough himself and the party and what he represented.
Then came the Wranslides of 1978 and 1981. Just wonderful years. Neville Wran had the gift of conveying his love of life to everyone around him. He made things happen. I remember Neville saying to Gerry Gleeson, that finest of public servants – and to say that in this company is really saying something – when they were planning the rejuvenation of Darling Harbor: “There must be something happening, all the time, to bring the people in all the time. It’s their show.” That was Neville. Laurie Brereton picked up the baton in the transformation of that part of Sydney, which Paul Keating’s initiative has brought to such a brilliant conclusion at Barangaroo.
But most of all there was Neville’s courage. In 1980, for weeks and months, he faced the likelihood that he would lose his voice – the ultimate drawback for a politician. Not much of a prospect for a speechwriter, either. As an act of defiance, he insisted on becoming Federal President. In 1983 he faced – and faced down – the unspeakable injustice of the Royal Commission. In these immense and unprecedented crises, political and personal, he had of course unswerving loyalty and support from the people who mattered to him – Brian, Peter Barron, David Hurley and year in, year out to the end, Denise Darlow – pillars of strength. Neville drew strength from one of the great political partnerships in Australian political history – his mentor, it can even be said the maker of his premiership – Jack Ferguson, the only Labor man I knew who had actually read Marx. But, as Rodney Cavalier will attest, Jack read everything.
But above all, Neville had Jill. I wrote somewhere that in Jill, Neville found, in these terrible crises, a courage to match his own. That is only half of it – in her own and her family’s ordeal, unimaginable, she has shown a courage, sustained and sustaining, a light for us all.
For the five years from Bob Hawke’s victory in 1983, we made the curious arrangement whereby I was shared as a speechwriter between Bob, Neville and then later Barrie Unsworth. You can imagine – or, rather, you can hardly imagine – the satisfaction with which I reoccupied the little cubby-hole which served as my office in the row leading up to the Prime Minister’s office in Old Parliament House, from which we had been so unceremoniously expelled in 1975. Gough named it the Polish corridor in honour of Peter Wilenski and Jim Spigelman.
After this sharing arrangement between Bob and Neville had gone on for a few months, Gough caught up with me at the opening of the Sydney Entertainment Centre in 1983. He said: “Tell me, comrade, how do you find doing what our Lord says is impossible?” (He meant, of course, serving two masters.) I said: “It’s fine. Neville is happy with what I can do for him and sticks to the script. Bob (I said) is a bit different. He ad libs a lot and on important speeches he likes to make a real input and set his own mark on the speech.” “Oh comrade”, Gough said, “I can see the problem.” Gough, modesty incarnate, said: “You know, Bob has quite an ego”.
But the real point of this story is to show the absurdity – at least the contradiction – of the claim that “I was Gough Whitlam’s speechwriter” or “I was Bob Hawke’s speechwriter”, or whoever. In Gough’s case, it came from a uniquely intimate relationship of years and years. In Bob’s case, from his clear and powerful vision of what he wanted a Labor Government to be and do for Australia.
Barrie Unsworth didn’t have the advantage of a long apprenticeship – in Parliament like Gough, or in the ACTU presidency like Bob, or in both cases the long association I had had with both, and was to have with Bob Carr, or Neville’s brilliance at the bar. But I grew really to admire how Barrie mastered his brief with the best of them. And he paid me the ultimate compliment for a speechwriter He would lock himself away in the upstairs dining room until Jim Carroll came to find out what he was doing – or perhaps, his best adviser Pauline who, in a more enlightened age, could easily have been a Minister herself. We talk about equality. We still have a long way to go.
And what Barrie was doing was rehearsing the speech, reading it to himself aloud, making sure he got it right, a great compliment to a speechwriter.
He was struck by the quote I put in one of the Bicentenary speeches in 1988: Governor Phillip on entering Sydney Harbour wrote “the most beautiful harbour in the world (the First Fleet had just been to Rio and Capetown) where a thousand ships of the line could ride in the most perfect security”. This, of course, was a supreme expression of British imperial and naval power. If I were writing that speech today, I would emphasise the response of the people of the land – “Wirra Wirra” – Go away, go away. Their cry of defiance reaches down the centuries and haunts us to this day.
The sharing arrangement was wonderful for me, swanning between Sydney and Canberra, virtually pleasing myself where I was and what I did. But dreadfully unfair on Hawke’s great staff, and with so many of them here tonight, I express my unmeasured admiration and gratitude for their forbearance to me. This line of great public servants in the truest sense, servants of the public, the people, through the party and the leadership, a line going back, for me, to John Menadue, with Gough when he was Deputy, and then Race Mathews, in what seemed so often the desperate years after the Split until 1969. When it comes to speeches as policy development, it’s Race Mathews who should be getting the tribute tonight.
And just to mention such names is again to underline the three main points I want to make tonight: The continuity of things, the quality and loyalty of service, and the collectivity of the effort made for our cause.
Stephen Mills, who carried the real burden of speeches after 1987, has this splendid insight in his biography of Bob: “The charisma which worked so powerfully in a supermarket could also entrance those close to him. Hawke gave every person he dealt with a sense of having acquired a special relationship with him, of having obtained a special insight into him. This was as true for Cabinet Ministers and foreign leaders as it was for those who drove his car, typed his letters, protected his security – and, for that matter, who wrote his speeches.”
But if I may say, all leaders and potential leaders can attain the essential quality Stephen Mills discerned in Bob, which is at the heart of the values Stephen wrote about. It is respect – respect for what we are trying to do, respect for parliamentary democracy, respect for the party with all its flaws, and above all, respect for the people, as citizens and – I say it emphatically, without embarrassment and without cynicism – for the people as voters.
All I will say, as a speechwriter or speechmaker, you can’t spend a lifetime using words – the words of this marvellous language of ours – trying to persuade or influence voters, without that respect. Otherwise, it is all a fraud. It is the growing sense that there is a loss of true respect for the people that is undermining the system.
This is my profound belief. That is why I want to see the speech restored – the speech as argument, the speech as debate, the speech as policy development – to its proper place in the public discourse. The speech is an expression of respect – and, for the audience, it is an act of participation.
Not that I took myself too seriously all the time about speeches. When we had a farewell in the office for Stephen in 1991, Bob said he had detected some early tension between me and Stephen, reminding him of the old bull and the new bull in the paddock. When my turn came, I said: “Bob, I don’t know about this old bull – new bull business. But at least it may be acknowledged that I am the expert at turning out the substance which all bulls, old and new, produce in vast quantities.”
I’ll give just one more example of how the speaker can make a line indelibly his own. In this case, the original thought came from Richard Farmer. During the 1983 campaign, Fraser had warned that, because Labor couldn’t manage the economy, people would put their cash under their beds. Bob took Richard’s line, but his verve and authority made it so memorable: “How can they put their money under the bed? That’s where all the commies are.”
Bob Carr’s was another remarkable staff. I don’t suppose there was a more reluctant leader. After the defeat of 1988, Bob himself has recorded that he thought it would be the ruin of his career. I think I and Shane Easson – one of the unsung Labor heroes – played some part in persuading him to take the poisoned chalice. I interpolate about Shane that he is the genius of electoral redistribution, and I go on record again to say that good redistributions have won more elections than great policy speeches.
I had made the same sort of promise that I had made to Bob Hawke in 1972, though I must say with far less certainty of its fulfilment.
Evan Williams and I were again among his speechwriters – our careers, since the beginning of the greatest of all mateships since 1955, have run amazingly parallel. Bob Carr was always very generous in acknowledging our help and authorship of our speeches – Carl Green wrote some gems – but very selective in using them.
Beyond his pillars of strength – Bruce Hawker, Kris O’Neil, Graeme Wedderburn – Bob had his resident genius, taken from us too soon, Bob Ellis. I wrote of Bob Ellis that he was so committed to the triumph of the good that he was doomed to permanent disappointment. He was almost to the level of Gough as the master of the one-liner. Who knows, he might even have made Twitter and the Tweet a genuine art form.
About Bob Carr, it’s seldom realised that because of his remarkable success, I was longer officially with Bob Carr than any other of, if I may be so pretentious, my Prime Ministers and Premiers. I’d love to be able to include Paul in the list but the circumstances, and my undertaking to Bob Carr, made it inappropriate at the time. In fact, I did write one speech for Paul – his part in the presentation of the Sydney Olympic Bid at Monte Carlo in 1993. That’s not saying much – because in the same presentation I was asked to prepare by the Olympic Committee, I wrote the only speech I have ever written for a Liberal – for Premier John Fahey. Anyway, Paul returned the favour in spades when he launched my book on Churchill and Australia with his customary flair and originality – and pot-stirring – in 2008. This followed a chance meeting in the Queen Victoria Building when, over coffee, Paul amazed me by saying that Churchill was a reason for his going into politics.
Your seventies, I can tell you, if you are lucky as I have been, can be a wonderful time. Bob Carr, of course, became Minister for Foreign Affairs in 2012 – the job he really had wanted in 1988. Knowing his talents, I was the more surprised when Helena approached me, with some urgency, at Margaret Whitlam’s funeral at St. James and said “Bob needs you”. And so, at 78, I returned to the work force. I’m glad of that, and proud of it, because, however marginally, it reconnected me to the Labor Governments of the 21st century.
I just want to say two things about those governments, however difficult those years may have been. First, the Rudd Government, with Wayne Swan as Treasurer, saved Australia from the consequences of the GFC – not once but twice – and Wayne did it by producing genuine Labor budgets, building on the legacy of the Hawke and Keating years.
Second, Julia – the Gillard Government – struggled valiantly against the same assault on parliamentary democracy as the Whitlam Government – the never-ending attempt to deny the legitimacy of Labor in government, the same fight that began in 1904, when Sir John Forrest rushed like a bull into the Parliament House in Melbourne, and seeing the Watson ministry – the first Labor Federal government – sitting on the Treasury benches, bellowed: “What are those fellows doing in our places?”
Of course, what irked Sir John Forrest and his Tory colleagues more than anything else in 1904 was the presence of the representatives of the unions in the Parliament. They’re still at it. It’s not a question of where Labor would be without the unions. It’s a question of where the Tories would be without the unions to bash.
As I have said, it’s no secret that I was not born into Labor but I have never felt the need to repudiate my background. And, indeed, if I have been able to make a particular contribution, it is partly because I have some understanding of the middle class and their anxieties. But there has hardly been a time in my life when I was not absolutely convinced about the importance of politics. In fact, I wrote my first speech in May 1945, just before my 11th birthday, for VE Day. My audience was my mother, who preserved the pencilled script. Characteristically, it obviously owes a lot to Churchill, whom I had just heard on the wireless. But there was a curious and original thought at its heart. I wrote: “We thank God for giving strength to the politicians to work out problems and put everything right again”.
I imagine I had mainly in mind Churchill and Roosevelt, but I think it says something for my non-Labor parents that they must have encouraged me to admire and respect John Curtin. But the boy of ten who wrote that – shall we say “dithyrambic” – praise of politicians stands before you at 83, bloodied if not unbowed, chastened by reality, never more aware than now of what Gibbon called the crimes and follies of mankind, to proclaim and defend the cause of parliamentary democracy, the role of strong effective political parties as the mainstay of that democracy, and the indispensability of the honourable calling of politicians, not least in upholding the party system.
I explain in A Figure of Speech why I so quickly found that I was not cut out to be a parliamentarian – or even to get and keep pre-selection. But in fact I had the best of it – what the ancient Greek wrestlers called “the palm without the dust”. Excitement, the fun, the purpose, with a freedom and privacy not permitted to the real actors in the great adventure of politics.
I say “never more than now”. Desperate as those early years with Gough often seemed, there is now an urgency and menace in Australian and world affairs that was absent even in the Cold War years. The attack from the extreme right is now an attack on parliament itself – just as it was in the West in the late 20s and throughout the thirties. The attack is on what we used to all the great liberal left, of which social democracy is the heart. But which Paul Keating more imaginatively and relevantly now calls the dynamic centre.
And part of the heavy task of Bill Shorten and his team is to see that the centre – this dynamic centre – holds, not in the factional sense but in the sense used by W. B. Yeats, for in our time as in his, the great danger for the world is that the democratic centre will not hold and that things fall apart.
This is the real meaning and menace of the tragi-comedies now taking place in Britain and the United States. Never let us forget: in that famous passage by Pastor Niemoller explaining how acquiescence by silence led to the triumph of Nazism and the Holocaust itself, he recalled Hitler’s first line of attack – not the Jews, not Soviet communism, but first the unions and then the parliamentary political parties.
For the Labor Party, our history is an even more important source of our sense of identity and belonging than policies. We are custodians of great policies but we can’t protect them properly without understanding their history. We won’t be able to protect the great reforms like Medicare, superannuation, education, the building of multicultural Australia, unless we know and understand the history and true meaning of our own creations. The spirit of that history, alive and vibrant, is all around us tonight.
Shakespeare was wrong, you know, when he had his Henry V say “Old men forget”. If anything, we remember too much, and that’s why I’ve burdened your patience tonight.
I end on a few grace notes – the more valued because so beyond expectation. One was Laurie Oakes dedicating his first book, Making of a Prime Minister, without any hint to me of his intention: “To Graham Freudenberg – the real Boswell”.
In 1990 Bob Hawke, with his subtle antennae strong, thinking that I had felt unhappy about the campaign, rang me on election night, at Evan and Janet’s place where I have spent most election nights for 50 years, said simply: “Graham, you have been a rock”.
When Gough published The Whitlam Government (Sir Paul Hasluck described it as “the longest trumpet voluntary in political literature”), he inscribed the beautiful leather-bound copy: “Graham Freudenberg, My dearest colleague and companion, Gough Whitlam”. That book now rests where it belongs, at the Whitlam Institute which Eric Sidoti and his staff have built up into such a great institution.
When the Whitlam family invited me to be one of the speakers at Gough’s memorial, I said: “This is the greatest privilege of my very privileged life”.
Tonight sets a golden seal on that record. So I thank especially those who have spoken so generously. Bob Carr and John Faulkner, I salute as great patrons, and not only of this occasion. I thank all those who have done the immense amount of work organising such an event, and especially Margo Delaney, always so cheerful and unflappable. I thank you, James [Carleton] as Master of Ceremonies tonight. But what can I say to do justice to your mother. Susie Carleton has shown to me the most generous heart but she would not thank me if I said much about it. But hers is a generosity of a special order. It is the generosity that makes the beneficiary proud and honoured to accept it, as I have been for so many years. Again, I thank you all, not just for coming tonight, but for the help and friendship so many of you have conferred upon me for so many years.
I have virtually given up the drink, at least by the heroic standards of my productive years. Eric Walsh, my companion in so many adventures, could never write of me, as he wrote of Gough in Tom Fitzgerald’s Nation in 1963 when Gough thought he should make pub appearances as one of the boys: “He has yet to learn how to hold his beer glass convincingly”. I held it, and its contents, very convincingly. But it is not for that reason that I say to you all tonight, but with gratitude from the bottom of my hearty: “My cup overfloweth”.
Graham Freudenberg AM is an Australian author and political speechwriter who worked in the Australian Labor Party for over forty years. He has written over a thousand speeches for several leaders of the Australian Labor Party at the NSW state and the federal level. These have included Arthur Calwell, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Neville Wran, Barrie Unsworth, Bob Carr and Simon Crean. In 1990 he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in recognition of his service to journalism, to parliament and to politics. In 2005 he was inducted as a life member of the NSW ALP.
He is the author of four books to date: A Certain Grandeur – Gough Whitlam in Politics, 1977; Cause for Power – the Centenary History of the NSW Labor Party, 1991; A Figure of Speech (autobiography), 2005; and Churchill and Australia 2008.