The speech arrived on the Premier’s desk already clipped into the black leather folder. Did my staff realise that coming from the pen of the master and being a speech of welcome to a US President I would be disinclined to change a word? If so, their instincts were right. Two weeks after Bill Clinton in 1996 had been re-elected as President he and Hillary were in Sydney and without effort or fanfare- or even a word with me- Graham Freudenberg served up eight paragraphs that met the occasion of an official welcome speech with grace and historical resonance.
There was the obligatory reference to Governor Macquarie- because we were on Sydney Harbour a stone’s throw from Mrs Macquarie’s Chair- and “the benefits which can come when a head of state has the help and advice of a woman of vision.” That was a gesture to Hillary. He then found reason for a special welcome to a US President hailing from Arkansas. That, wrote Freudy, confirms the strength of American democracy and “its capacity for self-renewal”, making it in the words of Lincoln, “the last best hope of earth.” He was referring to the events at Little Rock in 1957 and reflecting on a changed America when a Governor of Arkansas can:
…stand before the world, as the twice-elected President of the United States. That transformation embodies the enduring strength of the promise of America.
And then- this, another deft touch- he had me invite the President to return for the Olympics in September 2000. This would make it possible for us:
…to call you, in Sydney, as they called you in the snows of New Hampshire: “The Comeback Kid.”
The final flourish had me refer to President Teddy Roosevelt and his Great White Fleet which had visited Sydney in 1908 as “the beginning of the American-Australian partnership unbroken in war, unbroken in peace.”
Like all Freudenberg speeches it reflected his deepest loves: for his country and for the democratic process. Other speeches testified to an equally profound affection for what he saw as the most original creation of Australian politics, the Australian Labor Party. No speech captured his notion of Labor as decisively as the towering one he wrote for the leader of whom he was most fond, Edward Gough Whitlam, for delivery at the 1967 ALP conference in Victoria. Freudenberg’s words enabled Whitlam to fling at the Victorian central executive his belief that Labor existed to seek, and not shy from, political power:
The men who formed the Labor Party in the 1890s knew all about power. They were not ashamed to seek it and they were not embarrassed when they won it. They recognised the limitations of industrial action. In that recognition lay the very genesis and genius of the party. (My emphasis).
For a speech of welcome to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, when I was Opposition Leader in 1988, Graham provided a few choice paragraphs. One captured his capacity for sly, historical humour. Who else would have remembered that Thatcher once called for a revival of Victorian values? Let alone have related this to a recent decision in Sydney to put up a statue of Queen Victoria and resurrect one of Albert, the Prince Consort, both facing one another in Queens Square.
Nobody today would be so crass as John Norton, one of the original wild men of Sydney, who said in 1888: “There she stands in her customary attitude- one eye on Albert and the other on the mint.”
As these examples show there was a journalist’s love of the concrete and the anecdotal; of the short declarative sentence; of the need to avoid cliché (with a few exceptions like the inevitable references to “The Great State of New South Wales”). Consider the way he chose to embellish the old Arthur Calwell notion that, “We’re Labor because we are Australian, we’re Australian because we are Labor.” Eloquently, he reshaped it for my address as State Parliamentary Leader to the 1990 State ALP Conference:
For the truth is, delegates, that the Australian Labor Party has been the pre-eminent social and political force, serving this State and this nation in peace, saving it in war, and above all, the source of the strength of its democracy.
That has been our mission for the past century.
It is our destiny for the next.
His deep love of history shaped the speeches, and his love of literature. Shakespeare and Churchill, Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt: these were his heroes and he knew their rhythms.
In January I quizzed him about his arrival in Sydney and his taste for the old city of the 50s. He spoke about joining The Journalist’s Club, then in Phillip Street, which enjoyed a 24-hour licence given them by Premier Joe Cahill. He spent hours there with his mate Bob Murray, later the author of the history of the split of the 1950s. There was Freudenberg- just imagine it- talking over the lace table cloths in the dining room and the great bar, about the Petrov Affair and Dr Evatt and Bob Menzies. As a reporter he covered the Royal tour and, as the Queen passed down Broadway, he told me he forgot his duties and joined the cheering.
In Angus and Robertson in Castlereagh Street he fell greedily on the shelves of Everyman Classics and once ordered a job lot of them shipped to him in Mildura. Second hand books he got in Tyrrell’s Bookshop in George Street across the road from The Bulletin. He said, “It was the main source of political comment, as right wing as you could get in those days but nevertheless very readable and enjoyable with great cartoons.”
He recalled writing a letter to The Bulletin contesting the view of Labor’s deputy leader Arthur Calwell who had alleged that Menzies was trading on the royal tour for his re-election. Freudenberg pointed out that it hadn’t worked for Smuts in South Africa in 1949 and it wouldn’t work for Menzies in 1954. He said, “Fortunately The Bulletin never published my letter so I am not on record as having attacked the man who gave me my pivotal job.”
Among his truly great speeches would be that for Calwell opposing the commitment of troops by the Menzies government to fight in Vietnam. No short quote here will do it justice I would urge anyone with a feel for Australian history and the patterns of Australian foreign policy to consult the speech Calwell delivered on Tuesday, May 4, 1965. It was tone perfect, steeped in deeply sincere feeling, informed by a love of Australia and fondness for America but a recognition of the suffering of the Vietnamese and it closed with a peroration that any party leader would have felt honoured to serve up to history.
He was in large measure the historian of the party. He confirmed this in the speech he gave Gough Whitlam to deliver on the crisp Canberra autumn afternoon of April 28, 1974 in opening Labor’s new national headquarters, named John Curtin House:
His memorial is living and enduring. It is Australia, free and victorious; it is an Australian Labor Party strong, united, vigorous. What it will commemorate, by bearing his name, is that our party was once his party and that he was once our leader. We are privileged to share in his greatness and to be a living part of it.
I am loathe to set the speech aside. Let me add one uniquely Freudenberg touch:
His relationship (that is Curtin’s) with General Douglas MacArthur has only one modern parallel – Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
His memoir, A Figure of Speech (John Wiley, 2005) deserves to be rated as one of the finest and most humane written by an Australian, spanning his childhood in Brisbane in the Second World War and his work for all the Labor leaders. He began it with the observation that when Mark Latham accepted his offer to help with his policy speech in the 2004 Federal election Freudy had recalled that he had written his first Labor policy speech for Arthur Calwell in 1961, the year Mark had been born. With his characteristic modesty he quickly added, “This was a caution, not a boast.”
In his book Churchill and Australia (Pan Macmillan 2008) he demonstrated that without a university degree but with acuity about politics, with analytical skill and a limitless capacity for absorbing documentation he was a profound scholar- something confirmed by his measured judgements. This last enabled him to absorb and reflect Australian unease about Churchill’s imperialism and contempt for dominions and colonies but capture the gratitude of all who care about democratic politics to the leadership that saved freedom.
…for my generation, nothing can remotely outweigh the intense conviction that, except for Winston Churchill, the doctrines and practises of Hitler’s Germany would have prevailed in Europe and far beyond…
All the Labor leaders he served would say with me that Graham’s support and fondness for them was unconditional. He would be indignant when he identified what he called “spite” in media campaigns directed at the leader. He had unstinted admiration for the capacity for hard work of Barrie Unsworth. His generosity was without limit. After the 1991 and 1995 State elections nothing meant more to my staff than the letter in Freudenberg’s handwriting pinned up on the office notice board that declared their team work had been equal to the best he had ever seen in politics, and their professionalism too. His fondness was for the people in the arena, fighting for Australia and its battle-scarred old Labor Party. The truth is, of course, this his unbounded fondness for us was fully matched and returned in our love for him and the feeling of loss that now embraces all.
See also: Graham Freudenberg’s speech at his Tribute Dinner on 2 June 2017.