By Chris Wallace
“The Prime Minister’s signed the MOU and she’s going to give a speech on it tomorrow,” the man in front of me says into his mobile phone. “And we’ve got to write the speech.” That’s Canberra – just a random snatch of conversation overheard as I stroll through the sun on my way to lunch, but it’s about the PM and speechwriting. Who’d live in Sydney?
When Julia Gillard gave the speech, the speechwriters’ names weren’t attached, nor the names of the two, three, five, sometimes more people who vet, tweak and quite often do a wholesale rewrite on prime ministerial speeches before delivery. It’s the prime minister’s speech however many others have had a hand in it.
Many Canberrans are engaged in the production of government but there’s no equivalent to the credits spooling through at the end of a film where everyone, from the most gifted scriptwriter to the lowliest gaffer, gets a mention. Rather, just as in a royal court, the monarch exercises and projects power apparently effortlessly, as if by magic, without a bead of sweat on the brow let alone under the arms. It’s those out of sight, creditless, who do the sweating – out of professionalism, dedication and sheer love of the job.
What to make then of the grudge match between former Prime Minister Paul Keating and his speechwriter Don Watson over Watson’s book Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, a new edition of which is about to be released by Random House?
You won’t get a public arbitration of the fight from me. I admire both Keating and Watson in different ways and for different reasons. The moody brooding maverick in both make them magnets for the kind of people we all know and love in Canberra: those who care deeply and toil anonymously to make the world a better place.
Some feel the magnetism literally. In a straw poll of my book group last summer, seven out of eight women nominated Paul Keating as the man they’d run away with if they could. (I was the odd one out, my taste tending more to the thuggish centre-half back than the saturnine: I’d rather a gripping policy, history or architecture chat with Paul than pillow talk. But you can’t argue with the numbers: seven out of eight isn’t bad!)
In a statelier era speeches were fewer and further between. Politicians, even prime ministers, wrote more of their own. Others were drafted by invisible public servants or equally anonymous staffers, the latter being a relatively late development, small in number and without their own profile. Things have changed. There are lots of ministerial staffers now and some come with their own brand name. Watson, for example, already had a considerable reputation as an historian and satirist before joining Keating’s staff.
Keating’s animus towards Watson seems to have its origin in an altercation over authorship of the famous and wonderful “Redfern Speech”. No outsider can know who is right and who is wrong, or whether both are right and wrong. It will sound crazy to those who haven’t experienced a ministerial office but those who have know that in the closest politician/staffer relationships almost a merger occurs. Each is in harmony, in absolute sympathy with the other, sensing and anticipating thoughts before they’ve even been spoken, and which sometimes never are spoken.
It’s possible to imagine Keating, overwhelmingly oral in his approach to his work, true Irishman that he is, giving Watson a few lines that constituted the essence, the key architecture, of the Redfern speech knowing Watson would divine the rest from the thousands of hours they spent together in the ministerial wing of Parliament House on the same wavelength. It’s possible to imagine Watson knuckling down to write the speech going, well, Paul’s given me three key thoughts but I’m going to have to come up with the rest to make up the several thousand words required to fill twenty minutes of speech time, so really it’s my speech. Who’s right and who’s wrong? We’ll never know. But in the old days we wouldn’t be reading about it in the press and many argue that’s as it should be.
Watson’s book is fantastic. Many people antagonistic to Keating personally and politically are completely won over to him after reading Watson’s book. It’s also true that some key people on Keating’s staff at the same time as Watson find it unrecognisable as the same office they worked in. Perhaps the answer is to read Watson’s book but also Keating’s book of speeches being released by Allen & Unwin later in the year.
This first appeared in the Canberra Times on 27 August, 2011