The politician and the speech writer, designer and maker

Australian politics is currently on a knife edge, as we are still yet to determine which of the two major parties will form government after a tie in the general election. The inability of the ALP to win its second term, after great success in dealing with the GFC, is partly due to the leadership change, when elected PM Kevin Rudd was replaced by current PM Julia Gillard. The ALP election campaign was dogged by questions about this, such as which of Rudd or Gillard had been responsible for unpopular decisions in the past. To an extent, the relationship between Rudd and Gillard is parallel to a previous partnership between Labor Prime Ministers Paul Keating and Bob Hawke – reformers versus the populists. There is still debate about which of Keating and Hawke was responsible for their major reform, the Accord, on which Australia’s prosperity was built in the 1980s.

Both Keating and Rudd took great pride in championing Indigenous issues. While Rudd’s greatest public moment was in issuing an apology to the Stolen Generation, for many Keating’s finest performance was in the speech delivered in the Sydney inner suburb Redfern, where he acknowledged the ills of colonisation.

Recently, Keating’s Redfern speech was selected for a special honour by the National Sound and Film Archive as a Sound of Australia. While delivered by Keating, the speech was written by Don Watson, who later reflected on it in his book Recollections of a Bleeding Heart. Recently, Keating accused Watson of breaking the speech writer’s code of ethics in claiming authorship of his speech. Keating argues that he had given Watson the core ‘sentiments’ of the speech. While acknowledging Watson’s talents as a writer, Keating concludes ‘the vector force of the power and what to do with it could only come from me.’

In response to this, rhetorician Denis Glover subjects the Redfern speech to analysis and conclude that it is in classic Cicero middle style, ‘a technical masterpiece’ reflecting Watson’s craft as a writer. Glover thinks Watson should share the credit with Keating. Fellow speech writer Joel Dean disagrees, arguing that ‘the words you write are not yours, they belong to the speechmaker.’

The issue reflects more broadly the tension in the partnership between creator and maker. Keating commissioned the speech and took responsibility for its outcome. Watson applied his unique skills in helping Keating his aim. In the same way, a designer might commission the making of a product from a skilled artisan. It’s the designer who usually takes the initiative and risk in this process, and in most cases the credit. But is there a place to acknowledge the contribution of the maker as an enabling force, particularly where a rare skill is involved? We would certainly consider this with a successful film, giving credit to actors as well as the director. So why not speechwriters, engineers, printers, weavers and pattern makers?

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