Right Place, Right Time, Right People: Andrew Little earned a standing ovation from Green Party members for his speech to their AGM, held in Lincoln over Queens's Birthday Weekend. (4-6/6/16) He was followed by the Greens' Co-Leader, James Shaw, who delivered the best speech of his career. Wouldn't it be nice if our political leaders were judged by these considered and deliberate statements of their political intent, rather than by the "Gotcha!" journalism of today's news media?
HOW DIFFERENT politics would be if our political leaders were judged solely by the force of their public speeches. Fanciful though it may sound to twenty-first century ears, a good or bad speech could make or break the politicians of yesteryear. It’s why such political giants as Winston Churchill devoted so many hours to perfecting the wording and delivery of their public utterances. It’s why Abraham Lincoln will forever be associated with the 266 words he penned on the train to Gettysburg. Likewise, but in darker hues, can anyone imagine a successful Adolf Hitler without the extraordinary power of his public oratory?
Had these giants of yesteryear been subject to the unending and intimate scrutiny of today’s political leaders would they have succeeded? Would Churchill be remembered for his inspiring wartime speeches, or for the screaming newspaper headline: “Lazy Winston’s silk undies!” Would the fledgling Republican Party have pinned their hopes on such a peculiar-looking candidate as Abe Lincoln? Or would their media advisors have ruled out broadcasting so odd a face into the living-rooms of America? Could Hitler have survived the Twitter flash: “Adolf and Geli! Keeping it all in the family?”
These were the questions that occurred to me as I watched first Andrew Little, and then James Shaw, address the Annual General Meeting of the Greens last Saturday afternoon. What if these two speeches were all that we, the voters, had with which to assess Labour and the Greens?
Both addresses were well constructed, well written, and surprisingly well delivered.
James Shaw, in particular, was visibly buoyed by the audience’s reception. Having heard him speak on a number of occasions, I was not expecting much more than an adequate presentation. Even with an excellent text to read from, Shaw’s past performances have typically involved considerably more wood than fire. Not so on Saturday. As the audience – already heated by Little’s rousing address – stamped their feet and cheered, Shaw braced himself against their warm gusts of positivity and, digging deep, found that magic vocal register which at once reassures and inspires a political audience.
“I want to give New Zealand a better vision of the future”, Shaw effused. “It’s a future where, on your weekends away, you’ll go to sleep at night safely knowing that the same beach that you’re enjoying will be there for future generations, unthreatened by rising seas. In the morning, you’ll be woken by a dawn chorus from flocks of birds that once bordered on extinction. After lunch you’ll pack the family into your electric car and head safely home on uncongested roads while your kids count the containers on the freight trains running on the tracks alongside you. If you’ve got time, you might even stop by a river on your way home – and actually swim in it!”
So vociferous was the audience’s response that the static camera through which the event was being streamed live across the Internet actually began to shake on its tripod. It was only when I glanced at the meter displaying the number of people logged-on that I realised how very few we were. While I watched, it never registered more than 172 viewers.
Five hundred people, tops, would have absorbed the messages that Little and Shaw delivered live on Saturday afternoon. (Although, it must be admitted, tens-of-thousands more may have tuned-in to watch the one-to-two minute clips of the event broadcast on the six o’clock news.) What is undeniable, however, is that how the event should be framed, and which tiny fraction of the two speeches should be broadcast, were decisions over which neither Little nor Shaw exercised the slightest control.
Eighty years ago, Labour’s first Prime Minister, Michael Joseph Savage, got over this problem by legislating for the live broadcasting of Parliament. Notwithstanding the near universal media hostility, Labour’s leaders were soon able to communicate directly with their supporters. Tens-of-thousands tuned-in to hear the parliamentary debates that changed a nation. Speeches were more important than ever.
The opening of Labour’s 1984 election campaign is the last time I can recall a party leader’s speech being broadcast live to the nation. David Lange’s minders were biting their nails, but the moment the big man opened his mouth it was clear their fears were groundless. Lange’s rhetoric, to paraphrase Labour’s campaign anthem, soon lifted them up where they belonged.
So, the next time you see Andrew Little rear like a startled draughthorse as the camera lights are switched on, and the microphones, like snakes’ heads, are thrust under his chin, ask yourself whether this is the sort of test which the great leaders of the past (or, indeed, any ordinary person) could have taken in their stride?
If our leaders are no longer judged by their speeches: but by their gaffes; in what way is our democracy improved?
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 7 June 2016.