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Lindsay Tanner launches book on political speech

Labor politicians should loosen up and embrace more poetry in their speech, according to a communication expert's new book.

Victoria University's Dr Tom Clark has been researching political speech for the book Stay on Message: Poetry and Truthfulness in Political Speech, which former finance minister Lindsay Tanner will launch this Wednesday 30 May.

Dr Clark's analysis of political speech delves into what the poetic texture or style of these utterances can tell us about their meaning. It also concludes recent Labor politicians including Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd have been among the weakest performers.

"It's as if Labor politicians are trying extra hard to speak in Boring," Dr Clark said. "If you can't tell your story to others in compelling terms, chances are you're not doing anything compel yourself either."

"By delivering such relentlessly unspirited performances, it only seems to underline that Labor is losing sight of what it stands for."

He said Julia Gillard's use of vacuous catchphrases like "moving forward," or her line "we are us" at the most recent Labor national conference, were examples of hollow statements lacking the commitment to define them or deliver them in a meaningful context.

Dr Clark's research shows how political speech is full of 'poetic formulas' – such as deliberate repetitions and prefabricated phrases – aimed at getting the message across.

But he warned that being a kind of poetry didn't necessarily make it good: The world is filled with bad poetry.

"If you engage in these formulas creatively and embrace the performance angle, you can communicate with great power," he said.

Barrack Obama has embraced poetry in political speech so wholeheartedly it appears effortless, he said, while in Australia John Howard and Paul Keating, and to a lesser degree Tony Abbot, have embraced the poetic power of political speech to their advantage.

"But at the other end of the spectrum is Julia Gillard, who is so woefully unambitious in her public speaking, it's like she's gone out of her way to be bad," he said. "And before her, Rudd came across as just plain phoney."

He said the issue was Labor's attempt to distance itself from the highfalutin political performing of past leaders such as Keating and Whitlam, desperate to avoid their apparent arrogance, and replace any attempt at style with a down-to-earth 'content first' approach.

"They're trying so hard to play to ordinary Australian values, but they can't see how unusual and plain weird it is when they overcook these statements that try to be all things to all people," he said. "Gillard and her ministers do it constantly."

Meanwhile, Coalition MPs seemed more comfortable balancing style with content, he said.

"Regardless of what you think of the content – or the honesty with which it is delivered – Tony Abbott is a very effective performance politician," Dr Clark said. "For one thing, he has nailed the use of three-word formulas like 'stop the boats' in a way that is compelling to its target audience."


Lindsay Tanner will launch Stay on Message from 3:30 pm May 30 at Victoria University, 300 Flinders Street in room 11.05. The launch will conclude a day of presentations by Victoria University researchers about modern issues in communication. Media are welcome to both events.


Available for interview:

Dr Tom Clark, senior lecturer in Communication

School of Communication and the Arts, Victoria University

(03) 9919 2196; 0432 754 238; [email protected]


Media contact:

Michael Quin, Research Writer

Public Affairs Unit, Victoria University

(03) 9919 9491; 0431 815 409; [email protected]

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