The voice of God in echoes of Gough
IN THE unruly year of 1975, I found myself adrift from the craft of journalism, working as a roadie and novice sound-mixer in the rock'n'roll business.
It led to a singular moment in which I recrafted the introduction to a Gough Whitlam address to the faithful. It turned out wonderfully, even if it was by ghastly accident.
The power of public oration is all but lost in Australia, as anyone who tuned in to Bill Clinton's and Barack Obama's gripping addresses this week to the Democratic Party Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, might reflect.
Australia's current crop of public speakers in the political field couldn't come within a bull's roar of such performances.
Most of them, with the occasional Turnbullish exception, are all but tone deaf. Tony Abbott, once a champion debater at Oxford University, seems to rely more these days on that other skill he practised, boxing, to hammer home his limited messages.
Australia, a land of flat vowels and a people of 22 million infused with the tall poppy syndrome, can hardly be expected, perhaps, to produce the grand flourish of an American who has risen to the top of his or her game in a nation of 340 million whose oratorial tradition has been built on generations of impassioned religious preachers.
Still, the Australian Labor Party when it remembers it should elucidate a vision, is left reaching back wistfully to Ben Chifley's ''light on the hill'', and the Liberal Party still rhapsodises about Bob Menzies' ''the forgotten people'' - speeches each delivered more than half a century ago.
Hawke, Keating and Howard had their moments, though it remains difficult to recall much from their lips that might be considered to approach lasting greatness. That is apart from Keating's welcome home to the unknown soldier on Remembrance Day, 1993, and his Redfern speech in 1992 in which he accepted responsibility on white Australia's behalf for the perdition visited upon indigenous people.
Howard's most memorable moment was his 2001 election campaign declaration that ''we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come''. At least we learned and still remember where he stood. Kevin Rudd's single lasting oration was the apology to indigenous Australians. All of these addresses, we might ponder, dealt with either the past or fear of the present.
No one, however, can take from Gough Whitlam his ability to hold an audience. The towering stance, the imperious voice, the fully formed sentences that spoke of a mind. Whatever you might have thought of his prime ministership and his politics, Whitlam had an unusual ability within the Australian tradition to rouse the heart.
In late 1975, while I was labouring at rock concerts, Whitlam had been turfed from office by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr.
Tremendous in his indignation, Whitlam set off on a string of public appearances to rally support for a return that was never to be, and, as he put it, to maintain the rage.
One of these rallies was organised at a football ground in the city of Queanbeyan, barely a stroll down the road from Canberra. Whitlam's enthusiastic team of helpers decided the great man must have the best public address system available to enhance his magnificence.
Big sound was the core business of the rock'n'roll industry, and the outfit for which I worked had the most stupendous amplification system between Sydney and Melbourne.
Ten thousand watts of sonic energy could be pumped through our stack of speakers. Thus, a couple of earnest young men from Whitlam's team strolled into our headquarters one day, their suits and ties startling the long-haired musicians lolling about and lamming away on guitars, and arranged to hire all those delicious watts of power for the Queanbeyan rally.
Whitlam would speak from the back of a semi-trailer parked in the middle of the football ground. Our little sound-mixing team would command the amplification of his voice while perched on the flat concrete roof of a public dunny, all the equipment connected by hundreds of metres of cables. It was hardly the convention centre at Charlotte, North Carolina.
''What quality of sound would you like?'' we asked Whitlam's advisers.
''Big,'' they replied.
What they wanted, we concluded, was what was known as a ''fat'' sound. It would expand in the atmosphere as if thunder were rolling. They nodded vigorously.
And so we bound together a forest of microphones, fed them through a complicated system of sound-phasing equipment and connected it all up to the mixing machine on the dunny roof.
When Whitlam arrived, his great figure rising above a surging crowd chanting ''We want Gough!'', he - and everyone within earshot - was in for a surprise.
As he stood on the semi-trailer and approached the coppice of microphones, the crowd's hysteria subsiding, I noticed a cable wasn't properly plugged into the mixing desk. Sound-mixing machines in those faraway days weren't digital. They relied upon a mechanical spring within the works to provide the required reverberation. I reached for the plug and my knee hit the machine. It set the inner spring wild.
''Men and women,'' boomed Whitlam's familiar introduction, ''… of Austra-ya-ya-ya-ya-ya.'' The word echoed and bounced and flooded the ether for miles around. We had achieved the fattest sound ever to issue from an Australian politician's lips.
I broke into a full-body sweat. Whitlam the splendid orator surely would never forgive us.
Whitlam appeared, briefly, to be astounded. He stepped back, allowing the echo to die. And then he smiled. Why, we'd made him sound like God. Just as it should be.
I can't remember a single further word of his speech.
None of it saved him, but it's a moment of Australian oratory unlikely to be forgotten by those who were there. Julia, perhaps, could do with a little rock'n'roll.