Politics as practised in Australia has its own distinctive bare-knuckle style. It is rough-hewn, confrontational and all but devoid of subtlety. Few if any of our political figures would qualify, in the classical sense, as orators; it is more knock down or be knocked down. The bludgeon takes precedence over the rapier.
So, in light of this, it is mildly surprising to see some of our contemporary political luminaries put under the academic microscope to assess their performance as leaders and their rhetorical prowess within a framework that draws on Aristotle and that remarkable 16th century English polymath, Francis Bacon.
Aristotle is the father of the science of rhetoric, famously defining the process as the art of persuasion through the deft use of logos (logic), pathos (emotion) and ethos (character) whereas Bacon, one of the first philosophers to look at leadership, was concerned with analysing the conduct of public business through prudent counsel and astute negotiation and conciliation.
Into such a rarefied laboratory, Australian National University academics Professor John Uhr and Adam Masters place six Australian political figures and subject them to rigorous investigation. They are four prime ministers – Tony Abbott (although with a focus on his time as opposition leader), Kevin Rudd (with focus on a post-prime ministerial event), Julia Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull – a former foreign minister, Bob Carr, and a prominent Indigenous leader and media commentator, Noel Pearson.
Each of the six is defined by the words they use, the ways in which they use them and the symbols they employ. A measure of how well these are received in large measure determines how they are regarded by the public and, by extension, how effective they are as both leaders and communicators. In explanation of the exercise, the authors write that what they are trying to do here is apply some aspects of Bacon's framework for rhetorical performance to contemporary public leadership.
In a look at the combative Abbott – perhaps the least distinguished of all former Australian prime ministers – they note not only his use of "aggressive rhetorical tools" in his time as opposition leader but also his appropriation of symbols, most notably his recurring reference to the famous "light on the hill" speech of one of Labor's most revered heroes, former prime minister Ben Chifley.
Abbott, who, according to the authors, used references to Chifley's legacy no fewer than 28 times in speeches to Parliament, was trying to make the case that present-day Labor had strayed far from Chifley's path. But Abbott's own version of a "light on the hill" was an individualistic mutation, far removed from Chifley's collectivist goal. (While not mentioned here, a similar appropriation of symbols was attempted, albeit laughably, by John Howard back in the 1990s when he sought unsuccessfully to seize mateship from the left and relocate it as part of the political right, and even mooted its inclusion in the constitution.)
No Australian prime minister has had to contend with more vicious attacks than Gillard, and the focus here is largely centred on how she responded and the public's perception of both the attacks and her handling of them. The significance of the Gillard example, in the view of the authors, is how it heralds incremental changes in the political culture. Her now-famous misogyny speech, directed at Abbott in particular, is seen here not only as pushing back at gender imbalance in politics but also as a landmark fight for the acceptance of women deploying the same rhetorical tools as men.
Carr, former foreign minister and long-serving NSW premier, is examined here for both the sophistication of his thought and, especially, his insightful Diary of a Foreign Minister (2014), published, unusually by Australian standards, so soon after leaving office in 2013. Carr, the authors note, has set the standard by which future leaders will document their lives in office.
The rather oblique take on Rudd has its primary focus on a singular post-prime ministerial event: Rudd's appearance at the Royal Commission into the Home Insulation Program. Careful attention is paid to his language at the royal commission and the circumstances in which four young men lost their lives. His evidence is marked by an attempt at both pathos (his references to the grieving families) and ethos (his appeal to public standing as then prime minister) in taking ultimate responsibility for the program. While lawyers are referring to "Mister" this and "Mister" that, Rudd repeatedly uses the victims' given names – the effect being a powerful display of empathy.
Pearson's many public lectures come under scrutiny here, most notably his spirited tribute to former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam in 2014 and a speech in 2016 launching a biography of another former Labor prime minister, Paul Keating. Pearson, who is often regarded as a political conservative, is seen by the authors here as "the public intellectual who reflects carefully on – and repeatedly demonstrates through his own leadership performance – important relationships between leaders and rhetoric".
The final chapter on Turnbull is both inconclusive and disappointing, perhaps like the man himself, noting "an awkward combination of ambitious rhetoric and cautious politics" as he struggles to find a narrative almost 2½ years after toppling Abbott.
Norman Abjorensen is a political historian and the author of The Manner of Their Going: Prime Ministerial Exits from Lyne to Abbott. Leadership Performance and Rhetoric, by Adam Masters and John Uhr, is published by Palgrave Macmillan (2017).