The death of Graham Freudenberg on Friday severs a link extending back through modern Labor history to the party's darkest days of unreconstructed impotence under opposition leader Arthur Calwell in the early 1960s.
Freudenberg did much to change that hopeless reality. An early middle-class convert to the party of the working class, he played a critical role in the transformational electoral successes of Gough Whitlam, Neville Wran and Bob Hawke. He was a gifted and learned wordsmith, enabling Labor's leaders to articulate the case for policy change and political reform. And, as an author and Labor historian, he documented the party's epic transformation in his 1977 record of Gough Whitlam's leadership of the party, A Certain Grandeur.
In the backrooms of Labor's campaigns Graham was an ever reassuring figure, trusted, thoughtful and indefatigable, swathed like a not-so-dormant volcano in a permanent cloud of tobacco smoke; the upper slopes of his rumpled three-piece pinstripe were lightly dusted with ash.
What made him such an effective speechwriter? The first part of the answer is that he cared, passionately, for the Labor cause and believed that Labor's best opportunity to take government was to argue that cause. He operated on the assumption that Labor's leaders could and eventually would win that argument - and it would not be done with a glib soundbite for the cameras, but with extended and repeated argument, set out in speeches, which needed time, persistence, reasoning, and courage. Ultimately, he trusted the men and women of Australia, respected their intelligence, and expected that they would reward Labor once it had presented its case and won the argument.
Behind the passion there was, of course, a lot of technique. Freudenberg's lifelong reading of Shakespeare and the political speeches of Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill, provided deep wells of inspiration and technical knowledge of the craft.
Inspired by those examples, he wrote many excellent speeches, including Hawke's at Lone Pine for the 75th anniversary of the Anzac Day landing, Whitlam's 1972 policy speech, and Whitlam's gutsy diatribe - "certainly, the impotent are pure" - at the Victorian Labor state conference in June 1967. But perhaps his greatest was the "drumbeat" speech delivered by Calwell in the House of Representatives on May 4, 1965.
Freudenberg had joined Calwell's staff as press secretary in 1960, aged 26, and had recently set out Calwell's entire manifesto by ghost-writing the book, Labor's Role in Modern Society. Now, in this remarkable speech, Calwell declared Labor's opposition to the Menzies government's decision to commit the first battalion of the Australian army to fight in South Vietnam. It must have been hard to elevate Calwell - voice like an iron rasp, face like a granite slab with glasses - to the level of statesman, but this did it:
"[W]e oppose this decision firmly and completely.
"We do not think it is a wise decision. We do not think it is a timely decision. We do not think it is a right decision.
"We do not think it will help the fight against Communism. On the contrary, we believe it will harm that fight in the long term.
"We do not believe it will promote the welfare of the people of Vietnam. On the contrary, we believe it will prolong and deepen the suffering of that unhappy people so that Australia's very name may become a term of reproach among them.
"We do not believe that it represents a wise or even intelligent response to the challenge of Chinese power. On the contrary, we believe it mistakes entirely the nature of that power, and that it materially assists China in her subversive aims. Indeed, we cannot conceive a decision by this government more likely to promote the long-term interests of China in Asia and the Pacific...
"Thus, for all these and other reasons, we believe we have no choice but to oppose this decision in the name of Australia and of Australia's security."
These are words to be spoken out loud, listened to, heeded and quoted. Here is a perfect integration of policy substance and rhetorical form. Each assertion ("We do not...") is perfectly balanced against another ("On the contrary..."), building Labor's platform block by block as it demolishes the Coalition's defensive wall, and appropriating for Labor the Coalition's position as the true representative of Australia's national interest and national security. The vocabulary is rich and every sentence is complete and grammatically strong. The tricolon of the first paragraph ("wise... timely... right") could be straight out of Cicero.
This is a "high" style of speechwriting - formal, balanced, steady, cumulative, moral. Let's borrow Freudenberg's title of his history of Whitlam's leadership and say it has "a certain grandeur." Its restraint grants great power to those moments when emotions are expressed: thus the impact when we are invited to experience the "suffering of that unhappy people" and to feel the shame that "Australia's very name may become a term of reproach among them."
The peroration of Calwell's speech came with devastating effect when he spoke - "through you Mr Speaker" - to his Labor colleagues in parliament and that "vast band of Labor men and women outside." Again, the balance, the rich vocabulary and the forceful argument are notable:
"The course we have agreed to take today is fraught with difficulty.
"I cannot promise you that easy popularity can be bought in times like these; nor are we looking for it. We are doing our duty as we see it.
"When the drums beat and the trumpets sound, the voice of reason and right can be heard in the land only with difficulty. But if we are to have the courage of our convictions, then we must do our best to make that voice heard.
"I offer you the probability that you will be traduced, that your motives will be misrepresented, that your patriotism will be impugned, that your courage will be called into question.
"But I also offer you the sure and certain knowledge that we will be vindicated; that generations to come will record with gratitude that when a reckless government wilfully endangered the security of this nation, the voice of the Australian Labour Party was heard, strong and clear, on the side of sanity and in the cause of humanity, and in the interests of Australia's security."
This warning and prediction, too, were fulfilled. The drums did beat, Labor's motives were misrepresented and its patriotism impugned, and its anti-Vietnam position contributed mightily to its landslide defeat the following year. That was the price Labor had to pay for its principle. But vindication did come, albeit after seven years, when Whitlam won power in 1972 and a generation of young voters identified Labor as the party of sanity and humanity.
Graham Freudenberg was a great speechwriter, the best. And this is why, when he was finally honoured by the NSW branch of the Labor Party at a fundraising testimonial in June 2017, Bob Hawke was able, without irony and with grave respect, to quote the words he wrote for Calwell in 1965. Those voices are silent now though, worryingly, the drum still beats.
- Stephen Mills is an Honorary Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney and worked alongside Graham Freudenberg as a speechwriter for prime minister Bob Hawke.
- This is an edited version of a tribute published in Inside Story.