Australia Day — for many it’s a good excuse for a barbecue and a couple of beers — but it’s also an annual tradition for the Prime Minister to make an address to the nation (sometimes more than one) that attempts to captures the mood of the country on its national day.

Last Friday, Julia Gillard made a speech to the Australia Day luncheon in Adelaide (transcript here), during which she spoke about the Australian spirit — giving people a fair go and lending a hand to others a little less fortunate. While those themes may sound a little familiar, they do take on extra meaning after some of the worst floods in this nation’s history. Gillard also spoke about what it means to be Australian, drawing on times of conflict, the informality of Australians and the value of “mateship”.

So how did Julia Gillard’s Australia Day speech stack up with those of her predecessors? Crikey spoke with Joel Deane, a poet, novelist and former chief speechwriter for premiers Steve Bracks and John Brumby.

What makes a good Australia Day speech?

Generally speaking, Australia Day speeches really touch on two of the core narratives of Australian politics. One is migration, the other is dispossession. It’s what makes it a pretty good test of where a leader stands, whether they talk about both. I think a good example is Hawke’s 1988 speech, which was made in exceptional circumstances because it was a bicentenary year, but he took that opportunity to really drive home the migration/dispossession line which is very important for the national story.

If you look at someone like Howard in 2006 (click here to listen) by comparison, where he is sort of talking about liveability and that kind of thing, it’s a bit triumphalist. If you look at Rudd’s speeches (here he is in 2010) it sounds like he is trying too hard. He doesn’t know what to be, who to be and is a bit all over the shop.

How does Prime Minister Gillard’s presentation stack up against her predecessors?

If you are comparing previous prime ministers to Gillard it’s a bit hard to do, because Gillard doesn’t have a previous template to go on and that’s because she’s a woman. Now that’s not fair, but it’s very true and she is being judged very differently to previous PMs — on her looks, her dress sense, her earlobes, for goodness sakes. So she is an icebreaker and is clearing a path for herself. I think that is one of the main reasons why she has not yet found her style. I think her Australia Day speech wasn’t a bad speech. But I don’t get the feeling it’s the full Julia, it doesn’t sound like an amplified version of Julia Gillard and that’s what I’m waiting to hear.

What about the content of the speech?

It does get outside the general Australia Day narrative because of the floods. She talks about the problems of Brisbane, while making the speech from Adelaide. It turns it into a national speech, which is a laudable thing to do. The tone and the subject matter — being the floods — was right, that was the speech that needed to be delivered. There are so many Australia right now who are living with the aftermath of that, and that was exactly the right speech

I would have liked more ideas in the speech, and that’s the sort of ideas that go to what it really means to be Australian. I don’t think repeating the term ‘mateship’ cuts it for me.

Does she come across as a genuine public speaker?

I think so. She speaks as I’ve heard her speak in private but she does speak quite carefully in public. A bit more confidence would allow her to just relax enough to project more of who she is. She’s come through quite well, what I think was an extremely difficult baptism. The fact that she’s still standing is a really good sign and I think she will loosen up and come out and sound more authentic.

How does she stack up with other PMs?

She’s light years ahead of Rudd and you have to remember that Howard struggled a lot in his earlier years, while Hawke was different in that he came from a lifetime in public service. Gillard is a bit like an early Howard, she’s got to really forge herself and forge her Prime Ministerial voice on the go. When you compare it with the finished product of Howard, that’s not fair. You should compare her with the earlier versions of Howard or Keating.

Bob Hawke was a very emotional speaker, even when he was speaking in an undertone or monotone you always got the feeling that there was this emotional volcano underneath. You knew that he was always connected to his speech. That’s the thing for Gillard, she’s got to get to that point. Margaret Thatcher had that same sort of problem, it takes time. It’s still early days I think that she’ll get there and I hope she’ll get there this year.

What would you like to see from Gillard in future speeches?

I think that she has got other gears to go to and I’m yet to see them but I think she’ll get there. I don’t think she’s quite nailed it yet. I think that she’s a lot smarter and has a lot more to say than comes across in her speeches. But that’s a confidence and a trust thing. If you look at a lot of speeches Hawke, Keating and Howard made, there’s a lot of thought about Australia and who we are, where we come from and where we are going. And I know that Gillard has that sort of depth but we are yet to see it in her speeches.

There’s only so much you can say. Ultimately, the bottom line is the speech is supposed to make the speechmaker sound like an amplified version of themselves. Howard, Hawke, Keating and Rudd, to some extent, achieved that. With Gillard I think she’s getting there.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey