The legacy of Graham Freudenberg
War is readily characterised as a failure of reason. But that’s not quite true. It is, in fact, a failure to hear reason. The recent loss of Graham Freudenberg – Australia’s greatest speechwriter – compels us once again to listen. We owe him that.
With rising geopolitical instability, the value of reason – of the ilk Freudenberg championed – couldn’t be higher. Yet we find ourselves in a vacuum of rhetoric where, according to Scott Morrison, a “miracle” is our best hope and being a “quiet Australian” the noblest virtue. Rendering Australians as mute devotees is a dangerous abandonment of the engaged lineage of political dialogue that figures such as Freudenberg worked so hard to enshrine.
Having worked as a press secretary for Labor leader Arthur Calwell, then as a speechwriter for Calwell, Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke, Neville Wran and Bob Carr among others, Freudenberg is most remembered for his hand in the iconic 1972 “It’s Time” speech. It rallied a groundswell for generational change, ushering in the most dynamic tumult of sociopolitical reform the country has seen. When melded with Whitlam’s force of will, Freudenberg’s economy of words unleashed a maelstrom of promise. But it’s not his best work.
Writing for Hawke at the 75th anniversary of the Gallipoli landing, Freudenberg didn’t give ground to the patriotism and jingoism that has infiltrated April 25 in recent decades. His vision is set against a canvas of “untold sacrifice and suffering”, of “waste and futility”, “ruin” and “carnage”.
Against his vocation, Freudenberg asserted the meaning of Anzac “goes beyond words”. It lay, he reflected, in a truth: in a retreat, not a conquest, and not in bloodshed. He closed Hawke’s speech with a quote from a digger, grieving about leaving behind his buried mates on the Turkish peninsula: “I hope they don’t hear us going down the gullies.”
Ask any veteran. That’s the true resonance, the regret, the anguish of war. If we’re prepared to listen, that’s the truth Freudenberg captured so painfully and so pointedly, decades before Anzac Day was appropriated by politics into something altogether different. It was a stunning speech. But, still, not his best work.
Waiting. Reflecting. Listening for the thread – of meaning, of truth and of consequence. More than the writing itself, Freudenberg’s ear was his genius. But the modern-day news cycle doesn’t reward the listener. Its drone and bluster neither value nor encourage patience and ideological fidelity of the kind Freudenberg displayed. Creating the space for integrity in word and rhetoric requires not only that integrity but also obstinacy. Freudenberg found that rare mixture in Arthur Calwell, and it resulted in his greatest writing.
On Thursday, April 29, 1965, in the wake of the Indonesian–Malaysian Konfrontasi, Robert Menzies committed Australian troops to the United States-led Vietnam intervention, vastly expanding the limited deployment of military advisers. It caught Labor on the hop. Calwell was hounded by the press for a response. He didn’t waver, telling them to expect Labor’s position the following Tuesday, when parliament returned.
The intervening time afforded Labor the vital opportunity to weigh the decision before them, granting the issue the gravity and scrutiny it warranted. Importantly, for Freudenberg, the great listener, it gave him the clear air to recall the lessons of past conflicts and imagine the ramifications of rushing into new ones. The resulting speech, which Calwell delivered in parliament on May 4, is without peer in Australian political history.
“When the drums beat and the trumpets sound,” stated Calwell, “the voice of reason and right can be heard in the land only with difficulty.” He was giving voice to the unspoken: the socially unconscionable regret held by generations of Australians, men and women scarred by two devastating world wars. Inverting established attributes of patriotic valour, Calwell declared: “[Labor] will do our duty”.
This sense of duty speaks to the words Freudenberg authored for Hawke 25 years later. Resisting the call to war is dutiful in its honouring of those retreating troops at Gallipoli; soldiers concerned only with their loyalty to fallen mates, and not with manufactured threats such as the domino theory that characterised the Vietnam conflict. Freudenberg picks up this point deftly.
Menzies’ decision, Calwell railed, demonstrated “an erroneous view of the nature of the war in Vietnam; a failure to understand the nature of the Communist challenge; and a false notion as to the interests of America and her allies”. Labor’s stance against “the grotesquely oversimplified position” was proved right on every count.
And, as Freudenberg personally reflected in 2015, subsequent commitments by Australian governments to US-led conflict – for example, in Iraq – left him with a “terrible sense of deja vu”. The same misjudgements and simplifications are evident in political responses to South-East Asia today.
Freudenberg was conscious of the need for clarity, and the 1965 speech made Labor’s position unequivocal. Importantly, this stance wasn’t forged through the personal retribution or ideological attacks we see valorised in parliament today. It was based in fact, not born of ego or vendetta.
“We oppose the government’s decision to send 800 men to fight in Vietnam. We oppose it firmly and completely.” Again, the thread of the later Gallipoli speech is evident; Freudenberg turns Calwell towards the personal impact of war. “We do not believe,” he observes, “[war] will promote the welfare of the people of Vietnam. On the contrary, we believe it will prolong and deepen [their] suffering.” Tragically prescient.
Sadly, the suffering was real also for the almost 60,000 Australians who went on to serve in Vietnam, the 521 who died, the 3000 wounded and the generations affected since. As the son of a Vietnam War veteran, I hear Freudenberg’s warning – decades on – and I thank him, personally, for his bravery in standing against the tide. It’s why I write. It’s why I believe his legacy is so important.
The notion a speechwriter could be the bravest figure amid the wreckage and barbarism of war is difficult for many to countenance in the modern era, in which threats of war and obliteration are exchanged via flippant Twitter insults. When words are the only thing standing between reason and carnage, it’s hard to see how they could possibly triumph. But when those words are born of conviction, I’m convinced they can’t lose.
Freudenberg’s greatest speech could easily be called a failure. It failed the fundamental objective of speeches: to persuade. Menzies’ commitment of troops went ahead, the war escalated, Labor was resoundingly defeated at the 1966 election and Calwell disappeared into history, having led the party to three losses.
But as Keating’s speechwriter Don Watson later reportedly observed, “It did help [Labor] grow a spine and eventually they won because of it.” That moment, of course, came for Freudenberg with Whitlam’s victory in 1972. Still, I suspect his pen never hovered with the same weight of purpose as it did during those few days prior to Calwell’s statement to the house.
In the era when political victory has been, as Morrison describes it, attributed to “miracles”, it is critical we reflect on exactly what political victory means. If it is simply the triumph of bludgeoning “axe the tax” sloganeering, then political power is without substance, purpose, vision or integrity. No wonder it’s treated with such abandon.
But if politics is about treating the Australian people intelligently and respecting the forum of parliament – if it is about conviction, purpose and love of country – then we have lost its greatest warrior. Vale Graham Freudenberg, AM.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Rhetoric of reason". Subscribe here.