We were watching that Stephen Fry show about driving a London cab around the US and there was a bit where he visited Gettysburg cemetery and chatted to an Abraham Lincoln impersonator and it occurred to me that I’d never read the Gettysburg address so I went surfing and found a recording of Johnny Cash reciting it, which was kind of cool.
This got me thinking about what the Australian equivalent of the Gettysburg Address might be – whether Australia has any speeches that occupy the same place of importance in the national psyche. It’s a tricky proposition because Australians don’t really go in for that kind of patriotism, nor do we as a nation seem as interested in our own history as Americans are in theirs. We also seem more inclined to favour a good pithy quote over a speech, preferring a “Such is life” or a “Well may we say…” to anything longer.
To be fair there are reasons for this, like the way that history has traditionally been taught in Australian schools, and the fact that the founding of our nation was more of a political and bureaucratic exercise than it was the realisation of any profound philosophical ideal.
Having said all this, a few speeches did come to mind that not only said something important, but that have seeped into Australian culture enough that if you mention them, there’s a good chance that people would actually recognise, if not remember them, without too much prompting.
And having heard Mr. Cash apply his mellifluous voice to Mr. Lincoln’s words, I started to wonder which famous Australian voices might be similarly applied to my list of great Australian speeches.
So here’s a list of Australian speeches I’m fond of and the actors I would love to hear read them:
Paul Keating’s Redfern speech as read by Bud Tingwell
I know Bud’s no longer with us, but his voice always had a gravitas that imbued his words with the ring of unassailable truth, which makes him perfect for this speech, which has the profundity and honesty and true sense of regret that such an important issue demands. I’m always gobsmacked whenever I read these words, almost incredulous that an Australian Prime Minister would ever have the integrity to say what Keating said that day.
Kevin Rudd’s apology motion as read by Judy Davis
There’s no earth-shattering wordsmithery in this speech. It’s simple, straightforward and humble. Which is as it should be. Rudd’s apology said something that had needed to be said for a long time, and when the time came to say it the choice to avoid any elaboration or prevarication was a smart and sensitive one. Judy Davis’s ability to sound calm, quiet and reassuring, but still strong, makes her pairing with ths speech so natural that when I read over the text I find it hard to hear Kevin Rudd’s voice anymore.
Shane Maloney’s “An Invitation to Scotch College” as read by Jack Thompson
This one does the email rounds every now and then. It’s an interesting address given by crime author Shane Maloney to students at Scotch College as part of a creative writing seminar he was taking part in, offering a few home-truths about private school education’s place in the scheme of things. People sometimes talk about whether it was appropriate for Maloney to say what he said in the forum which he said it, implying that giving this speech might be construed as bad manners or something like that, but to me the question only serves to highlight the point he’s trying to make. Manners and good behaviour and “the done thing”, when they aren’t being used to be kind or considerate, are as elitist and exclusionary as any other form of social conditioning. As for Jack Thompson as the choice to read this speech, his matter-of-fact no-nonsense manner suits the subject matter of Maloney’s speech down to the ground.
Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie Letter as read by Tex Perkins
I know it’s not really a speech per se, but out of the four things listed here the Jerilderie Letter would have to be the most famous by far. No matter whether you see it as the tragic tale of a man unfairly outlawed or the self-justifying rantings of a career criminal, it’s a cracking yarn with a distinct crime flavour, and Tex’s gravelly, deep and dirty voice feels like the perfect match for the autobiography of an Australian antihero.
I had other speeches in mind for this list, but they didn’t quite fit what I was looking for, for one reason or another. I love John Clarke’s “Apology by John Howard, actor” from The Games, but I decided not to include it because it’s from a TV show and not an actual historical speech. In my research I came across Daniel Denehy’s excellent and sarcastically sharp 1853 “Bunyip Aristocracy” speech but its language and the fact that the most Australians are unaware of its admittedly obscure historical context disqualified it on public awareness grounds.
I also considered, but ultimately rejected, Ben Chifley’s “Light on the Hill” speech because while it does contain some wonderful sentiments that have universal appeal and application, it’s largely a speech intended for the members of a political party, not the public at large, and because of this as a whole it lacks the punch of the four I gave the nod to.
Now I just have to resist the urge to contact the actors and writers on this list (Bud excepted, rest his soul) to ask what it would take to get them to agree to record these speeches.