Freudenberg, friends and flukes: A true believer reflects on the power of speeches in Australian politics

Tony Smith

Graham Freudenberg A Figure of Speech: A Political Memoir, Milton Qld, John Wiley & Sons, 2005 (307 pp). ISBN 1-74031-105-1 (hard cover) RRP $44.95.

The best autobiographical works present two kinds of insight. First, by discussing and analysing events and personalities at first hand—by providing an inside story—the subject-writer gives the reader new and challenging perspectives on an interesting period. Second, through both the statements they make and the tone they adopt, memoirs help the reader understand the subject as a human being with whom they might empathise.

Graham Freudenberg satisfies these expectations in A Figure of Speech, and does so in a way that is surprisingly fresh for someone whom the media recently called ‘an old Labor hack’ (p. 272), who says that he cannot understand why the 1950s are dismissed as a ‘boring’ decade (p. 15) and who is describing events that have been discussed at great length in many previous works of scholarship. Freudenberg’s unique position enables him to offer trustworthy observations about his beloved Australian Labor Party (ALP), its ideals, organisations and personalities, and about the craft of speechwriting. His approach to the task gives a very public image to a man who was essentially a ‘back room boy’.


Freudenberg wrote speeches for great New South Wales and Australian Labor Leaders from 1961 to 2005. These included fourteen federal and nine state election policy speeches as well as numerous parliamentary and special occasion speeches (p. 35). A speechwriter must produce drafts with which the speaker will feel comfortable, to ‘sink one’s natural style into at least a semblance of the speaker’s own style’ (p. 46). Perhaps because Freudenberg dictated his drafts and imagined how Gough Whitlam might deliver them, his brother remarked that he was ‘talking like Whitlam now’ (p. 76). Freudenberg admits that working with characters as diverse as Arthur Calwell, Whitlam, Neville Wran, Bob Hawke and Bob Carr could have produced ‘schizophrenia’ (p. 256).

Freudenberg impresses with his forthrightness.

The reader, then, is justified in approaching the book with suspicion, wondering whether a man who hid himself for forty years can then reveal all in a memoir. It is reassuring, however, that when Freudenberg produced drafts of Centenary of Federation Day speeches for Whitlam and for Malcolm Fraser (Liberal Prime Minister 1975–1983), Fraser objected that Whitlam had all the best lines (p. 257). As Fraser did not participate, the only speech written by Freudenberg and delivered by a Liberal was a Sydney Olympic bid speech for Premier Fahey.

Indeed, as the book unfolds, Freudenberg impresses with his forthrightness. He leaves the reader in no doubt about where he has stood and argues passionately for the Labor cause. He speaks warmly of a range of colleagues, including Mick Young, federal Labor Party Secretary, member of parliament and minister, Jack Ferguson, Left Leader and Deputy Premier to Neville Wran in New South Wales and Jean Sinclair, Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s secretary. Freudenberg is unforgiving of Labor’s ideological enemies, condemning the cynicism of Liberal prime ministers from Menzies to Howard, but does not present all Labor people or their actions as perfect. Where he finds fault, he does so without bitterness, and shows his broadmindedness by castigating himself for failures large and small.

When the Whitlam Government came to power in 1972 after 23 years in opposition, it used political advisers extensively as it had come to rely on these rather than public service advice. In most cases, the roles of advisers in ministerial offices gradually became better defined, but there were some notable clashes, especially in the defence portfolio (p. 139). Freudenberg admits that because accommodation in Parliament House was so cramped, he went to an office in West Block to alleviate over-crowding. It is further testimony to the need for close collaboration between leader and speechwriter that Freudenberg says he felt like a ‘visitor’ when he went to Parliament House (p. 142).

Freudenberg’s first task following the 1972 win, was to translate the major election policy speech into the Governor-General’s address to open parliament. He comments that the Governor-General, former Liberal Minister Paul Hasluck, had a frank, open, trusting and respectful relationship with Whitlam, a relationship that was Hasluck’s successor ‘Sir John Kerr’s for the asking’ (p. 143). When the relationship broke down completely, Kerr sacked the Whitlam Government in late 1975.

Gaining government in New South Wales in 1976, Neville Wran kept Labor hopes alive.

The next year, Freudenberg was needed by Neville Wran in Sydney. Wran accepted Freudenberg as the ‘rhetorical guardian’ of the ‘spirit of Whitlam reformism’ (p. 193). Gaining government in 1976, Wran kept Labor hopes alive during a period in which the federal caucus was ‘sullen and despondent’. Freudenberg describes the non-members bar as a ‘gloomy place’ and says that ‘even Mungo MacCallum seemed dispirited’ (p. 193). During this period, medical problems caused Wran to lose his voice and Freudenberg notes that this highlighted the importance of speech for any politician (p. 203).

Apart from his own role as speechwriter, Freudenberg comments about many developments in the second half of the 20th century. These include world events such as the Suez crisis and the Vietnam War, as well as changes within Labor and in Australian politics generally. While Freudenberg thinks that working for ‘two Popes’, Wran and Hawke simultaneously was unfair to both, the perspectives he gained by being able to draw on federal-state comparisons benefits the reader greatly (p. 213). He refers to a string of internal Labor highlights, from ‘the Split’, through organisational matters such as ‘federal intervention’ in two states, trauma over state aid and Vietnam, the 1972 victory and the 1975 dismissal, the ‘Wranslides’, Hawke’s 1983 victory, the Accord that laid the foundation for economic reform, Carr’s 1995 victory, and the return of Labor to government in all states and territories (p. 280).

Students of media and journalism will find much to interest them here. He notes, for example, that the New South Wales election campaign in 1981 was the first to have public funding and makes important observations about the effects, including the entrenchment of the power of television and the party machines, and the public acceptance of the use of ‘taxpayer funded propaganda masquerading as government information’ (p. 206).

Freudenberg ‘ranks’ the 1987 campaign speech with 1969 and 1972 for its ‘exposition of Labor philosophy in a changing world’, but the media focused on the line exploited by Hawke’s opponents—that by 1990 no Australian child would be living in poverty (p. 239). He bemoans the fickle media treatment of Simon Crean. Freudenberg wrote Crean’s 2003 speech to welcome President Bush to Parliament, but notes that it ‘did Simon Crean no good at all’. One newspaper gave Freudenberg the impression that the only reason it had for extensively praising him as the writer was to imply that Crean ‘could not perform well without help from the old Labor hack’ (p. 272).

Freudenberg was clearly an equal collaborator with the great Labor Leaders.

This memoir is particularly valuable to the student of the Labor Party, because Freudenberg sets out succinctly the party’s internal dynamics. A first hand witness to the high and low points of Labor over five decades, Freudenberg listed many of those events in his speech to accept life membership of the New South Wales Labor Party in 2005 (pp. 279–80). Throughout his long career, Freudenberg was clearly an equal collaborator with the great Labor Leaders. He mentions Wran’s eulogy to Lionel Murphy the ‘most emotionally draining’ of their collaborations (p. 232) and Freudenberg himself gave the eulogy to Hawke’s Secretary Jean Sinclair because the Prime Minister feared he would break down (p. 254–55). Perhaps the willingness of such Leaders to take Freudenberg’s advice is attributable partly to personal qualities that enkindled trust and affection, but it also shows that Freudenberg has been the archetypal true believer, a man whose ultimate loyalties were devoted to the long term good of the Party.


Freudenberg animates the career of speechwriter for the outsider. He makes excellent comments about his experience of journalism in the fifties, a period which he refuses to describe as boring, and about the Canberra Press Gallery, which he experienced from both sides. He gives a very brief history of the craft of speechwriting, and notes that he had various titles. In the early sixties, he was called a ‘Special Adviser’ because ‘speechwriter’ was an unthinkable term (p. 142). Parliamentary traditions and the Standing Orders that govern the conduct of debates prohibit the reading of speeches. Although the Speakers who preside over parliamentary debates might take a lenient view of the use of ‘notes’, most MPs want to be known as the authors of their own words anyway. Liberals Prime Minister Holt and James Killen disparaged Freudenberg’s role as a ‘ghost’ and a ‘borrowed part’ (pp. 45–47).

Later he was a press secretary, and he spent time turning drafts into press releases. Indeed, Freudenberg says that in many cases his role was to take drafts and polish them. He attributes the famous 1972 ‘It’s Time’ campaign speech to Whitlam, distinguishing between Whitlam’s role as the only true begetter of the speech and his own role as its ‘midwife’ (p. 131).

Freudenberg acknowledges that there is more than one way to be a speech writer. He praises Stephen Mills’ style—his ‘energy, dedication, sheer staying power, patience, meticulousness’, his mastery of new technologies, and his ability to cope with the ‘committee mode of speech preparation’ that developed under Hawke, the guru of consensus. He contrasts this with his own ‘freewheeling attitude’, reliance on amanuensis, his ‘dictation, midnight pacings and stimulants’ that led to him being called a ‘high maintenance worker’. Some tensions did result and an observer described once ‘two speechwriters at war’ and a ‘contretemps’ (p. 246–47). Freudenberg makes more than one reference to irregular hours and style and to reliance on beer and tobacco to get through a session (p. 145). While he accuses himself of the ‘ultimate in plagiarism’ by opening Hawke’s 1988 Centennial Park speech ‘Four score and seven years ago…’, his admission that he was always the ‘great recycler’ is by way of a backhanded self compliment (p. 227). He proudly notes that Carr’s 1995 speech used ‘unashamed recycling’ of 1991 themes plus some from 1972 (p. 268).

Freudenberg acknowledges that there is more than one way to be a speech writer.

Freudenberg balances the self criticism by mentioning some compliments he received. Whitlam would touch him for luck. No leader wanted to lose him. After the narrow win in 1990, Hawke told him—‘You have been a rock’ (p. 249). Carr describes his 1992 speech of censure against Premier Greiner as a ‘beautiful Freudenberg effort’. Freudenberg was thinking of how Labor figures Whitlam, Wran and Lionel Murphy had been pursued over false corruption allegations and aimed to settle some old scores when he wrote ‘Well may he say “God Save the Queen” – instant uproar as they knew what was coming – because nothing can save the Premier’. Carr noted how high morale was on the Opposition benches, and it seems certain that an effective speech plays an important role in the dynamics of parliamentary politics (p. 263). Carr, though he liked to ad lib, in the speech to welcome President and Mrs Clinton to Sydney’s Botanic Gardens said that he could not bring himself to change a word—‘It was pure Freudenberg’ (p. 269).


While other characters cross the stage briefly to receive bouquets and brickbats, Freudenberg is ever present for self-criticism. He dismisses most of his achievements as arising from the help of friends and to sheer ‘flukes’ (p. 14). He confesses to four arrests for ‘drunk and disorderly conduct’ (p. 23). He persuaded Whitlam to hold regular press conferences and then handed in a resignation after proclaiming loudly at one that the PM had been ‘snowed’ by the bureaucrats into abandoning his campaign for open government (p. 152). He blames himself for the end of his marriage in 1974 and notes that Whitlam’s speech to open Curtin House reveals his ‘anger, anxiety and guilt’ (p. 156). He regrets not urging Whitlam more strongly to claim victory in the 1974 election on the Sunday. Waiting until the Wednesday made the victory seem tentative (p. 161–62).

Freudenberg notes that he fled the United Nations building in rage and disappointment after Whitlam delivered a flat speech, largely because the Australian Ambassadors to the United Nations and the United States criticised his draft (p. 168). He admits that the ‘reckless rhetoric’ of Whitlam’s 1970 Budget reply gave Fraser ammunition to use in 1975 debates over the Senate’s role and regrets the lack of debate about the Governor-General’s role in October-November 1975 (p. 181). He wishes that he had lost the argument about the best way to open the 1975 policy speech. While others suggested playing Advance Australia Fair, Freudenberg wanted to maintain the rage, and ‘emotion drowned the message’. The Sydney Morning Herald likened it to a Nuremberg rally (p. 187). He describes the 1977 policy speech as perhaps his worst and most ‘self-indulgent’ act, as it became an oratorical success but a political disaster (pp. 195–96). Clearly, the ability to list such shortcomings shows that, above all, Freudenberg was a perfectionist and an idealist.


All manner of experts have suggested reasons for Federal Labor’s recent electoral defeats. One explanation that has some currency is the observation that branch membership has dwindled and that power has been removed from the party’s grass roots and concentrated into a professional political elite. The proponents of this idea note that very few of the Labor front bench have had life experience or careers outside the Labor movement, but that most were either union officials or staffers for MPs. Most were apparatchiks, or what former Education Minister Rodney Cavalier has dubbed the ‘nomenclature’ (Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2006).

All manner of experts have suggested reasons for Federal Labor’s recent electoral defeats.

The implication is that young political aspirants today see service as adviser or secretary as a necessary apprenticeship rather than as a calling in its own right. Not so Freudenberg, who, early eschewing the life at the ‘front of the House’, preferred to be a ‘backroom’ boy. Yet he maintained great admiration for MPs (p. 85), and suggests that he lacked the necessary qualities for public office. Most readers would probably dismiss this as just too self-effacing, especially given the mediocre quality of some elected politicians.

Although Freudenberg could never be accused of the opportunism of today’s political aspirants, he obviously thought his own idealism was tempered by pragmatism. He describes Bob Ellis as a ‘many sided Australian genius’ whose ‘passion for the triumph of the good dooms him to perpetual disappointment’ (p. 265). It might be significant that Ellis has tended to be employed part-time and that his employers have seen his expertise in delivering the catchy one-liner rather than the longer speech.

Politics is changing quickly, and Labor’s federal electoral failures indicate a slowness to adapt. Freudenberg’s reluctance to complain about the demise of the true believer says a great deal about his modesty. His career, far from being a fluke, stands as a tribute to dedication and hard work. His memoir successfully conveys the complexities of his politics and his person.


Australian Broadcasting Corporation 2006, ‘Labor in crisis’, Background Briefing, Radio National, 5 February [Online], Available: [2006, Feb 15].

Tony Smith is a regular contributor to the Australian Review of Public Affairs.

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