Saturday, January 28, 2012

“It’s time to move on” – political speechwriters, riots and plagiarism

For some reason, Australian Indigenous rights campaigners have a certain linguistic affinity with Scottish newspaper sub-editors when it comes to being told to “move on”. That is, they don’t interpret it as its most common modern use – 1970s California therapy twaddle, in which the utterer of “move on” is by definition there to help the listener – and instead take the phrase more literally, and more in accordance with the centuries of its usage. That is “move on” as a brute command, a barely polite (no verbal answer is required, or even welcome) prelude to physical force, should the terms of the command not be immediately complied with.

You can read opposition leader Tony Abbott’s exact remarks in the same URL. Also the subject of wide reporting is Tony Abbott’s subsequent insistence that the media attention on his arguably inflammatory comments should itself move on, by carefully parsing his 70 or so words uttered on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, shortly before he flew down to Canberra for the ill-fated, bi-partisan Australia Day medal-pinning ceremony:

“I invite people to go back and consider my remarks,” he said. Mr Abbott said he never suggested it was time for the Aboriginal tent embassy itself to “move on”. (emphasis added)

Sticking to Abbott’s script here, former ALP national president Warren Mundine opined:

“The words were pretty timid,” he told ABC Radio, adding Mr Abbott did not say anything about shutting down the embassy. “He echoed words I would have echoed”. (same URL).

Presumably, Mr Mundine is suggesting that the Indigenous rights campaigners should have carefully read the transcript of Abbott’s remarks – which would have been available almost immediately from a media monitoring service for a hefty fee – before launching on their “riot”.

As it happened, of course, both the gist of Abbott’s remarks, and the fact of his location at the medal-pinning ceremony in a modernist glass-box restaurant 100m from the tent embassy, were relayed to the tent embassy crowd, via (and here media accounts differ) either a phone call and/or in-person attendance by PM media adviser Tony Hodges, then through an intermediary (an unnamed non-Indigenous woman), then finally via Indigenous activist Barbara Shaw, who duly informed the crowd what she had heard third-hand.

We may never know what Barbara Shaw was told precisely by the unnamed woman, nor in turn what Hodges told this woman. If either was indeed along the lines of Abbott had just said the tent embassy should be “torn down” or shut down”, and that now Mr Abbott was across the road, and so “maybe you can give them a bit of a liven up” then I suggest that the “riot” was carefully, fully orchestrated by non-Indigenous political insiders.

The fact that the Opposition’s response to the Tony Hodges revelations so far have heavily concentrated on the WHERE, i.e. the releasing of the Opposition Leader’s schedule/whereabouts as some sort of seditious betrayal (I would have thought that this was usually public information), rather than the meatier issue of WHAT was whispered/incited about Abbott’s remarks, suggests that Abbott himself may have been a possible knowing player in this game of set-up.

This post was originally going to be about another recent low-point of political chicanery: a speech to speech to the National Press Club (also in Canberra) on Australia Day eve, in which Transport Minister Anthony Albanese gave a speech, written by others, which plagiarised 30 or so words from an American film – a 1990's romantic comedy, called The American President.

Albanese’s speech was otherwise a call to arms to his floundering government/party, shortly before Parliament resumes for the year. His response to the plagiarism revelations shows that third-hand whispers is not just a choice government device for spreading malicious-yet-deniable disinformation, but also the way the party actually pep-talks itself up. That is, the unnamed speechwriter who made him and his government an international laughing-stock has not been sacked, because there wasn’t even any such identifiable individual:

Mr Albanese said a group of ministerial staff had compiled the speech. He insisted the matter was not a simple “cut and paste” and those responsible would be counselled, and not sacked.

“That was not a line I put into the speech,” Mr Albanese said. “But I gave the speech. I'm not about buckpassing.”


“It’s very much a third hand putting in (of information),” Mr Albanese told Melbourne's MTR radio. “Someone said something to someone, who thought ‘yes’, it was a good line, and used it; put it into the speech”.

“Pretty timid” words, indeed.

Update 29 January 2012

The unnamed woman was identified as Canberra local union bureaucrat Kim Sattler about the same time I uploaded my initial post yesterday.

The communications chain of Abbott's Delphic words about moving on still contains a missing link, however.

Yesterday, I had assumed that Tony Hodges was well on top of what Abbott had actually said – it is surely part of his job to bill taxpayers for media monitoring transcripts to check exact wording, etc. In today’s Age, however, it appears that Hodges’ only source re Abbott's “It’s time to move on” was a journalist, in person at The Lobby restaurant.

Here, the plot thickens. I wouldn’t be surprised that this unnamed journalist was the same journo who asked Tony Abbott the question about the ongoing relevance of the tent embassy in Sydney earlier that day. That is, a journo in the inner press pack, who presumably flies with the Opposition Leader through his many routine ribbon-cuttings and medal-pinnings – and occasionally gets to relieve the tedium of it all by playing Machiavelli? If my hypothesis here is correct, it is unclear whether or not Tony Abbott was a knowing participant. His answer to the journo’s tent-embassy embassy question seems to be a speechwritten-like masterstroke of polished ambiguity – but then again, it is surely part of a political leader’s job to be able to give such answers off-the-cuff, as well.

Otherwise, the Hodges/Sattler/Shaw Canberra-whispers slippage is easy to chart:

Hodges apparently said to Kim Sattler:

Tony Abbott [has] made a statement about the embassy, that it shouldn't exist at all”.

Kim Sattler apparently said to Barbara Shaw:

Tony Abbott is in the coffee shop talking to the press about closing down the Aboriginal Tent Embassy”.

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