Saturday, 23 February 2013

More reflections on "Speechless"

I've previously mentioned James Button's book, Speechless.  This book rambles around a little, but in the process it delves into a number of interesting areas.

At Ballarat
The reflections about Kevin Rudd are obviously good reading, although I can't say that anything that's said came as a big surprise (although I wondered whether there was a conclusion to be drawn from Button's openness).  The comments about the role of political  advisers give an insight into their role.  I was interested in the story of one of Rudd's advisers, who is quoted as stating that he could foresee a day of reckoning, and who said - at a stage when Rudd was near the peak of his power - that, "This may all end peacefully.  But I see a mushroom cloud".

Button reflects on the speech-writer's craft, especially the challenge of getting into the speechmaker's mind, and the frustrations of not having his material used (the similarities between this and that of the commercial lawyer whose carefully drafted agreement is put to one side did not escape me).

The author only spent a few months directly engaged as one of Rudd's team of speech-writers, and thereafter worked in the Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet.   Deriving from this time, he makes some interesting observations of the thought processes of bureaucrats.  On the whole, he is complimentary about them, and refers to the public service writing style "that was clear, understated, often wry".  But he does mention that one of his speeches stated that the economic crisis would "ravage the balance sheets of Australian business".  A public servant quietly changed this to "hurt the profitability of Australian business".

Some of the jargon is explained, too. Various examples are given, but just a few will suffice here.  These are Washington Monument strategy, which occurs when a department is told to make cuts it does not want to make, threatens to cut something untouchable (such as the Arts Department proposing to close the National Gallery).  And a department (or government) that seeks to do everything, without clear pro\iorities, is trying to boil the ocean.  An analysis of which groups might be hostile to a certain policy is stakeholder heat mapping.

Later in the book, he makes some observations about his father (Senator John Button), which lead to him reflecting on politics "now and then" - along with similar thoughts about the ALP and the media (and the impact of the rise of the 24 hour news cycle).  He turns to the coup against Rudd in the last chapter, including the way it was received in "the People's Republic of North Fitzroy"!     He also sets out his reasoning for writing the book, which he describes as "a personal account:  my brief life in the belly of the beast".   Well, it does describe that, but it goes further by putting his experiences in the context of his background and also the broader context of how the political and bureaucratic "beast" functions and the pressures to which it is subject.   All in all, very interesting in the current political environment.

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