Don Watson began his literary career an academic historian, but soon moved on to political satire and speechwriting. He wrote political satire for the comedian Max Gillies, and then became speechwriter for Prime Minister Paul Keating.
Since 2003 Don has been documenting the viral spread of management-speak and the decline of public language on weaselwords.com.au. He is a regular contributor to Australian public debate, including in The Age and The Monthly.
His published long-form works include:
- Rabbit Syndrome: Australia and America (Quarterly Essay #4, 2001), awarded the inaugural Alfred Deakin Prize in the Victorian Premier's Literary Awards
- Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: Paul Keating Prime Minister (2002), awarded The Age Book of the Year and Non-Fiction Prizes, the Brisbane Courier Mail Book of the Year, the National Biography Award and the Australian Literary Studies Association's Book of the Year
- Death Sentences: How Cliches, Weasel Words and Management-Speak Are Strangling Public Language (2003), awarded the Australian Booksellers Association Book of the Year
- Watson's Dictionary of Weasel Words: Contemporary Cliches, Cant and Management Jargon (2004)
- American Journeys (2008), awarded The Age Book of the Year and Non-Fiction Book of the Year, the inaugural Indie Award for Non-Fiction and the Walkley Non-Fiction Award
- Bendable Learnings. The Wisdom of Modern Management (2009)
- The Bush: Travels in the Heart of Australia (2014), awarded won the Indie Book of the Year and the NSW Premier's Literary Award, as well as the Non-Fiction Award in the Queensland Literary Awards and the FAW Non-Fiction Prize
- Worst Words: A compendium of contemporary cant, gibberish and jargon (2015)
- Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump (Quarterly Essay 63, 2016)
- A Single Tree (2016).
Don has also written feature films, including The Man Who Sued God and Passion. In 2010 Don was awarded the Phillip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Australian Literature.
- Warren Mundine, another prominent figure in Australian politics, spoke to The Garret about the importance of words and Indigenous storytelling in public life.
- Don enjoyed reading Steele Rudd as a child, and has vivid memories of studying Shakespeare’s King Lear.
- Don considers Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as two of the best novels ever written.
- Don was speechwriter for Prime Minister Paul Keating at the time Keating delivered the 1992 Redfern speech, which you can watch here. He also refers to Keating’s 1993 Remembrance Day speech, the Unknown Soldier, which you can listen to here.
- Don considers to Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric as essential knowledge for speechwriters today.
Nic Brasch: It’s hard to know where to start with Don Watson. Historian, essayist, sketch writer, author of numerous award-winning non-fiction books, speech writer, script writer, wordsmith extraordinaire. There’s a lot of ground to cover. He grew up on a dairy farm and didn’t have a lot of books. He enjoyed the books he discovered as a child, everything from Steele Rudd to The Bible.
Don Watson: I went through a brief religious phase when I was about 11. I read the new testament and didn’t understand a word. But I have this theory that somehow the cadences of the King James version got into my head.
Don: And we were a sort of Presbyterian family. My father was a good deal more devout than anyone else. Some King James expressions would come down, so that had an influence, particularly from my father’s side. I have a very vivid memory of studying King Lear in Matriculation, Year 12. We had a wonderful literature teacher, who I probably had a kind of crush on. If she’s listening, this is the first time I’ve owned up to it, but she may have guess anyway.
Don: She smoked and had a bee hive hairdo. I remember she wrote… The Education Department had deleted all the so-called dirty bits from King Lear.
Nic: Oh really? Goodness me.
Don: We came in one day and she was writing them up on the board. I think I probably fell in love at that point. I think every now and again you get a teacher who, for whatever reason, has an effect on you – they may not have the same effect on everybody else. It may not be even a mentoring effect but simply inspires you in some way. Rather like a muse, in some way. Muses are real. There is such a thing. I think that probably inspired me, but I duly went to university the following year and failed English because I didn’t read any books, which is something I’ve never been very proud of, but I did muck around for my first two years at university.
Nic: Did Steele Rudd resonate because you grew up in the bush and could relate to Steele Rudd? Steele Rudd seems such an anachronism to most Australians…
Don: I think so.
Nic: … who grew up in the cities, but I’m wondering if there was this obvious connection?
Don: Well I think there was, we recognised… We weren’t much removed from Steele Rudd’s characters. Like Dad, the patriarchal father with the bizarre superego and the big beard. My father wasn’t like that, but he had a voice that could have been like that and I think his father was like that – and the same on my mother’s side. So, they were familiar characters, and the humour was familiar – the things that can go wrong, the impossibility of wrestling with nature. My idea of comedy, I mean I think the funniest thing on Earth is a man trying to get a stump out of the ground; the inanimate resisting everything you can throw at it.
Nic: Yes, yes.
Don: You just look ridiculous. And variations on that.
Nic: And the more you try the more ridiculous you look.
Don: Yea. I mean, at that point you don’t know a great deal but you do know where you get your humour from.
Nic: So where does a young man growing up in a Presbyterian family get his humour from?
Don: Well, Presbyterians can be funny. They are very much misunderstood. It’s the Methodists who are the pious ones.
Nic: Yeah, that’s true. They’re the ones…
Don: Presbyterians can be pious, and there are pious ones where I came from, and generally massive hypocrites. They’ve got the money and the land and they sit on top of everyone else. They can be very sanctimonious. But I mean, they also include Big Daddy, who was a Presbyterians after all. Robbie Burns was a Presbyterian. You’re sort of caught in that terrible paradox – the contradiction between piety and heavy drinking. Robbie Burns would always go on the town and get smashed, and he’d go home and write ‘bawd’ as he called it – extremely pornographic poems and then he’d shut himself down again and try to straighten himself out. I think that was the dynamic in the Presbyterian mind… that plus there are a lot of sheep there, and cattle, and dogs barking.
Don: We were poor Presbyterians. You’re meant to be rich if you’re Presbyterian.
Nic: So, you pursued studies and then a career in history. What was it… when did you first fall in love or recognise the importance of history? When did it first grab you?
Don: I didn’t really fall in love with history. I was reasonably good at history, I suppose, if it’s possible to be good at history. I ended up majoring in history and becoming an historian mainly because the history lecturers put up with my slackness and let me get through for the first couple of years; then I started to work a bit. Whereas with the literature teachers, it was ‘if you don’t read the books you can’t pass literature'. The history and philosophy people were more forgiving.
Don: That’s how I ended up being an historian and teaching history. I’ve always liked it. I mean, I’ve not much liked the way it was taught or written by and large in Australia.
Nic: What was it you didn’t like about it?
Don: I’ve always thought of history as the whole canvas of human experience and it really takes some kind of effort to make it dull – you’ve got be a real bloody historian to make it dull.
Nic: Yes, there’s a lot of them that do though, don’t they?
Don: And it used to come to us in grey covers from Melbourne University Press. I mean, no child would want to read that. But on the other hand, there’s this…What I have against history is that I think most kids aren’t interested in history until they grow into proper human beings. Most kids who are interested in history are rather boring children. You know, they want to be just like their fathers and they want to crush you with facts, pointless facts.
Nic: Absolutely. I had a history teacher at school... I thought I should enjoy history but I didn’t enjoy it, and I asked her about it. She said, ‘Don’t worry about the facts, just worry about the same things you look for in stories. Just look for the characters and the stories, and then you’ll find the...’ That brought it to life.
Don: Yes, well the first thing they should teach you is that you can’t write history without exercising your imagination. If you have no imagination then you shouldn’t be in the game. An anthropologist, a woman, Harrison back in the late 19th century, said, ‘A child who wants to become or is made to become like his father is really defying evolution'. And that’s really what history, as it was then taught, tends to do.
Don: ‘You must respect your elders'. It’s the first commandment of every society, ‘Respect your elders, be like them'. It’s what the private schools of Melbourne are for.
Don: Churn out people who are just like their fathers and mothers, particularly their fathers. Wipe them out and you’d have a really interesting city.
Nic: What is it that you loved or still love most about history, about the study and writing of history?
Don: I don’t know that I still do, but I could read it forever. I read two books outside the curriculum in matriculation. One was Anna Karenina and the other was Lolita, which I kept under the bed. They’re probably two of the best novels ever.
Don: And I read Anna Karenina again when I was in my late 40s, and it was extraordinary that I remembered so much of it thirty years later, more than thirty years later. And Lolita I read again. It’s just a magnificent book.
But I mean, I think I was beginning to learn then that you learn more off the curriculum than on it…
Don: …And you get your history from all sorts of places, and that it does require… you have to do something with it. It doesn’t do anything for you if it’s just sitting there. You actually have to pick it up and make it into something.
I remember I was working in the Scottish National Library, about 30, about 40, I don’t know how long it was, but quite a while. There was this Scottish bloke in grey suit who sat opposite me at the table every day I went in there. And I couldn’t work out what he was doing. He would never speak to me. He was completely impassive. But he went out one day and I had a quick look to see what he was reading, and as far as I could work out he was counting the black cattle in the Highlands between 1810-1840 or something. That’s a good thing to do but it’s nice to know that there’s someone who’ll do that kind of boring and statistical work for you.
Don: A bit like the old place of economists, which just used to be in a cupboard. You’d just ask them for figures and then shut the door on them. By the time I got into politics everyone was an economist. And anyone who could write a sentence was kept in a cupboard. That didn’t answer your question, Nic, but I don’t know if history really grabbed me. I just always read it as a resource.
Nic: When you’re writing history, how do you fill in the gaps, when you can’t find the information you’re looking for, you can’t find the facts? Do you then rely as you said before on imagination? Do you assume based on the scant evidence you do have? Or do you just leave the gaps?
Don: I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about that question. I guess you’re always trying to find the story, but you don’t want to be a slave to whatever narrative you’ve imagined or you’ve set yourself on. I think the marvellous thing about research – I mean I could live in this place forever – and in others like it. But it’s not saying, ‘Well I’ve got to find something to fit here and here and here’, it’s more like saying ‘where does this take me?’ And if I have to diverge then I will. So, I know, that to the extent that what I write is often historical, if you like, it probably wouldn’t meet the approval of a lot of history departments or the people who taught me, because it is rather discursive and I don’t care. If I find that flies have bothered some character that I’ve come across, then I’ll write a brief history of flies…
Nic: Flies in the middle, yeah.
Don: And I don’t see why one shouldn’t.
Nic: That’s the beauty of doing research, isn’t it? You discover all these asides that become part of your work.
Don: We were saying before that this library, in the old days, the people in the grey coats who used to bring you your books often brought you the wrong book or the wrong pamphlet or whatever, and that didn’t have to have been after lunch, it may have been because it just wasn’t there. The library wasn’t quite as well… It functioned in much more a-literary sort of way in those days.
The Mitchell Library in Glasgow and the Melbourne Library have a lot in common. The Mitchell Library in the 80s – when Glasgow really was a mess in the early 1980s – I don’t think I got a single thing that I asked for, but they would bring me something roughly resembling it. So, instead of one pamphlet about immigration you’d get a different one.
Don: As a result, I read a lot of William Cobbett that I hadn’t read before. And he formed a large part of the book that I was then writing, not only is the content in the book but he shaped my ideas about what the options were for someone in the highlands of Scotland at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Do you go to the United States, do you go to Australia, do you go at all? It’s often these chance encounters in libraries, much as life itself.
Nic: Absolutely. They can often spark a completely new book down the track.
Nic: My belief, one of the differences between fiction and non-fiction, is that fiction is often difficult to know how to start. With non-fiction, particularly when you’re researching – and let’s take something like The Bush for example, which is so dense and had so much research – the question I’m always interested in is at what point do you know when to stop?
Don: I know, I know, and with that book, there’s as much again in boxes on the floor.
Nic: I can imagine. Is it just the impending publishing deadline or is there a point at which you go, ‘I think I’ve got what I need'.
Don: You’ve got to start writing sooner or later, and if I was going to put up anything on the wall it would say, ‘Sooner or later you’ve got to write it'. Well before the research was finished I started writing, but it was a hell of a thing to pull together. I never had an overall plan for it.
Nic: Right, because reading it, there is as I said, it’s not just dense, but you go everywhere, and you do go on tangents, so structuring it must be a nightmare in a way. Or does it come naturally when you’ve got all the material?
Don: I would console myself with the thought that it was the same for an average swagman. You know, he didn’t know where he was going, he just wandered here and there and the only way to cover the continent – to the extent that it does cover the continent – was to let it go and work on… The chapters have broad themes, but none that you could really pin down. I wanted to write a good read that actually contained some good information, like you do any time you write.
Nic: It’s the mark of a good storyteller in that they gain the trust of the reader to the extent that the reader is then willing to go down paths knowing they are eventually going to be led back onto the main route, isn’t it?
Don: Yes, that was the hope, that people would go with you, it always is. And how you induce them is a bit of a mystery really. But I always think – I may as well say this now – writing anything more than 1500 words, but really anything, is rather like music. You need to find the key; a book is in a certain key, an essay is in a certain key. And until you do that you’ve got one wheel off the tracks and, sorry to mix the metaphors, when you do get the key then it begins to shunt along quite nicely and you can have one wheel off the tracks for a long time, staggering along, but then you pick up the tone, if you like, and it’s found its natural environment in a sense, and you can go from there.
Nic: Did you find early on that you were a natural writer, a naturally good writer? Did you have a teacher who said, ‘Jeez you can write well’, and thought ‘I must give that a go’. Or did you have to work on it?
Don: I think I had a bit of a facility. I was better at that than at fencing or…
Nic: Pulling out stumps.
Don: Or pulling out stumps. I quite liked driving the tractor at the time. I can still milk a cow. But farming was not a possibility, and once after a got over my hormonal derangement and realised that becoming a travelling salesman was not really the go…
Don: I think it enabled me to get through when I really didn’t know much. I could wing it or at least sound like I knew something. I’m still not convinced I’m terribly good at it. It’s a funny thing. As you get older, you realise you become more and more conscious of your failings and weaknesses.
Nic: Yes. There’s a sentence I was just reading out before we started this, to me it just… It’s where you were describing your grandmother sweeping the veranda. And you just described it as, well the sentence I just love, was ‘She swept as if not to sweep might let the devil onto the back veranda’. That’s a very simple sentence, but the choice of words, the image you’re creating is just absolutely perfect. What comes across is beautiful simplicity.
Don: Well thank you, but it’s partly due to the grandmother.
Don: I was just thinking this then, in a way she had a powerful effect on me. I spent all my holidays with her. She was a bit fearsome, but I eventually tamed her to some extent, or tamed my fear of her. I think an awful lot of writing is about being open to those sorts of powerful effects, of people and things that you see.
I’m really struck by how many people are simply not interested in what has happened. They just yawn. I mean.. it’s the same with… I love horse racing for instance, but my daughter will just go ‘Oh God’.
Don: It is with everything. I am fascinated by these convict forebears. I can’t think of them without thinking, ‘they might have walked past Samuel Johnson in Covent Garden; they were living down the street from where he used to have his chocolate’. I don’t think it’s a superior mind, it’s just a different kind of one.
Sometimes I think it’s a bit like Paul Keating used to say to me when I was trying to get him interested in doing something that seemed to be of absolute urgency to me, he would just say, ‘You know what interests me at the moment? That!’ And he’d point to a wardrobe, a neo-classical wardrobe from 1798 or something and say, ‘That’s what I’m thinking about at the moment'.
And really, I think probably good writing comes from being open to a wardrobe having some effect on you. You know, you see it and can read something into it. If you spend a lot of time by yourself, walking along roads to and from school, and all of that sort of stuff…
Nic: You’re thinking.
Don: You’re living in your head. I think it’s good for your imagination and probably also good for the rhythms of your brain.
Nic: You’ve done an enormous range of writing. How did you get into writing sketch comedy for Max Gillies? Was that through university? How did that come about?
Don: No. I was a lecturer in those days, and Max became… he started writing and doing sketch comedy and I used to meet him around the Carlton pubs, the old Pram Factory push. So, I started giving him stuff and he started performing it. We had a few golden years. I gave up academia. Mind you, they were golden while the show was on and poor as a church mouse when it wasn’t on.
Nic: That’s right.
Don: And it was when I was doing that that I took up speech writing, which was only because an old university friend who was working for John Cain said ‘write your own speeches.’
Nic: Is there a similarity between sketch writing and speech writing?
Don: Up to a point, because you’re imagining yourself into somebody else’s shoes.
Nic: I can’t help thinking that working with Max Gillies must be like working with Paul Keating in that you’re providing these great, great words for two master performers.
Don: There’s quite a bit in there, in what you’re saying. The first thing is, now you mention it, is I used to listen a lot to Parliament in those days, not so much for what was being said but the way it was being said, I realise now. And there were still some good talkers in Parliament in those days, and you’d pick up a lot of styles of speech from people like Whitlam and Fred Daly, Mick Young. There were some genuine, authentic people in the Parliament.
Nic: Yes. Politicians who’d had jobs.
Don: That’s right, they’d done something else in their lives. There was a sort of provincial quality to it that was more interesting. You know, one of the things that one of the Coen brothers says, the whole thing about film and storytelling in the States is that you should be able to identify, not only the state that the people come from but the part of the state and the heritage of those people. And Fargo is a classic example. It put Minnesota on the map.
Nic: That’s right. But it’s easier in America, and it’s certainly very easy in Britain. But it’s not so easy in Australia.
Don: No, it’s not so easy. There’s a rural-city divide. I think the most distinctive Australian voice is probably central west Queensland, were they swear in ways I’ve never heard before. Your Presbyterianism comes back, you feel quite parse after a while. And they do that ‘ay’ at the end and all that sort of stuff. But there aren’t those variations.
But from the Liberal side of politics in the 60s and 70s, they spoke with upper class accents. They spoke with a sort of Windsor accent. Menzies was a classic case. Menzies grew up in bloody Rainbow in the Wimmera, Jeparit, was it?
Nic: That’s right, Jeparit.
Don: I mean, they didn’t talk like that up there, but he effected a voice. I used to teach out in the western suburbs, and I had a student one day who said she found herself one day in South Yarra, in Toorak Road, and she went in to buy a sandwich and she heard the way sandwiches were being asked for and she thought, ‘I can’t speak. I can’t talk like that’. So, she got out and didn’t buy a sandwich there.
But anyway, just listening to politicians talk a lot you pick up the rhythms and the tricks that they use.
Nic: Let’s talk about speech writing because I’m fascinated by speech writing. How important is it for a speech writer to have studied or read about the art of rhetoric, Aristotle’s means of persuasion?
Don: Not so important that any of them have done it.
Nic: No. I can’t help thinking that whenever I read anything about speech writing and about persuasion, nothing that has been written in the last hundred years is anywhere near as important or as relevant as those, the Greeks. And when I read your speeches, there seems to me to be this knowledge that obviously come from an historian, someone who has taken the time to study and learn. Do you think that helps makes a great speech writer?
Don: I’m sure it does. I don’t want to be precious about this, but I have read Aristotle's Rhetoric.
Nic: But even the knowledge of rhetorical devices, rather than just putting words down, taking the time to…
Don: I had nothing resembling a Classical education and we did very limited grammar, and my grammar is far from perfect, and I don’t want this to sound like boasting but I think I do far more of it from instinct, having heard other people speak than from understanding what it is I was actually doing.
Nic: That in itself, hearing other people speak and noting what works and what resonates and mater on maybe unconsciously copying, that in itself is study, isn’t it?
Don: Yes, that may be true. I mean, there’s an awful lot of unconscious copying. I’m sure that’s right, but you’re always learning in this business, whatever it is you’re writing, and I wouldn’t be game to go back to most of the speeches I wrote for Cain or Keating and look at them. The ones that seem to have had life beyond those governments, at least in Keating’s case, I looked at not that long ago, a few years ago, and I’d change half of it now.
Nic: I’ve got to ask about the Redfern speech, because in my view it’s Australia’s greatest political speech. I’m wondering firstly where that speech sits in your body of work, now looking back, and also what – you just said you would go back and change things – what is it about the Redfern speech you might change?
Don: Wisdom tells me you wouldn’t change it, you wouldn’t do it. It worked. It was written in an evening, a night, and of course I’ve got to be careful what I say because there are arguments…
Nic: Yes, a little conjecture…
Don: … it was all nonsense, except to say it is Keating’s speech, like all speeches…
Nic: Of course, of course.
Don: Looking at it, if you put it in front of me I’d probably say I’d change this and this and this, as I would the Unknown Soldier speech.
Nic: Yes, yes.
Don: But there are speeches that come to you in one go and it’s often best to just forget about the niceties and the grammar and all the rest and just let them go.
Nic: So, tell me about the creation of the Redfern speech, leaving aside…
Don: It was just another speech.
Nic: You just sat down and wrote it in one go as you said? Or was it…
Don: Absolutely. It was written overnight. But the thing about it is – this was all matter of fact as far as I was concerned – I didn’t think it was a profound speech.
Nic: Don’t you think it was courageous, I mean…
Don: It was tremendously courageous of Paul to deliver it …
Nic: Sure. But those words, ‘It was we who did the dispossessing’ etcetera. At that time it was extraordinarily courageous. You didn’t realise how courageous it was when you were writing it?
Don: No, I actually didn’t. I just went and did it. We dropped him off at Redfern Park and I kept going. I didn’t even bother to go. When I listened to it later, it must have been a slow news day because it was on the front pages the next day. Because everything he said was just a matter of record. We did do all those things.
Nic; Sure, absolutely.
Don: But had it gone to… circulated in the office or gone to the wise heads in the media rooms, they would have said ‘Don’t say ‘we’, and that sort of stuff. But it would have had no power without saying ‘we’, and so instinctively you say ‘we’ and the instinct is what worked, although it might have cost him half a million votes, who knows?
Don: The thing is, Keating was utterly fearless.
Don: He had very profound judgement, and if he judged something to be necessary to say then he didn’t care about the political judgement. That was really the difference between Keating…
Nic: So, no-one but Keating could have delivered that speech?
Don: I don’t believe so.
Nic: Because he’s not a great orator. He’s great with the one liners, but if you listen to that speech, he wasn’t a great orator but he had the courage to say the words.
Don: He didn’t like reading speeches.
Nic: No, no.
Don: And I admired him in a way for that, because he felt that the page came between him and the audience. On his feet, once he got going, he didn’t have many equals. His judgement on that was ‘This might cost me a lot of things, but it will change the country’. So he did it. And that’s what really set him apart from virtually all his contemporaries, as well as several other things. And I think that’s why his reputation is growing year by year now, because there’s been no one vaguely in that class since.
Nic: No, absolutely not.
Don: Even if you don’t agree with him about everything at least you’re getting an opinion that gets beyond the sort of cant of the newsroom.
Nic: In some ways, the only politician I can think of post-Keating or actually contemporary, really, different ideology but had that same fearlessness in a way was Jeff Kennett. He had that same sense of ‘I’m going to do what I think is right and bugger the consequences’. Different ideology.
Don: Yes, different ideology and I think his judgement was rotten. I mean, Jeff’s alright.
Nic: [Laugher] Moving on to another area of fascination to me and I know to you. Your books Death Sentence and The Dictionary of Weasel Words brought to light the shameful use of language in public and business life in a way I don’t think done since George Orwell, in a way. And in Death Sentence you write, ‘Grammar is not the problem. To work on the grammar is like treating a man’s dandruff when he has gangrene’.
Don: Yes, because I think management language is beyond the reach of grammar. You can’t split an infinitive if there are no infinitives. It just doesn’t work. Most of it is utterly beyond comprehension. I spoke to an international conference of translators in Sydney a few years ago and they explained to me that business speech presents a huge problem for them because there is no translation.
Nic: Yeah, yeah.
Don: It has no meaning. And the last people who can tell you what it means are the people who actually wrote the stuff.
Nic: Is it the fault of MBA courses?
Don: Partly. Harvard Business School and everything that flows from it.
Nic: Is it a sense of self-importance through language?
Don: Yeah. And the hilarious thing is, the tragic thing is, that school departments are taking it up and small businesses here, or football clubs or something are taking it up just as Harvard is jettisoned it. You go to the Harvard Business Review and they say they’re not doing that anymore; while the Manangatang Football Club, they’ve just got a mission statement…
Nic: All about outcomes.
Don: That’s right.
Nic: Instead of winning games it’s about outcomes…
Don: Outcomes-based football. Outcomes-based education. Outcomes-based, outcomes-based. As if the rest of us, I mean, I don’t know how we got through.
Nic: Who are the worst offenders? What sectors are the worst offenders?
Don: In some ways the public sector is worse than the private because they take it up with the zeal of a recent convert. I first noticed it in the public sector getting briefs for speeches.
The first speech I wrote for John Cain was an education lecture, a La Trobe lecture, and I didn’t understand the brief that came from the department at all. I thought ‘I’m not up to this job. I can’t understand it’. Before I resigned on the spot I rang the department and asked what they were saying and they said, ‘I don’t know. It’s just the stuff we always say’. And I started to understand then, this is the stuff they always say because it’s just like stuffing a sock. You know, you just fill it up with this gear with the mantras of the day, like access and equity, all these sorts of things, and you just hear them again and again and again.
By the time I’d reached Keating’s office, it was just as bad, if not worse. You’d just get from the department, ‘Just give me what information I need but don’t give me a speech, and don’t give me the messages’. Because I mean… this is not preaching but if you take the view when you write that you will write, as Calvino said, ‘I will write as well as I can on each occasion’, that means, I think, that you will take into account who you are writing for.
Nic: Absolutely, and what you’re trying to say.
Don: Yeah. So, a slogan won’t do at all. What you said in this other speech won’t do and just as you try not to repeat yourself at dinner parties – which gets harder as you get older – as you try not to repeat yourself then you won’t give them the same thing, just out of respect, even if it’s a similar audience, you’ll nevertheless try to extract something that is interesting to them, that they might take away with them and think about. It’s always possible. I’ve never known a case when it was not possible to say something that was curious or enlivening in some way, even if you’ve got to pull an anecdote from the past, but you put yourself in that circumstance when you write. And I don’t think there was any other trick to it.
Nic: But why is it so difficult to convince certain people in organisations that clear, simple communications deliver what they want? Why is it so impossible? I mean it’s common sense, is it not?
Don: It is. It is. But we were talking about it before. One reason is, if you take the great consultancies like Ernst & Young or any of the others, or EY as it’s now called. I mean, they do some good works.
Nic: PWC now, they keep changing their names.
Don: But I mean, the fact is they will deliver 400 pages to some idiotic university that decides this is necessary for them to make a simple decision about risk management or something. ‘We better get a consultant in’. Government departments… Government departments fork out massive amounts of money to private consultancies when the departments used to do it themselves. Now they’ll do it themselves and they’ll get a private consultancy. And as they say, it might reduce to a page, but you can’t charge $400,000 for a page. That’s one reason.
The other is a sort of pompous gene in humanity, I think, that spreads through people and they feel that unless they sound slightly arcane and a little difficult to understand – sociologists have the same problem, so do most of the professions – you must speak some language that only you can understand, otherwise you’re not likely to go anywhere, you haven’t got the password. A bit like the Secret Seven or something. You can’t get in if you don’t have the secret language.
There are lots of reasons. And it’s also because there are consultancies that invent the language, and organisations are always taking them on.
Nic: Yes. But what can we do about it? For those of us who rail against it, what can we do about it?
Don: I don’t know. Smoke hashish. I don’t know what you can do. I don’t see how you can win. You may be able to hold the line. I mean, I’ve spoken to scores of organisations, public and private, over the last 25 years and they get it, they’re a terrific audience…
Nic: Yes, and they nod their heads.
Don: …. and they laugh and fall around –particularly the women who actually are less empowered, as they say – and there’s always two or three blokes up the back who are very surly about the whole thing, because they recognise it as an assault on their power. The question, when you take questions, is always ‘What can we do about it?’ Because whatever we do, if we wrote Proustian prose and sent it through to the boss, they’d come back saying, ‘but where’s the message? You haven’t mentioned ‘good to great’ or ‘access and equity’ or something’. And they’ll add ‘going forward’ to every third sentence, or something.
It’s just like a virus. It doesn’t respond to any type of antibiotic. Nothing can root it out. I think its deep…. The main hope, maybe we can program artificial intelligence with Sam Johnson’s dictionary or something.
Nic: When Death Sentence came out it was really well received for the messages that were in it. Did you have more hope at that point, and given the reception of it, that maybe things will change?
Don: It certainly…
Nic: Was it frustration that drove you towards writing Death Sentence?
Don: It was really that I’d just finished the Keating book, which nearly killed me and cost me a friendship. I just wanted to write something short. It was a sort of pamphlet. That was the idea of it. And the more pamphlet-like it was, the better it would have been. But pamphleteering’s a bit of a lost art these days, with the Internet and what have you. It should have been a leaflet drop, that would have been better. I don’t know whether I was hopeful. I was very surprised by the reception it got. I got masses of correspondence. Hundreds and hundreds...
Nic: For example?
Don: Well, I got a website going with a lady running it for me. I answered letters from everywhere. From retired teachers, people who are still teaching, librarians, a few pedants…
Don: There’s a sprinkling in every audience for this stuff of people who confuse – you know, that’s what I mean about the plain English where we started, who confuse this with grammatical perfection – I try to remember that Shakespeare found the language so inadequate that he added about 1400 words to it, and one of them was pedant.
Don: We don’t want to go there.
Nic: Did you experience, talking about Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, did that experience teach you that writing about dead people is easier than writing about living people?
Don and Nic: [Laughter]
Don: What do you think?
Nic: Was it that hard while you were writing or was it just subsequent to publication that… Did you realise there were going to be difficulties when you were writing it? Did you have difficulty with access?
Don: No, I had no difficulties with access. Paul couldn’t have been more generous, which of course made his reading of the book all the more painful.
Nic: Of course.
Don: I had difficulty writing it. I mean you never write a book without difficulty. Well, I don’t believe you can. I certainly can’t. I wrote 60,000 words from the sort of magisterial point of view, from up here, as if I hadn’t been there, and it became more and more affected and I thought it wouldn’t work that way.
Nic: You had to get in there boots and all.
Don: So, they went. And I wrote the book from a sort of hand-held camera sort of thing. I’d kept a diary through all the time I was there, and that provided the backbone of the book. And so that included a lot of observations made when I was feeling pissed off with Paul… and one does. It’s a highly charged business you’re in.
Not everyone feels the same way. There are people who work in political offices who can’t believe their luck that they’re there, but it seems to me, didn’t feel a sense of urgency that these things were imperatives.
You know, I was probably a bit of an hysteric, I don’t know, but I was older than most of them and I thought it was my one chance. You can do so much in office, there is so much you can do when you have political power, and what is astonishing to someone coming from outside in is how little people seem to be aware of that and how little is done that could be done.
Nic: Yes. It seems to me that Keating’s time was reminiscent of Whitlam’s time in that there seemed to be an acknowledgement that we’ve only got a certain amount of time so we need to do what we can in that time.
Nic: If you think that you will get things done. If you don’t think like that, then you have the current state of mire where nothing has really been done for six or seven years.
Don: Yes, I think an awful lot of problems in any country could be solved if it was resolved that people in departments and offices could not go home until it was solved.
Don: A bit like a farmer who says, ‘Well, I can’t not milk the cows. I’ve got to do it. And if something goes wrong I’ve got to go out and fix it whatever the day is.’
An awful lot of people… If you fire up the public service to bring down a statement, they can achieve extraordinary things. There’s a mass of resources, and they’re clever enough people. Many of them have a very strong sense of public duty and responsibility. Put it all together and it’s amazing what they can do. Don’t put it all together and nothing will get done. It used to drive me barmy, until you felt like, ‘Am I the only one in the place who’s bloody working? I mean, where is everybody, what’s going on?’
I was probably over the top, a bit like things you write, if you did it again you’d do it differently.
Nic: Finally, I’m just wondering, just to touch back on speech writing, if you could have written a speech for a particular occasion, for a particular person, anytime in history, what and for whom would that have been?
Don: I had a fantastic opportunity, and I’d like to write a speech now saying that not only have… A speech that actually delivers on the Redfern speech. So one that says, ‘We’ve now got educational programs that are actually working, we’ve now lifted so many of these people out of absolute disaster’. That would have been a wonderful speech to write. But public policy has failed abysmally, and it’s been politicised in disgraceful ways and we’re no further advanced than we were in 1993, maybe in a few places a bit but generally not. It would be great to write a speech that said, ‘here ends this abysmal chapter in our history’.
Nic: Well ,let’s hope in our lifetime you have the opportunity to do that.
Don: That would be some hope, I’m afraid.
Nic: Don, thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed our chat very much. Thank you very much for giving us the time.
Don: Likewise, thank you.