Light-on on the hill

October 11, 2012 § 1 Comment

Last month, Minister Bill Shorten delivered the annual ‘Light on the Hill’ address in Bathurst.

It was, as usual, a reminder of the life and work of Ben Chifley.

It was also a battle cry of courage, unity and action. Electing not to daub his face with paint and ride to and fro on a horse, Shorten nonetheless rears up with the message that ‘Labor can and must win the next election.’

The speech has a few quirks that are worth pointing out, both in terms of content and style.

For instance, he utters the words ‘chaff bag‘ in the opening seconds. In the light of recent events, this is an awkward coincidence. Minister Shorten was not, I think, referencing the chaff bag that Alan Jones visualised in a Sopranos-style exit for the Prime Minister. He certainly wasn’t referencing Simon Berger’s chaff bag, since that hadn’t happened.

He was talking about the early and rude sleeping arrangements of Australia’s 16th Prime Minister.

Unless you have been living in a…well, in a chaff bag, you will know that they have featured heavily and controversially in recent political discourse. But Ben Chifley cannot have predicted this and should not be exhumed and condemned for sleeping in one in the 1890s. If Minister Shorten wishes to revise his description of bedding at Chez Chifley, may I suggest a gunny sack, an army blanket or perhaps a casual throw rug.

Chaff bag. Not the one Ben Chifley slept in.

Then there is the happy story of the sixty convicts who, with Governor Macquarie’s finest picks and shovels, scratched out a road over the Blue Mountains to the place where Minister Shorten now stood. Not exactly where he stood because the Bathurst Leagues Club is newish but you get the idea. Picked because of their appealing ‘least likely to escape’ personalities, the convicts were promised pardon if they covered the 126 miles in six months. They did. Which just goes to show rewards can motivate people. Even people who are rated unlikely to attempt anything, much less finish it.

Now to style.

In his speech, Shorten asks no fewer than nineteen questions of the audience. Poor audience, who at this point in the election cycle are probably hoping for more answers and fewer questions. I assume that they quickly discerned that all nineteen questions were simply rhetorical devices and continued to eat their three-course meal in peace. Otherwise I would recommend they ask for their $75 back ($55 for pensioners).

Besides all those questions, Shorten uses a lot of short sentences and short words. Short sentences are simple. They are powerful. They engage. See?

Here’s an example. After pondering what Ben Chifley would have made of modern-day Australia, Minister Shorten concedes ‘It’s hard to say.’ In these four words (and just four syllables) he conveys respect and humility. Admirable virtues for a politician, you’d have to say.

Does This Trick Work? I Can Prove It.

There’s a tool called the Flesch-Kincaid readability test. It scores text according to ease of reading and expresses the result in terms of United States school grades. The folks (this is America) at Smart Politics analysed all of the State of the Union addresses they could get their hands on, and found that President Obama’s SOTU addresses are as tightly-clipped as his hair:

President’s 2011 SOTU speech:

  • had a Flesch-Kincaid grade level score of just 8.1 which is a half a grade lower than the 8.8 he tallied in 2010
  • was written at more than a half a grade level lower than 2010’s score, which was the 4th lowest in 75+ years

President Obama now has the lowest average (8.5) Flesch-Kincaid score for State of the Union addresses of any modern president.

To put it very crudely, Obama’s speeches are dumb, and they are getting dumber.

I fed Minister Shorten’s speech into a Flesch-Kincaid machine I had lying around and he got a score of 8.9. Contrast that with Obama’s 8.5 average. Shorten’s speech used a very economical 17.0 words per sentence; Obama’s 16.8.

Author’s impression of a Flesch-Kincaid machine.

Now the Light on the Hill isn’t nearly as visible as the State of the Union, especially these days, but these low and close scores illustrate that Shorten is using nearly identical speech patterns to Obama.

Almost Presidential really.


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