Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!
Authenticity makes great communication, so Wednesday’s tears in Parliament made it day of rare sincerity. But were they real or crocodile?
There’s never been any doubt about the emotional power of asylum seekers. What’s new is politicians being so openly affected, and that being OK. For some reason this boat and these deaths have changed the game. It’s being faced for what it is: a moral question, life and death. You should mean what you say.
Tearful politicians are newsworthy. Julia Gillard and Anna Bligh both wept about flood victims and it made headlines. Kevin Rudd choked back tears at the Black Saturday bushfires. When a nation’s leaders are moved by a national tragedy they weep on our behalf. Wednesday’s tears made this a national tragedy. The debate reduced the question to its simplest: ‘ who do we help and who do we hurt ?’ Looked at like this it turns out Parliament is brim full of feelings like the rest of the community – ordinary human care and concern, ready to burst.
We may allow our leaders to weep in the national interest, but we’re not so impressed when the tears are for their own career. Rudd wept when he lost power. So did Hockey. Howard didn’t, and neither did Keating. Going down gracefully is a skill no-one wants to master but it does you good if you can manage it. Then again, when a stiff back cracks it’s both poignant and confronting . Malcolm Fraser astonished us with a tear in his Easter Island eye, and even Margaret Thatcher was moist in the car leaving Number 10 for the last time. Maybe they had feelings after all.
Emotions in parliament are to be expected. Strong feelings get aroused because momentous things happen. Winston Churchill was a weeper, which, given his intellect, personality, level of alcohol consumption and the responsibility he bore, is no surprise. Abraham Lincoln had tears in his rhetorical toolkit. So did Bill Clinton, Gordon Brown, and Bob Hawke – to name just a few. And it’s a national trait. Back in 1901 The Hobart Mercury ran a piece saying “The House of Commons has always been emotional – not extravagantly or violently, as a rule, but with restraint and dignity, characteristic …of the nation of which it is the heart”. The article describes the tears of Castlereagh, Gladstone and Pitt, and compares their restraint favourably to the French Chamber of Deputies where “transports of joy, anger and grief are like epidemics of hysteria”.
The least favorite case of the politician crying is when they’re publicly upset about their personal life. ‘Why are they doing this’ we ask? Where are the boundaries? How far can we trust them? What are they after?
Gordon Brown’s extremely moving account of the death of his baby daughter was criticised, because he’d put his private life to public purpose. Bob Hawke wept his way to worldwide headlines over his daughter’s drug habit. Unstatesmanlike. Craig Thomson‘s description of the media filming his pregnant wife looked like naked blame shifting and a false bid for sympathy amid some pretty serious allegations.
Judging by this asylum seeker debate, strong emotions previously reserved for private occasions may become a little more admissible in policy debate. I think the tears were real. I think principles may have some currency. Emotion may mean commitment. Politicians may even have some integrity. As Enid Lyons, our first female MP put it: “Everything that takes place in this chamber goes out somewhere to strike a human heart, to influence the life of some fellow being”. The debate this week reminds us of the truth of that.