Rudd’s Sorry Speech – A Lesson in Arguing.

It is not often that a national leader gets to choose the moment that defines their leadership. Kevin Rudd has been fortunate in that he choose the time, place and topic for which he will be remembered. In the first of many looks of this speech, I want to examine the skill that Rudd’s speech writers used to attack the previous Howard government that refused to say sorry.

(For the international readers, from 1901 to the early 1970s, the Australian Government had a policy of systematic forced removal of indigenous children from their parents. It is estimated that about 50,000 children were removed from their parents. These children are now known as the Stolen Generation.)

When Rudd stood to say sorry to the stolen generation, he was taking the exact opposite position of former Prime Minister John Howard. Whilst it would have been tempting to say that he was going to right the wrong that Howard would not, he was more tactful than that. Instead he attacked the argument and some of the key terms that Howard relied on.

Then first was that the Stolen Generation were in fact real people. He told us the story of Nanna Nungala Fejo. She was taken from her parents when she was just 4 years old. He told us her story of being removed, living in missions and how she and her sisters were randomly placed in 3 lines and split up again. Eventually Nannas’ mum died, never having seen or heard from her children again. By giving us a real story, Rudd was able to get us to see a glimpse inside the stolen generation.

Secondly, he attacked the in-actions of previous governments, but not Howard directly. He criticised how previous governments had suspended their ‘… most basic instincts of what is right and what is wrong,’ and treated the episode as an, ‘intellectual curiosity.’ He also pointed out that there had been ‘stoney silence for more than a decade’ about the need to say sorry. This is a referral to Howards term in office, and set the stage for the next line of argument.

Finally, Rudd hit on Howard’s stoic argument of ‘intergenerational responsibility’. Howard argued that as it was not our generation that had committed the acts, we should not have to say sorry. This was Rudd’s shortest argument, but most directed at Howard. He simply stated that these atrocities were happening as late as the … ‘early 1970s.’ He then followed this up with ‘There are still serving members of this parliament who were first elected to this place in the early 1970s.’ This was a direct reference to the fact that Howard was in parliament when children were being removed. This attack was short, sharp and well aimed.

So what can we learn from Rudds’ speech? The first is how to structure a line of argument. By having the longest argument first, Rudd set the ground work for what was to come. Secondly, he appealed to our emotions with the use of the stories that we could relate too. Finally, he showed us that you can make pointed and direct attacks on your opposition without mentioning their name. This way you do not stoop to the lows that you are attacking.

How can you use this today at work? When you are pitching products, ideas or plans, put thought into how you will structure your argument. Never directly attack another person, product or company. Instead, show how you are the alternative to other options. Show your benefits and what they can mean to those you are trying to impress. USe stories to appeal to your audiences emotions, and follow that up with good sound logic.

‘Til next time,


Darren Fleming

Posted in John Howard, kevin Rudd, public speaking, public speaking tips, Understanding your audience

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