Two leaders in need of speech therapy

Here are two ways to make a speech to a party conference: by creating an inflexion-free zone; or as Pollyanna.

The first was Don Brash keynoting at the National party’s conference on Sunday. The second was Wellington mayor Kerry Prendergast opening it on Saturday.

Brash’s speech read strongly on paper: punchy lines; repetition to drive home telling points, sharp policy contrasts with Labour and Helen Clark.

And there was reason to expect it to be strongly delivered. On Saturday Brash spoke a few words with power, highlighting Labour’s use of taxpayers’ money for campaign posters and vowing not to do that if Prime Minister. Had he been taking lessons?

If so, he had forgotten them by the time of his leader’s speech on Sunday. He intoned, and so lost, his main points in his trademark flat-flute voice, without variations in timing and phrasing. (If he can’t do trumpet, he could try bassoon).

His final line, “�the goal that is within our grasp”, tailed off and left the hall silent, his eager, loving, yearning audience waiting dutifully for the cue for the standing ovation. Brash swayed goofishly for five seconds before mumbling an additional, lame, sentence to break the stillness.

The subliminal message he would have sent voters if any had happened along was: not quite ready for the big job. That is a dog whistle National does not want: one that sends the dog after rabbits instead of the ewes.

Contrast Bill English, failed 2002 leader: a cracker of a speech, packed with policy, oozing authority and earning an unrehearsed ovation — prime ministerial material again, say 10 years hence.

OK, the real battle is face-to-camera; Clark, despite lessons long ago, is no crowd-lifter either. On camera, National believes (with reason), Brash has authority and a not-quite-a-politician attraction.

But Clark has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the whole range of the business of government. Brash’s public pronouncements betray huge lacunae in knowledge of history and portfolio complexities.

For example, he said National had almost always come into office when the country “faced some form of economic crisis”. In 1949? Boom. In 1960? A decade of prosperity was beginning. In 1975? Yes (and Sir Robert Muldoon made it worse). In 1990? The Bank of New Zealand was bankrupt, but not the economy. In 2005? A huge fiscal surplus which he would distribute in (modest) tax cuts: hardly a crisis.

He hasn’t much time left to bone up for the campaign debates with Clark.

But National has another route to victory, it thinks. Canvassers consistently report a qualitative shift in attitudes to Clark recently. While voters still tell pollsters they think she does her job well, Nationalists are hearing growing numbers saying: “We want that woman out.”

There is something in that. In repose Clark’s face looks grumpy (which is why she smiles so much on camera).

Moreover, she has missed an opening to be the lofty national leader Brash could not challenge.

Which brings us back to Prendergast, the Wellington gusher.

Prendergast is a petrol head who wanted Australian V8s ripping up her ratepayers’ streets. Her speeches are airhead puffery for the “greatest city in New Zealand and maybe the world”. But near the end of her “I am among friends and here’s my shopping list for when you are elected” conference opening, she told them off for not having a decent arts policy.

Prendergast has grasped that her city in part defines itself through the arts and big-c culture. The biennial arts festival fills hotels and cafes. But the audience mutterings at her farting in their mono-theological church made it clear they didn’t want a bar of such PC drivel. Bet on John Key hacking “waste” in Martin Matthews’ ministry if he gets the pruning knife.

So Clark the opera-buff (favourite: Wagner) has a free hit. What has she done with it? And does it matter?

Six years ago when she announced she would take the arts, culture and heritage portfolio, I interpreted it as an intention to use it to weave a “nation-building” theme through her prime ministership.

But she hasn’t.

She is celebrated in the arts community, which can deliver votes if activated. And every now and then there is a flash of nation-building — in celebrating “cultural icons” or Lord of the Rings or the Unknown Warrior.

But she has never used the portfolio to generate a sense of national destiny. The farm girl is too earthbound to dream. At most she seems occasionally to glimpse the possibility, only to shy away again.

She could have found a top-flight speechwriter of the sort who conjured Jack Kennedy’s still-quoted uplifting lines. She could have cornered national identity for her party. Instead, there is “that woman”, facing at best a difficult third term.

And Brash? His need is tutoring in speechmaking, history and the policy background a Prime Minister needs. He is already exuding authority and, very nearly, power. How much more if he could also grasp and run with Prendergast’s message?