Speech by Christopher O'Connell, Scotch College


How many times have you flicked on the news and watched politicians filibuster, political point score and talk their way around real issues? Sadly, the answer is probably more times that you can count. Now, I’m not one to criticise over-talkers, because I am one myself. But while I’m a world-class chatterbox, I do cherish my voice when given the opportunity to speak about social issues in a context like this. How can we change the tone of public discourse so that we can effect more meaningful positive change? Unfortunately, if we take a look at the state of our country and in fact the whole world right now, we start to see that important people are not using their words meaningfully. That is the problem I want to examine today with the 4 Way Test: Is it the truth? Is it fair? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? And finally, is it beneficial to all concerned?

Is it the truth?

The election of former US resident Donald Trump in 2016 was a surprise to most, and it heralded a chain reaction of far-right populism across the globe: Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Germany’s Islamaphobic AfD party. While the wave of populism is scary, what I found most concerning was a lack of respect for truth and rhetoric blatantly trying to fuel political bases. 2017, January ... the counsellor to President Trump, Kellyanne Conway, appears on NBC to propose the notion of ‘alternative facts’. The theme endured the presidency and emerged once again in the baseless claims of a ‘stolen election’ and ‘widespread fraud’. Yet the problem of stunting progress for political gain isn’t a foreign one. Here in Australia, politicians would rather choose ‘no progress’ to progress what is not branded ‘their progress’. Take the critique of the recent budget, for example. Ideological views differ, but in terms of defeating the shared economic crisis of Covid, economists predict it will fair well. As is typical in politics, different sides will critique anything that is not their own. This isn’t a Labour problem or a Liberal problem, this is a modern politics problem.

Is it fair?

It certainly isn’t fair that those in power don’t make the effort to make discourse more meaningful. Unfortunately, in today’s political climate it is difficult to critique someone’s rhetoric, without being accused of stifling free speech. However, the issue is not about free speech, but rather effective speech about issues that actually matter. While we could be searching for a solution to the homelessness crisis or the gender pay gap we are using parliamentary speeches to look impressive to the press gallery, not to truly seek the best outcomes for the people that elected us. Australia and the world are grappling with existential issues like climate change and significant ideological conflict, but for far too long our politics has been strangled by petty grievances, slander and worn-out dogmas, and that is by no means fair to anyone.

Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

Obviously, ineffective discourse does not foster goodwill and better friendships. Recent political data shows the percentage of politicians voting across party lines is at an all-time low. We seem to take freedom of speech for granted. In Hong Kong, Russia and Thailand people are fighting just for a tiny sliver of what we have. Here, freedom of speech is corroding the very reason it exists in the first place. It is not there to polarise us all, but to give us the opportunity to listen to others and adapt more reasonable perspectives. Consider the black lives matter movement – African-Americans were consistently targeted by law enforcement causing uproar. But the situation was complicated when everyone shared their individual views for the future at the same time. It clouded the primary goal with a million other secondary objectives. 

Will it be beneficial to all those concerned?

Provocative political figures, Covid-19 and social media has put the loudspeaker to the mouths of those spouting catchy one-liners, explosive rhetoric or meaningless garble that sounds important. Both progressivism and conservatism are vital to a balanced society, but not when we let our politics come before our morality and civility, and we let ourselves fall into divided gridlock.

Thinking of it this way gives me some hope. If we can use our discomfort to forge a new paradigm for public discourse: one of truth, fairness, friendship and goodwill and benefits to all, we might just be able to tackle our problems – together.