The speech was detailed and pulled no punches. Gillard called the practice “coercive” and “brutal”; “unethical”, “dishonest” and often “illegal”. Babies were “snatched away” before their mothers had even held them in their arms.
If you want to connect with your audience, to share something with them, to apologise to them, they have to be ‘you’ and not ‘them’. If you want to talk to someone, rather than about them, you need to use the grammar of the second person. This is what Gillard did. The image below is a set of “concordance lines” for the word “you” in Gillard’s speech. It shows how many instances, and the textual environment in which she invoked the word.
Concordance lines for 'you', from Gillard's National Apology for Forced Adoptions speech
At the end of her speech, Gillard acknowledged the Senate committee who produced the report on forced adoption. She acknowledged Professor Nahum Mushin of Monash, who had overseen the national consultation and the reference group. And she noted that Mushin and his reference group had drafted the apology statement.
Their advice to the government had been “invaluable”. Clearly, Gillard’s speech was a collective effort, with input from people directly affected by forced adoption and people who had heard and collated the many painful stories of the period.
This is why her speech rang clear and true.
Then along bumbled Tony Abbott, with a speech one could reasonably assume was largely his own effort. It started with his own personal experience of adoption – of thinking for over two decades he was the biological father of a child his girlfriend gave up for adoption. Painful though it may have been, it wasn’t quite analogous to the stories that the PM had described as “manipulation, mistreatment and malpractice”.
Abbott’s personal experience was the only one he recounted. Despite the plethora of stories painfully told and documented, none made it into his speech.
Abbott’s speech had a lot of ‘I’. It all referred to himself.
Concordance lines for 'I', from Abbott's National Apology for Forced Adoptions speech
Those to whom the apology was in theory directed were referred to as generic groups, or by the third person pronoun:
This is a tragedy for them and for our nation and we must atone for it.
The only ‘you’ in Abbott’s speech which addressed the audience came when some began to heckle him.
A couple even walked out. Why? Because Abbott referred to “birth parents”.
If you don’t know anything of the pain suffered by mothers who were forced to give up children for adoption, you might think it reasonable to distinguish “birth parents” from the “adoptive parents” who raised children.
But Abbott must have thought he had nothing to learn on this subject. Otherwise he, or an advisor, might have read the senate committee report. Or at least the first page of it, where, after a brief introduction, the report has a section titled “The language of adoption”. Not much more than 500 words into the senate committee’s report, Abbott, if he’d troubled himself, would have read:
Adoption is a difficult subject to write about in a manner acceptable to everyone affected by it. Forced adoption even more so.
Mothers who were forced to give up children for adoption generally reject the terms 'birth mother' or 'biological mother', and some reject 'natural mother'. The preferred term is often simply 'mother'.
Gillard had got this message. Abbott sounded like he hadn’t even tried.
This column was first published by the NTEU here