Legacies of Politicians

Politicians as a species are known for their lyrical, and sometimes ludicrous, use of language. Australian politicians are no exception and our parliamentarians, senators, and even prime ministers have had a role in shaping Australian English. But pollies don’t deserve all the credit – in turn, they benefit from the relaxed banter that is typical of Australian English.

In what other country would it be considered endearing for a prime minister to proclaim, ‘Any boss who sacks someone for not turning up to work today is a bum!’ (Bob Hawke, 1983), or acceptable to make the party catchcry ‘Keep the bastards honest!’? (Don Chipp, 1980) But pollies must tread the line between playful and patronising carefully, or risk being derided by national (and sometimes international) media.

An example is Tony Abbott threatening to shirt-front Vladimir Putin in 2014. Maybe on a different day, in a different context, using the phrase shirt-front would have been considered larrikinism. However, given the timing – just before a G20 summit – the phrase was widely condemned as inappropriate and undignified.

Many Australian politicians have been so distinctive in their style of speech that their names will forever be associated with a particular quirk or manner. Paul Keating’s blistering insults inspired the 2012 app ‘Paul Keating Insult Generator’, which allows users to generate Keatingesque insults to share with their friends (or enemies) on social media. The app creators hark back to the ‘days of proper political slanging matches in Australia’.

As the twenty-four-hour news cycle demands fresh sound bites at increasingly frequent intervals, pollies need to make sure they’ve got substance and style like never before. How would past leaders have fared in today’s instant-gratification society?

Gough Whitlam was lauded for his theatrical performances and wordplay, and his most famous Whitlamesque proclamation remains as eloquent and stirring today as it was in 1975: ‘Well may we say “God save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General!’ It wasn’t enough to keep his government in office, but Whitlam’s words on the steps of Parliament House resonated across the country and, I suspect, rang in the ears of the Governor-General responsible for Whitlam’s dismissal, John Kerr.

Less conducive to tweeting were Bob Hawke’s famously long sentences, described politely by the Australian National Dictionary in the definition of Hawkespeak as a ‘prolix style of public speaking’. Hawkespeak is certainly an apt descriptor for Rob Oakeshott’s 2010 election speech: a sixteen-minute explanation of his decision to back the Labor Party to form a minority government. The widespread frustration expressed in the media and the derision the speech received perhaps indicate that the Australian populace has little time for or interest in long-form oratory.

Or is dwindling engagement an indication that Australian politics has lost the unique style so important to political success in the past? Should dictionaries of the future include ‘Turnbullesque’ or ‘Shortenesque’? The recent election was a perfect opportunity to listen in on the innumerable debates, advertisements, and press conferences, brush up on polliewaffle, and decide for yourself.

Jess Dowling is the Compliance Advisor at Oxford University Press Australia. By day she makes sure that the branch maintains high ethical standards, and by night she works on her plans to restore the Oxford comma to its proper place at the top of the punctuation tree.

9780195550269This article was inspired by entries from the second edition of the Australian National Dictionary. This dictionary is the only comprehensive, historically-based record of the words and meanings that make up Australian English. It is a unique lexical map of Australian history and culture.

The dictionary was produced at the Australian National Dictionary Centre at the Australian National University. The Centre, established in 1988, is a joint venture of the Australian National University and Oxford University Press Australia and New Zealand.

Chief Editor: Dr Bruce Moore is a former Director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre (1994–2011). He has edited a number of OUP dictionaries, including the Australian Oxford Dictionary.
Managing Editor: Dr Amanda Laugesen
Editors: Mark Gwynn, Julia Robinson


[1] ‘13 Quotes that made Gough Whitlam Australia’s most loved, hated and controversial Prime Minister’, Business Insider (21 October 2014): http://www.businessinsider.com.au/13-quotes-that-made-gough-whitlam-australias-most-loved-hated-and-controversial-prime-minister-2014-10

Please click on the images below to see the entries as they appear in the Australian National Dictionary:

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