Slanguage and the 'dinky di' art of Aussie election talk

By Howard Manns

Those distinctive expressions Aussie politicians like Bill Shorten love to use might be old hat, but they conveniently package the cultural values many Australians hold dear. Photo: Mick Tsikas / AAP
Those distinctive expressions Aussie politicians like Bill Shorten love to use might be old hat, but they conveniently package the cultural values many Australians hold dear. Photo: Mick Tsikas / AAP

Bill Shorten's been telling us he wants to give Australians a "fair go". Malcolm Turnbull has decried Labor for an "assault on the Australian spirit".

Of course, they're not the first pollies to drag the Australian spirit and Aussie talk into the dirty business of campaigning. But why do they do it?

It goes without saying that slanguage has always played a pivotal role in the Australian sense of self. Australian National University researcher Evan Kidd recently set out empirically something Australians have intuitively known for a long time - "using Australian slang increases your likeability among other Australians".

And useful campaigning fodder are those distinctively Australian expressions with no easy equivalents in national varieties elsewhere. They might be a bit old hat, but they conveniently package some of those cultural values that many Australians hold dear.

Fair dinkums and fair goes in elections

So, in 2007, Kevin Rudd doubled down by telling us John Howard wasn't being "fair dinkum" by using a likeable term to tell us about a guy doing something unlikable in Australian terms.

Pollies use Australian slang to draw "fairness", "honesty" and "authenticity" (eg fair go, fair dinkum) into public discussions. Recall when Tony Abbott promised a "fair dinkum paid parental leave scheme" in his 2010 and 2013 election speeches - and in every budget reply speech from 2010 to 2012.

There has been a notable upsurge in the use of Australian slang in politics from the 1970s. When Gough Whitlam became Australian Prime Minister in 1972, Australia's highest office took on a distinctly Australian voice. This was the case in terms of accent (compare the speeches of Whitlam and Robert Menzies here), but also in the use of a distinctly Aussie idiom.

Menzies was the first to use "fair go" in an election speech, doing it in 1951, but he did so with some cautious introduction ("... the sound Australian phrase, a fair go"). "Fair go" then took a hiatus in elections until 1974 when Gough Whitlam used it six times in his election speech.

Not to be outdone, Malcolm Fraser used the much-loved phrase a record seven times in his 1975 speech. Since then, fair go has featured "bigly" (to use a favourite Trumpism) in campaigns, well except for 1977 and, for some reason, elections in the 1990s.

Yet, it's important to note that pollies don't use Australianisms the same way and some are better at doing it than others.

Mateship, battlers and 'Team Australia'

English professor G.A. Wilkes notes that "no word in the Australian vocabulary has such a wealth of associations as mate" and this has certainly been true in politics.

Former science minister Barry Jones provides an excellent example in the story he tells in his autobiography of a phone conversation with a colleague on whose vote he was counting to retain his ministerial position.

'Mate' he began and with that word I knew that I was gone. 'Mate, I'll have to break my promise to vote for you'

The applications of "mate" and "mateship" by Australian prime ministers have been wide and varied. In 1983, Bob Hawke launched his famed Economic Summit, in the wake of years of political divisiveness, with an appeal to mateship. A little later Paul Keating linked mateship to Asian notions of community and obligation and used mateship to support his argument that Australia should find "security in Asia, not from Asia".

As historian James Curran points out, John Howard had a deep affection for "mateship" (going as far as trying to enshrine it in the constitution). But sometimes he used it in baffling ways, even "extending the hand of Australian mateship" and its links to the Anzac legend to rally Australians against terrorism - a sentiment later echoed in Abbott's "Team Australia" (short-listed for the Australian 2014 Word of the Year).

Ignoring the historical links to trade unionism, Howard also used the narratives around mateship to justify neoliberal economic pragmatism. Along these lines, and perhaps most confusingly, he labelled the famed 1907 Harvester judgement (one which obliged workplace to pay a fair, basic wage): "mateship gone wrong".

Howard's economic redefinition (or for some corruption) of mateship and his redefinition of another word, battler, hint at his close relationship with George W. Bush. The former American president contributed to the neoliberal redefinition of freedom in a manner similar to Howard's rebranding of "mateship" and "battler".

Howard changed the meaning of the word battler indirectly and directly. Indirectly, people began to speak of "Howard's battlers" or disenfranchised, blue-collared voters who had switched their allegiances from Labor to Liberal. Directly, Howard expanded "battlers" from working families to include anyone trying to better themselves.

Suddenly, even bankers and property magnates came under the umbrella of "battlers", as did, in the words of Bush, Howard himself - it's a long away from the Dale Kerrigan-type underdog, working hard and struggling to make ends meet.

This leads us to our final questions: who has the right to use Australian slang? When does it work and when doesn't it?

Larrikins, malapropisms and drunken dorks

Authenticity is the most critical factor guiding the use or misuse of Australian slang, regardless of the speaker (a fact hinted at by Evan Kidd's research mentioned above).

For instance, Barnaby Joyce caused a stir when he said the Johnny Depp apology video was "going off like a frog in a sock". People get quite excited about pollies using Australian slang, especially in reference to an international incident. Yet, people weren't that surprised to hear "frog in a sock" coming from Joyce - he's a bit of a larrikin.

Rudd, and his use of Australian slang, offers a stark contrast to Joyce. Rudd's a dork (this was part of his appeal in 2007), and he didn't start using Australian expressions (at least publicly) until things started to go badly in the polls.

And when Rudd did begin using these expressions, he did so awkwardly and conspicuously. His use (three times) of "fair shake of the sauce bottle" was reported and criticised far and wide - "Antiquated Australian slang, recently deployed by the country's prime minister" (The New York Times, June 17, 2009).

More so, it muddled the earlier idiom ("fair suck of the sauce bottle"), a possible or even likely reference to booze.

But we shouldn't judge Rudd too harshly. Do we really want an Australian prime minister saying everyone deserves their fair share of booze? (Well, there was that time a drunken Bob Hawke told the nation they could go in to work late, but then he was another larrikin.)

Anyway, "fair shake of the sauce bottle" goes back at least to the 1990s, and as lexicographer Bruce Moore points out, it's been well-entrenched in politics and beyond (senator Rod Kemp famously used it in 1995).

Besides, we love to play with slang expressions - fair suck of the sav/fair suck of the sausage and even fair suck of the Siberian sandshoe are just some of the variants about. And who could forget Norman Gunston's "fair bite of the pineapple donut". So why shouldn't equality be measured by even distributions of dollops of tomato sauce (and not grog!).

This certainly wasn't the first time Australian slang has been "adapted" in politics. The swagman took the expression "greasing one's swag straps" to mean time to move on. Bruce Moore writes that when Bob Hawke was being advised to step down as prime minister, Gareth Evans is reported to have said to him:

Pull out, digger. The dogs are pissing on your swag.

Well, the dogs are pissing on our swags and we're due a fair suck of the sauce bottle ourselves.

- The Conversation

Dr Howard Manns lectures in Linguistics at Monash University's Clayton campus near Melbourne where he studies language variation and change in Australia and its near neighbours. His current work focuses on Indonesian youth interaction, Australian Deaf-Blind communication and intercultural communication in professional settings.

Co-written with Professor Kate Burridge, the current Chair of Linguistics at Monash University.

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