From Watergate to Utegate

The ute at the centre of the Utegate affair.

by Mark Gwynn

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal. On 17 June 1972 five men were arrested when they were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington D.C. It later transpired that officials in President Richard Nixon’s Republican administration had been involved, and the scandal ultimately led to the resignation of Nixon in 1974.

The Watergate buildings in Washington D.C.

The Watergate scandal provided the English language with a new suffix. Gate is attached to the end of nouns in order to denote corrupt or scandalous activity, particularly if there has been any suggestion of a cover-up. The first evidence of this use of -gate is from 1973 in reference to a scandal in Russia – the word was Volgagate.

In Australian English the -gate suffix has been used to refer to a number of scandals. Most famous was the Utegate affair of 2009 when the then leader of the Opposition, Malcolm Turnbull, accused Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Treasurer Wayne Swan of corruption and lying to Parliament in regard to financial assistance for a car dealer. The car dealer had donated a utility vehicle (a ute) to Kevin Rudd’s election campaign in 2007. When the Government proposed a scheme to support car dealerships in the period of the global financial crisis it was alleged that the PM and Treasurer were using their influence to unfairly favour the car dealer who had directly supported the PM in the past. These allegations were later shown to be false.

Another famous example of the use of the suffix -gate in Australian English was the Oil-for-Wheat scandal, often referred to as Wheatgate. This scandal involved the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) paying kickbacks to Saddam Hussein’s regime for lucrative trade deals. This contravened United Nations’ sanctions against Iraq. Like many other scandals where the -gate suffix has been used, Wheatgate involved corruption, cover-up, and severe consequences for those involved.