Tony Abbott and his way with words

by Julia Robinson

This week we pay tribute to former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the terms he has contributed to the language of politics and public debate in this country. His ministers too gave us some memorable terms (‘lifters and leaners’, ‘budget emergency’, ‘on-water matters’) but Tony Abbott’s output eclipsed them. Listed here are some notable words and phrases associated with his time in the top job, and the election campaign leading up to it.

 imgres-1budgie smugglers No discussion of words that we associate with Tony Abbott is complete without mentioning the famous red budgies. This internationally-known Australian term for men’s swimming briefs has nothing to do with politics, and was not an Abbott coinage, but budgie smugglers are inevitably linked in the public mind with the Prime Minister who wears them – a fact not lost on political cartoonists.

captain’s pickcaptain’s call This was originally a sporting term for a unilateral decision made by the captain of a team, usually in the choice of a team member. In Australia this was first used in a transferred, political sense, in the lead-up to the 2013 election. Labor leaders Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd both made captain’s picks in personally choosing political candidates without consultation. As Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott made his first captain’s call in choosing to give Coalition preferences to Labor ahead of the Greens. As Prime Minister he made the captain’s pick his own, and each choice sparked controversy across the political spectrum: the paid parental leave scheme, the reintroduction of knighthoods, and, most controversial of all, the decision to award a knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh. More recently he agreed not to make a captain’s pick in the choice of a new Speaker to replace Bronwyn Bishop. Tony Abbott’s captain’s picks added to his political woes. The term was mentioned by Malcolm Turnbull in announcing his intention to challenge for the leadership of the Liberal Party: ‘There must be an end to policy on the run and captain’s calls.’ It was shortlisted for our Word of the Year in 2013.

images-1daggy moment, daggy dad moment During the 2013 election campaign daughter Bridget accused him of this when he commented on a candidate’s sex appeal. ‘As the kids suggested to me, I had a dad moment’, Mr Abbott said. ‘A daggy dad moment.’ ‘Daggy’ is Australian for unfashionable or outdated, and can be used affectionately – and surely here with a hint of filial exasperation.

dead, buried and cremated Tony Abbott first used this metaphor when he was Leader of the Opposition in 2010. Then it referred to his position on bringing back WorkChoices (the Howard government’s 2005 changes to industrial relations law). He revived it again in March 2015 regarding an ill-fated Budget measure: ‘The Medicare co-payment is dead, buried and cremated‘, the Prime Minister told the House of Representatives. Its use is effective in emphasising a point, despite some picky commentators noting the illogical order of the expression.

death cult A term more often associated with ancient Egyptian worship or with events such as the 1978 Jonestown massacre, this was Tony Abbott’s preferred description of the jihadist group Islamic State, or IS. During his prime ministership he consistently referred to it as a death cult, saying ‘I refuse to call this hideous movement Islamic State because it is not a state, it’s a death cult.’

lifestyle choice The Prime Minister caused a furore  in March 2015 when he said the decision of  Aboriginal people to live in remote indigenous communities was a lifestyle choice. ‘It’s not the job of the taxpayer to subsidise lifestyle choices‘, he said, in the context of the Western Australian government’s decision to close a large number of these communities on the basis of cost of service delivery.

images-1shirtfront We chose this as our Word of the Year for 2014 as the word that made the biggest impact on the Australian cultural and political scene. In October 2014 the Prime Minister said in a press conference when asked whether he would raise the issue of the downing of flight MH17 with the Russian President at the G20 summit: ‘I’m going to shirtfront Mr Putin.’ The threat made waves around the world, and provoked a response from the Russians. In November the G20 meeting was held in Brisbane. No shirtfronting was observed.

Team Australia The Prime Minister used this term to describe the ideal of a united Australia in the context of the need to combat home-grown terrorism: ‘I want to work with the communities of our country as Team Australia here’, he said. It is another term transferred from a sporting context, like captain’s call and shirtfront. Tony Abbott is the first person to use Team Australia in a specifically political context. It was shortlisted for our Word of the Year in 2014.

Team Australia. Image source: Sydney Morning Herald.

Team Australia. Image: Sydney Morning Herald.

scraping the barnacles off This boating analogy was used by the Prime Minister at the end of 2014 to describe the process of ‘resetting’ the focus of Government by ridding itself of distracting issues, such as unpopular or unworkable policies. It attracted continuing comment in the media, and as a colourful metaphor it was a boon to cartoonists. Tony Abbott may have picked this up from John Howard, who purportedly talked of scraping the barnacles off the ship of state during his time in office. (Earlier in 2014 it was used in the same sense by British Conservative Party politicians, who apparently heard it from their election strategist Lynton Crosby, John Howard’s ex-campaign director.)

imagesstop the boats Tony Abbott was famous for his three-word slogans. Stop the boats was the 2013 campaign slogan that, in government, became a touchstone for the success of government policy in stopping the flow of asylum seekers arriving in Australian waters. Tony Abbott: ‘My job is to remind people of the achievements this year and they’ve been achievements that people said were impossible, people said that you’d never stop the boats; we have stopped the boats.’ His other campaign messages were just as pithy (‘axe the tax, pay back the debt, end the waste’) but none resonated in the electorate like the appeal to border security.

suppository of all wisdom A memorable blooper; Tony Abbott’s malapropism. This occurred during the 2013 election campaign. What he really meant to say was repository of all wisdom.

Now we wait to see what Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will add to our political lexicon, and whether he will be as prolific.

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