Election 2016: our pick of the words

by Julia Robinson

Greens, Labor, or Coalition?

Greens, Labor, or Coalition?

We are days away from a Federal election brought on by a double dissolution of parliament – the first double dissolution in 29 years. At eight weeks it is unusually long; many voters would say unusually painful. Political parties in campaign mode are not Australia’s favourite thing, unless someone is pork-barrelling in our electorate. However the length of the campaign allows all candidates more time to express themselves, more time to impress us with their rhetoric, and more time to mangle the language. Those of us with an interest in Australian English are the winners.

The language we’ve heard in this election campaign is a mix of old and new. The political slogans, putdowns, and free character assessments include some well-known Australian words, some that have been updated or modified for the current election, and some brand-new terms modelled on the old. Here is our pick of election-related words and phrases.

Veep's Selina Meyer and her campaign slogan

Veep’s Selina Meyer and her campaign slogan

continuity and change: In March, with a double dissolution in the wind, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull responded to Tony Abbott’s comment that the Turnbull government was running on the Abbott government’s record. The PM said: ‘The bottom line is there is continuity and there is change.’ The line, echoed by several of his ministers, must have seemed a good idea at the time, until someone pointed out that continuity with change was used in the American political satire Veep as the presidential campaign slogan of the self-serving Selina Meyer. To rub salt into the wound, one of the show’s writers described it as ‘the most meaningless election slogan we could think of’.

double disillusion, double D:  Two terms for double dissolution (‘the simultaneous dissolution of both houses of a parliament preparatory to an election’), an Australian term dating from 1847 (then in the context of colonial parliament). The 2016 campaign has popularised double disillusion, a play on words for political cynics, as well as the handy abbreviation double D‘With the double D coming up, it will be like the Tatts Lotto on a Saturday night.’ (Senator Jacqui Lambie on Q&A, on the possibility of winning more independent senate seats in Tasmania.)

faceless men and women: Western Australian Liberal MP Dennis Jensen, dumped by the Liberals at preselection, decided to stand as an independent and took aim at those working behind the scenes in his own party: ‘I’m making a stand against the faceless men and women of the Liberal Party who pervert the process and liberal ideals.’ The term is an equal-opportunity extension of the Australianism faceless men, which means ‘people who wield (especially political) power behind the scenes’.  It was first coined by Liberal MP Henry Turner in 1963, referring to the Australian Labor Party Federal executive as ‘the 36 faceless men emerg[ing] from some dark recess where the Communist spider weaves his web’. The Liberals used it as a campaign catchphrase that year to great effect. The term was originally used only of the Labor Party executive, but it can now be found in more general contexts referring to other organisations, including Labor’s political opponents, as here.

Senator Jacqui Lambie

Jacqui Lambie, keeping the bastards honest

keep the bastards honest: A perennial in Australian politics since 1980, when it was coined by Australian Democrats leader Don Chipp. The slogan alludes to the party’s role in holding the balance of power in the Senate. Although it is now sometimes found in non-political contexts, Senator Jacqui Lambie, knowing its Senate history, has used it several times recently in reference to the Senate balance of power. On Q&A in March she commented: ‘And as for my seat, that is up to the people of Tasmania and if they don’t want me up here keeping the bastards honest then they’ll get rid of me.’

Malcolm’s millionaires: Labor leader Bill Shorten coined this term in his budget reply speech in May: ‘From Tony’s tradies to Malcolm’s millionaires – this is a budget for big business over battlers.’ It is the latest twist on the characterisation of a significant part of the electorate that began with Howard’s battlers in the lead up to the 1996 election. Howard’s battlers were those (especially working class) people, traditionally regarded as a Labor voters, who were instrumental in electing John Howard’s conservative Coalition to power in 1996. In 2015, Tony’s tradies were Howard’s battlers rebadged and offered tax write-offs on new assets for small businesses. This year Bill Shorten has attempted to appeal to the same demographic by characterising big business as the Prime Minister’s natural electorate. The Malcolm’s millionaires tag was described as ‘a class-war classic’ by the Australian newspaper.

Malsplaining: A word to describe PM Malcolm Turnbull’s style of discourse. It is a blend of Malcolm and explaining, and is modelled on the recent term mansplaining, ‘a man’s explanation to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronising.’ Malsplaining first appeared in late 2015. The Sydney Morning Herald defined it this way: ‘“Malsplaining”, in which Malcolm Turnbull answers questions in as many words as possible.’ Malsplaining is the opposite of the three-word slogan (see below), as noted by Melbourne’s Herald-Sun, in describing the PM’s dilemma in wishing to respect the intelligence of the Australian people: ‘… critics say he has replaced Tony Abbott’s three-word slogans with his own 3000-word explainers. A new word has been coined for Mr Turnbull’s detailed explanations – “Malsplaining“.’

Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten

Malsplaining and Shortenomics

Shortenomics: Columnist Niki Savva coined this disparaging term for Labor leader Bill Shorten’s economic plan, describing it as ‘live it up now and leave the bills for later’. As a word, Shortenomics is a blend of a proper name and the combining form ‘-nomics’. The combining form has been used in the past to form nouns denoting, often semi-humorously, a field of economics, as specified in the first element (in this case Shorten). Shortenomics is modelled on a well-known predecessor, Reaganomics, ‘the economic policies of former US president Ronald Reagan’. Similar terms have been formed on the names of other US presidents (Nixonomics, Clintonomics), and, in our own region, former NZ Minister of Finance Roger Douglas’s free-market approach was termed Rogernomics.

Silvertail Tanya Plibersek

Silvertail Tanya Plibersek

silvertail: A traditional Australian insult invoking the class divide. From the late 19th century silvertail has been used to describe someone who is privileged or socially prominent, and it probably originated as a reference to the wearing of dress uniforms. In the 21st century the insult is still alive and well, with Minister Peter Dutton attacking Labor’s Tanya Plibersek as a silvertail: ‘She’s in a Greens seat, inner city seat in Sydney, she’s on a family income of $800,000 a year. I’d love to know what she has in common with the people of Kallangur or Bray Park or Strathpine.’

three-word slogan: A concept much discussed since the 2013 election campaign, in which the Opposition leader Tony Abbott used three-word slogans to devastating effect: stop the boats, axe the tax, end the waste. When Malcolm Turnbull announced he was challenging Tony Abbott for the leadership, he famously said ‘we need to respect the intelligence of the Australian people’, a thinly-veiled reference to the three-word slogan. So far in 2016 we have seen the ill-fated continuity and change (see above), and its successor jobs and growth. Labor’s Bill Shorten added his own pick: ‘The only three-word slogan I want to see if I’m elected prime minister is made in Australia.’ A June headline in Melbourne’s Age commented on voter boredom with the campaign and the major parties: ‘Our new fave three-word slogan: Why even bother?’

A $6000 toaster

The Toorak toaster worth $6000

Toorak toaster: This was the Twittersphere’s tag for the $6000 commercial toaster that Minister Kelly O’Dwyer mentioned on Q&A in May. She gave it as an example of how one cafe owner would benefit from tax relief measures for small business. In the context of a response to a disability pensioner (on lifting the tax-free threshold for the wealthy), it backfired. The Toorak toaster hashtag was off and running on Twitter, and crowdfunding to buy the pensioner a $6000 toaster raised tens of thousands of dollars. Toorak is the name of a Melbourne suburb, one of the richest in Australia, and is therefore an allusion to wealth and privilege: ‘Kelly O’Dwyer told him it was all about balance (seriously!) and business now being able to buy $6000 toasters. Toorak toasters anyone?’ (online magazine Independent Australia)

true believers: In his campaign launch Labor’s Bill Shorten paid tribute to the true believers, an increasingly endangered species also known as traditional Labor voters: those who have a strong faith in the ideals and values of the Australian Labor Party. The term was popularised by the 1987 television drama The True Believers, which portrayed the Labor Party after the Second World War. It was most famously used by former PM Paul Keating on the night of Labor’s win in the 1993 election: ‘This is the sweetest victory of all. This is a victory for the true believers – the people who, in difficult times, have kept the faith.’ Bill Shorten invoked the memory of 1993 and claimed the term for today’s Labor faithful, saying: ‘This election is a battle for our generation of true believers.’ Naturally, Paul Keating was in the audience to receive the homage.

Barnaby Joyce and wombat

Barnaby Joyce and wombat

wombat trail: An election campaign classic. Tony Abbott’s former chief of staff, Peta Credlin, took aim on Sky News at Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce, following his comments on the former PM’s ambitions: ‘Honestly, Barnaby, get back on the wombat trail – please leave this alone.’ The wombat trail is the election campaign trail pursued by leaders of the National Party (formerly the Country Party). The term dates from 1984, and alludes to the natural habitat of the wombat – the bush, where National Party leaders have their electorates. Barnaby Joyce embraced the slap-down: ‘Hail the scared wombat!’

zombie measures: These zombies are Government policies that have been blocked in the Senate and languish there waiting to be passed. The savings they represent – some $18 billion over four years – are factored into the 2016 budget. Labor denounces the Government for including these numbers, since the measures may never be passed; but Labor admits the deficits will be bigger over the next few years, partly as a result of the zombie measures. The walking dead have never been so dull, but they make an exciting headline: the Sydney Morning Herald shouted during budget week: ‘Tony Abbott’s ‘zombies‘ add billions to Malcolm Turnbull’s first budget.’

Zombies adding to the budget bottom line

Zombies adding to the budget bottom line


2 thoughts on “Election 2016: our pick of the words

  1. Two probable Australianisms you missed (forest, trees, etc.) that appear in this very article are electorate in the sense of ‘election district’ and preselection. They both stood out like the proverbial to this Yank reader.

  2. Glad you noticed those John. Both ‘electorate’ (first recorded 1843) and ‘preselection’ (1914) are common in Australian usage, but I did not discuss them because neither term has played a significant part in the language of this campaign. Now, if only there had been a stoush about branch stacking, or a scandalous electoral rort, they may have got a guernsey. If you’re interested in other Australian political terms (including the scurrilous and ephemeral) you might enjoy reading the 2005 article ‘Passing Parade of Popular Political Phrases’ by Judith Robertson in our archived newsletter, Ozwords. But be warned – some of the terms will be puzzling unless you are a keen student of Australian elections pre-2005! Here’s the link. The article is on page 7.

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