Mind their language

The vaudeville, impact and substance of political name-calling

AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Scott Morrison would have us think politics is more war than performance whereas names like ScoMo tell us quite the opposite. When pollies, in the words of Paul Keating, “turn the switch to vaudeville”, we like nothing more than to slap names on our political heroes and villains, and to sit bemused and amused at the names they give one another.

Moreover, political nicknames hint at the overlap between politics and performance. Lady Macbeth has been applied to ambitious female politicians, including Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard. As an aside, it’s worth noting that that the word ambitious has links to the Latin ambitiō meaning “to go around soliciting votes”.

Gillard and Rudd as a pair garnered the moniker Kath and Kev (a cheeky reference to Kath and Kim) and Belgian-born Mathias Cormann has been called The Cormanator (a tongue-in-cheek reference to another accented politician, The Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger). Cormann’s reference to Bill Shorten as a Girly Man only served to strengthen these links.

In sum, it’s difficult to take the war metaphor seriously when the supposed warriors are desiccated coconuts (Keating on John Howard), half-baked crims (Keating on Wilson Tuckey), unrepresentative swill (Keating on the Senate) or a shiver looking for a spine to run up (Keating on John Hewson).

Election 2016’s monikers – e.g. Bill Shorten’s moobs,a blend of man boobs, Electricity Bill; Malcolm Turnbull’s out of touch; daddy – do nothing to dissuade us from this view.

But do names and nicknames matter?

The impact of political name-calling

Political inclinations aside, research says yes.

On a positive note, we Aussies are found of our shortenings, so it’s hardly surprising we say Albo, Bracksy and Plibbers for Anthony Albanese, Steve Bracks and Tonya Plibersek respectively.

On a negative note, research has shown we’re less apt to vote for someone named Dewey or Buchanan simply because their names have the same “disgusting” vowel sound as putrid.

Ethnic names have historically carried negative connotations for US voters but it’s worth noting this is changing. For instance, Republican pundits have gone to great lengths to highlight Barack Obama’s middle name Hussein. Research showed this was an effective strategy for right-leaning voters but actually backfired for left-leaning and moderate voters, who found it to be transparent dog-whistling.

This is why, while the media pundits kept using Hussein, sometimes even adding (a non-existent) Muhammad to Obama’s name, Republican pollies began to shy away from this practice.

Australian pollies generally avoid explicit race baiting (but it’s disgustingly present in other electoral domains). That said, the American-born senator Norm Sanders notably took umbrage to being told “Go home, Yank”, calling it an “ethnic slur”.

While explicit race-baiting is a no-no in modern politics, some pollies garner nicknames because of their dog whistling. For instance, Tony Abbott is known by some Indigenous people as The Gammon Man (“pretender”) and he is known by other groups simply as the number 5265617 (the arrival number of one boat not stopped by the Australian government, the one Abbott arrived on from the UK).

In Australia, we like our pollies not too larrikin but not too rich. Consequently, political name calling has often made reference to class or, lack thereof. For instance, former Victorian Premier Ted Baillieu has varyingly been called the Toff from Toorak, Tanty Ted and Cottee’s (because he’s “thick and rich”). Notably, this isn’t the first time ‘thick and rich’ has come up in Australian politics, with Senator Shirley Walters being called creamy for the same reason.

At the other end of the spectrum, of course, Bob Hawke went too far at times but his silver bodgie label certainly wasn’t the worst insult to emerge over the course of Australian politics. Australia’s more “articulate” (or rather posher) pollies have often mocked their less “articulate” (or rather working class) colleagues.

For instance, in the 1890s, one member of the NSW legislature, Sir Henry Parkes, mocked a colleague for his (mis)pronunciation of “h” at the start of words, saying:

Ho, the honourable member for Balmain, who for once – and, of course, but haccident – has made a sensible hobservation.

This, too, conjures Robert Menzies’ famous response to a working-class constituent, who upon asking, “wotcha gunna do about ‘ousing?” received the answer, “Put an ‘h’ in front of it”.

The substance and victims of name-calling

So why name call in politics? It’s part and parcel of the political landscape and it goes back a long time.

For instance, essayist Amber A’Lee Frost points out that the Austrian-born Queen Marie Antoinette was “singled out for especially inventive and vicious taunting” via pamphlets known as libelles (with links to our modern libel). Authors of these libelles coined the word Austrichienne “Austrian bitch”, a word which resembled the French word for “ostrich”. The authors accentuated this pun with drawings of the queen committing sexual acts with ostriches.

Our modern pollies use name calling to demonise, weaken and create doubts about honesty or loyalty in their competitors. At times, political name-calling can seem quite petty. For example, physical traits often come up. Menzies was called Ming the Merciless _(Flash Gordon’s nemesis) in part because of his oversized eyebrows. Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has been called _shrek and lurch because of his size.

Rhyming and wordplay can lead to some positive and negative names. Kevin Rudd on the one hand built a campaign on a rhyme (Kevin07) but on the other hand found himself derisively labelled Keven 747, Heavy Kevvy, Kevin 24/7 and Rudd the Dudd.

Perceived and playful ways of speaking and presentation can also become targets for insults. For instance, Bob Carr was known by colleagues as Wottha, as in “what’s he saying this time?”, and Kelly O’Dwyer has been called Whytha as in “why the long face?”. Sometimes the name of the politician develops into an insult in its own right as did former Victorian Premier Jeff Kennett’s name (e.g. a Jeff’d up economy, Jeffing awful)

And, of course, some of these insults can be downright mean. In recent decades, John Howard (e.g. the rodent, dead carcass, unflushable turd) and Julia Gillard (e.g. Juliar, witch, bitch, old cow) have perhaps copped it worse than most. As an aside in light of space, it’s worth also noting the kinds of words that get used to describe male and female politicians, as these words certainly reflect prejudices in the wider community.

So then, should our pollies avoid name calling? Essayist A’Lee Frost argues no, writing:

If we do not embrace the profane now and again, we will find ourselves handicapped by our own civility.

Yet, in closing, we reckon it’s worth defending one creature hard done by political name calling. There is reputedly a brush turkey in Whale Beach, NSW, named Barnaby Joyce. No animal deserves to suffer this indignation.