From scumbags to maggots: parliamentary language in Oz

If you want to get a feel for the no-holds-barred nature of Australian political debate, you must start with former prime minister Paul Keating, writes Mike Seccombe. “I try to use the Australian idiom to its maximum advantage,” he once said, in a rare moment of understatement.

Arguably, over more than a quarter-century of public life, including eight years as treasurer and five as prime minister from 1991-96, Keating contributed more to the annals of creative invective than any politician, anywhere.

At times he used language like a blunt instrument. He derided opponents – on the floor of Parliament – as clowns, ratbags, harlots, scumbags, pissants, mangy maggots, dogs returning to their vomit, and in one case “a dead carcase, swinging in the breeze”, waiting for someone to cut it down.

Other times he used language like a rapier. One opposition leader, Andrew Peacock, was a “painted, perfumed gigolo”. John Howard, prime minister from 1996 to 2007, was “a desiccated coconut”.

Keating was the all-time champ of eloquent abuse. But in Australia, abuse is a bipartisan political tradition, although it is notable that leaders of the main Conservative party (misleadingly named the Liberal party) have tended to rely on designated attack dogs, whereas Labor leaders have done it themselves.

The styles have varied, from the erudite (Gough Whitlam), to the vulgar (Mark Latham, who once referred to the Liberal party as a “conga-line of suckholes” and John Howard as an “arse-licker”), but all were able demolitionists. So is Julia Gillard, the current Labor prime minister.

The one exception was her predecessor, Kevin Rudd. The toughest quotes you’ll find in an online search feature words such as “probity” and “malfeasance”. When the party dumped him as leader, the first time Labor ever removed a sitting PM, his priggishness was part of the reason.

By now, readers outside Australia may be aghast. But consider the possibility that all the invective is a measure of national cohesion and how well the place runs. The ideological spectrum is very narrow; public institutions are competent and non-corrupt. In comparative terms, policy changes little when the government does. Behind the scenes, in the parliamentary committees that decide policy, things work relatively co-operatively.

Mike Seccombe covered Australian politics for The Australian and the Sydney Morning Herald for 20 years