A Conga Line of Political Insults

We’re supposed to disapprove of name-calling among our elected representatives, but as long as it’s witty and funny it can be admired as part of a tradition that fits into the broader history of inventive Aussie slang.  I don’t mean the vicious unimaginative invective spewed out by online trolls who don’t own up to it.  I’m talking about the kind of thing that gets said in Parliament, chuckled over in the media and later published in collections of colourful quotations such as Mark Latham’s ‘A Conga Line of Suckholes’, his own term for Coalition supporters of the war in Iraq. 

Latham was at the time Labor leader and it must be said that past masters of this art have been mostly Labor men. 

My all-time favourite dates from 1997 when Senator Mal Colston ratted on the Labor Party but kept his seat with the help of the Coalition.  He was a portly fellow who occasionally revealed underwear beneath a sagging trouser-line.  His Labor Senate colleague Robert Ray dubbed him ‘the Quisling Quasimodo from Queensland’.  A masterpiece!

As well as this cracker of an insult, Colston’s treachery unleashed a barrage from his erstwhile Labor mates, not all of them recorded in Hansard:  BVD for the trouser thing, and for his political and physical morbidity Rigor Mortis and The Shambling Corpse.    

Colston was the first to cop ‘Jabba the Hut’, also from the sharp tongue of Robert Ray.  This jibe has since been revived for use against Clive Palmer by his many critics.  These include our own Jackie Lambie, whose fundraising includes offering for sale a painting of herself as a scantily-clad Princess Leia doing battle with Jabba/Clive. 

Perhaps rich white men are exempt from the laws both written and unwritten that rule a public figure’s physical appearance out of bounds for mockery.  Likewise with race, ethnicity, sex and gender.  Is it because she’s a woman that Jackie Lambie got off lightly after giving Qantas CEO Alan Joyce a three-word descriptor to do with his height, his Irishness and his sexual orientation, in that order?  She did apologise promptly as soon as her words were reported, which probably helped.    

If Robert Ray was the individual men’s gold medallist in this field, I’m awarding the women’s gold to Queensland Nationals MP De-Anne Kelly, who in 2004 labelled a group of senior diplomatic and military figures ‘Doddering Daiquiri Diplomats’ for criticising government policy over the Iraq war. 

Note the role of alliteration in making memorable mockery.  Bob Katter recently had a crack at it with ‘Lilypad Lefties’ for those who don’t share his robustly conservative politics. 

The Federal Member for Kennedy – NOT a Lilypad Leftie

For the Lifetime Achievement Award as a Political Taunter we can’t go past Paul Keating.    

Keating started out with crude vulgarisms such as ‘scumbag’, but as his oratory improved he evolved the comically grandiloquent style that characterised the Senate as ‘unrepresentative swill’ and media pundits as ‘perfumed gigolos’.

A man of limited formal schooling, Keating rarely missed a chance to show off his formidable self-education: ‘Here he is, politically limping in like the Bishop of Autun, the Talleyrand of the Liberal Party, scraping his way back into Australian history.’  That’s Keating as Prime Minister, greeting the entrance into Parliament in 1995 of John Howard, who had recently wrested back leadership of the Liberal Party. 

The Bishop of Autun?  I bet no-one in the Opposition or his own party for that matter had the faintest idea who Talleyrand was or why his place in history was comparable to that of John Howard, but it was a brave soul who dared show ignorance by not laughing at this erudite witticism.

Charles Maurice de Perigord-Talleyrand, Prince of Benevento and Bishop of Autun

Which may explain why Keating got away with so many insults in Parliament where others did not.  It was Keating who dubbed Liberal Minister David Kemp Count Yorga (as in the B-grade vampire movies) because of his goatee beard, but when Labor’s Peter Baldwin actually used that nickname in Parliament he was forced to withdraw.  Kemp eventually shaved the goatee off on the urging of his advisers.   

(Unfortunately I can’t find photos of either Count Yorga OR David Kemp with their goatees!)

So how are our current representatives doing?  Well, Labor members are often heard catcalling ‘Alas poor Yorick!’ whenever Health Minister Greg Hunt gets to his feet.  (Substitute Yorick for Greg and you’ll get the picture.)  Yeah, nah…foul-mouthed and unfunny. 

I’ll leave you with the ray of hope that is the nickname of WA Premier Mark ‘Sneakers’ McGowan.  Why Sneakers?  The story goes that his rise to power was aided by some serious brown-nosing of senior Labor figures, and that in consequence his footwear is the only part of him visible.

WA Premier Mark ‘Sneakers’ McGowan. Picture – Justin Benson-Cooper / The West Australian

This post appeared in The New Norfolk and Derwent Valley News on 24.9.21