Fair Dinkum pollies, enough with the slang

With the election running faster than a ‘roo on the hot desert’, the Australian slang and euphemisms have been coming thick and fast. For a politician it is clearly a calculated move: during the recent televised debate, Tony Abbott dropped the term ‘fair dinkum’ four times before Gillard started using it back in an ironic sense.

Cartoon by The Australian's Peter Nicholson Cartoon by The Australian’s Peter Nicholson

Even Kevin Rudd made his return to the campaign trail claiming that ‘I actually don’t think Mr Abbott is fair dinkum.’ But really, are any of us buying this usage? How many Australians can listen to politicians using slang terms, and find it natural and believable?

For many Australians, slang is a part of every day life. It’s a useful way of shortening our sentences, has created a sense of camaraderie, and done wonders for defining the Australian image. But much about Australian slang comes from its casual delivery, and it’s association with a relaxed atmosphere. Neither of which are terms used to describe politics.

Dr Evan Kidd, who has been researching Australian slang at La Trobe University, describes it like this: “By using slang, politicians are trying to both align themselves with ‘Mr & Mrs Average Australian’ by showing them that they aren’t really different from anybody else despite their unusual job that (sometimes) comes with a high profile.

Australian politicians probably use it to conform to a stereotype of Australians as down to earth, no-nonsense, and a bit rough around the edges. I like to call this the “Daggy Uncle” effect, where people feel a slight tinge of embarrassment when someone is trying to sound cooler or more hip than they are generally perceived to be, like when one of your older family members uses teenage slang.”

Rudd was a fan of strategically placed slang, with such gems as ‘fair shake of a sauce bottle’, which garnered more attention than anything he was trying to say in his speech at the time. Paul Keating turned slang insults into something of an artform, by describing Malcolm Fraser as looking ‘like an Easter Island statue with an arse full of razor blades.’

Much of it comes down to the individual – Bob Hawke in many ways embodied the larrikin ideal, and his roughness allowed him to get away with slang. John Howard, in contrast, made everyone feel slightly uncomfortable and inclined to apologise on his behalf, when he announced to the world that Saddam needed to be fair dinkum about whether he possessed weapons of mass destruction.

While ‘fair dinkum’ will strike a chord with some Australians, the reality is that many of these will be from the baby boomer generation or older – it rarely gets used outside an ironic sense. So is it time for the politicians to retire the term, or is it having the desired effect? Should Tony Abbott be risking points by using slang? By evoking colourful metaphors, will Julia Gillard be showing us ‘the real Julia’?

The scary fact is, that if pollies wanted to have a buckley’s of attracting the ankle biter voters, their vocabulary would include a lot more ‘dudes’ and ‘LOL’s. If that ever happened it would be a rip-snorter of an election.

You can read more from Matt on his new blog The End of the Spectrum.

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