Potty-mouthed politics

John Howard, 1999 Image copyright AP
Image caption John Howard. "Lazarus with a triple bypass" was one of the kinder epithets

The US presidential campaign is already upon us, and my advice for anyone hoping to make full sense of its reporting would be to invest in a glossary of American sporting terms. In Iowa and New Hampshire, candidates are already swinging for the fences, trying to make it to first base, and even throwing the occasional Hail Mary pass.

Although this is a sports-obsessed country, Australian political discourse does not rely on sports analogies to anywhere near the same degree. True, politicians are sometimes accused of playing the man not the ball. Troublesome issues might occasionally be kicked into touch. Government ministers might be bowled a bouncer or a googly during Question Time - although more commonly they are the grateful recipients of friendly long-hops from backbenchers within their own parties.

Overall, however, the language of Australian politics owes more to anatomy than sport. Body parts are an ever present. Bodily functions and medical afflictions have always been fashionable.

Needless to say, the heart is central. John Howard not only became a self-styled "Lazarus with a triple bypass", but was accused of inflicting serious coronary damage on the country during the republican referendum. Politicians also have to pass the great Australian ticker test. The lack of a strong ticker is seen as a more serious deficiency than spinelessness or the occasional loss of testicular fortitude. That said, the accusation of facelessness is becoming increasingly wounding, as the union leader Paul Howes or Labor powerbroker Bill Shorten might attest.

The phrase "flat-lining", which obviously indicates a loss of heartbeat, is often used to describe a string of unfavourable polls - which themselves are indicative of a "haemorrhaging" of support. Unpopular policies are often said to be on "life-support".

As one would expect following a particularly gory phase of federal politics, rarely is there any shortage of blood. Nor testosterone, which seems to occupy the airspace in the backrooms of politics once monopolised by smoke.

This brings us to the nether regions of the body, which Australian politicians have never been embarrassed to probe. In the eyes of Mark Latham, John Howard was an "arse-licker". Bob Hawke thought that bosses who expected their employees to turn up to work after the America's Cup triumph were "bums".

Image copyright AP
Image caption The colourful Paul Keating was not averse to the odd insult

When it comes to the lavatorial, it is tempting to conclude that Labor leaders have won the race to the bottom. But that would overlook Tony Abbott's two-word summation of anthropogenic global warming: "Absolute crap". Summing up a particularly bad day on the campaign trail during the 2007 election, he also simply opined that "shit happens".

Yet the mind often triumphs over matter. Governments regularly suffer from "collective nervous breakdowns", while Kevin Rudd was accused of Attention Deficit Disorder because of his tendency to flit from one policy area to the next. Paul Keating, as ever, was more blunt. For him, John Howard was simply "brain-damaged".

What does all this say about Australian politics? As we have noted many times before, its lingua franca emphasises the franca over the lingua, perhaps more so than in other advanced economies. This is a plain-speaking country, after all. As a consequence, politicians here often owe their reputations to being potty-mouthed rather than being silver-tongued.

I would also argue that alternative metaphorical touchstones do not really work. Outside of South Australia, politics here lacks a dynastic dimension, which rules out much of Greek mythology. From the Adams to the Bushes, US politics is full of Oedipal overtones, and hence mythological references, which is simply not the case here.

Similarly, Shakespeare does not feature so prominently - as it does, say, at Westminster or in Washington - because so few contemporary political figures could genuinely be described as Shakespearian. True, Paul Keating might have had the lean and hungry look of Cassius. Similarly, Peter Costello could plausibly have been cast as the Hamlet of the Howard era. But during last year's leadership coup I winced whenever Shakespeare was appropriated to describe either Kevin Rudd or Julia Gillard because neither of them possesses a sufficiently dramatic persona. Perhaps one could imagine Ms Gillard as a fringe character handed a few meagre lines, but not commanding central stage.

The rowdy and infantile behaviour of Aussie politicians is under especially close scrutiny at the moment, with the New York Times, the Economist and BBC amplifying criticisms that have been regularly voiced by local commentators. The politics here at present does appear boorish and second-rate. But demands for change seem to fall on deaf ears. Canberra politicians seem to like things the way they are: bruising and brutal, for that is the character of the body politic at the arse end of the world.