Parliamentary decorum

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In the context of concerns about declining civility in American political discourse, Victor Steinbok points to a post at Vukutu on Australian Political Language, which quotes from "Mungo MacCallum’s great book, How to be a Megalomaniac, … a list of the terms of abuse which [former prime minister Paul] Keating  had used against his opponents duing his time in politics":

“harlots, sleazebags, frauds, immoral cheats, blackguards, pigs, mugs, clowns, boxheads, criminal intellects, criminals, stupid crooks, corporate crooks, friends of tax cheats, brain-damaged, loopy crims, stupid foul-mouthed grub, piece of criminal garbage, dullards, stupid, mindless, crazy, alley cat, bunyip aristocracy, clot, fop, gigolo, hare-brained, hillbilly, malcontent, mealy-mouthed, ninny, rustbucket, scumbag, scum, sucker, thug, dimwits, dummies, a swill, a pig sty, Liberal muck, vile constituency, fools and incompetents, rip-off merchants, perfumed gigolos, gutless spiv, glib rubbish, tripe and drivel, constitutional vandals, stunned mullets, half-baked crim, insane stupidities, champion liar, ghouls of the National Party, barnyard bullies, piece of parliamentary filth.”

"MacCallum notes that this listing is only of terms which Keating used in Federal Parliament, which of course has rules of decorum not applying in the rougher world outside."

We noted Keating's way with words a few years ago ( "A tale of two Dons", 12/22/2003), and cited the Paul Keating Insults Page, which offers useful context for a large collection of insults, and also must be one of the few accessible pages that can trace a continuous history back to 1995.


  1. michael farris said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 2:52 am

    Okay, someone's gotta ask ….. bunyip ??? spiv ???

    I love "stunned mullets" as a turn of phrase.

  2. RobWeaver said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 3:09 am

    Bunyip – originally a water demon in Aboriginal folklore, although the folkloric beast has seemed less fearsome since he became a children's television character. The term "bunyip aristocracy" refers to the corrupt and self-serving elites that dominated the colonial governments prior to Federation, with rigged electoral systems and so on. Spiv is a British term for a smooth, often well-dressed, criminal, con artist, fence or other wide boy. Stunned mullet is term in quite widespread use for a stupid person or someone struck dumb in surprise.

    Pity the list doesn't include "urger", one of my favourite Australian political terms of abuse.

  3. RobWeaver said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 3:13 am

    Oh, and while I'm here, Keating's invective is the only thing I ever admired about the man. Don't get me started.

    Note also that "Liberal" in that list refers to our local variant of the Tories. Hence the capital L.

  4. Bruce M said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 3:16 am

    The bunyip is a mythical beast from aboriginal dreamtime and 'bunyip aristocracy' was coined in the mid-19th century to ridicule plans to create an aristocracy in the colony of New South Wales. The ridicule worked and the plan was dropped, but the term is still sometimes used as a derogatory description of the old-money families of Australia that support the Liberal (read Conservative) Party. Keating was a product of the tough New South Wales branch of the Labor Party.

    One of my favourite Keatingisms was his description of the entire Australian Senate as "unrepresentative swill". Pure Keating gold.

  5. ppindia said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 3:20 am

    what have these insults to opposition members got to do with Megalomania?

  6. peter said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 3:26 am

    As RobWeaver alludes, "bunyip aristocracy" is an insult with a century and a half pedigree in Australia. It originally arose in discussions about self-government in the then Australasian colonies in the 1840s and 1850s, and some people campaigned to create a local version of the British House of Lords.

    Although very intelligent, Keating left school at age 15 and did not attend university. A lot of his invective arrives direct from the school-yard. I think that part of his popular appeal, exactly as for colorful Texan politicians, was that most Australians would know people who speak as he does. He did not sound, as many other politicians do, artificial or self-consciously polite or ever to be choosing his words with care.

  7. Mark Etherton said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 3:44 am

    The Society of Clerks-at-the-Table in Commonwealth Parliaments publishes an annual journal, The Table, which includes lists of expressions ruled unparliamentary. The Australian assemblies produce a rich crop of colourful and bizarre phrases, such as:

    "Mr Forwood is a toenails man!"
    "Crass, jump through your backside"
    "Minister for Road Kill"
    "It is the tongue from Sanderson! He speaks! Woo hoo!"
    "Put the monkey back in the chair "
    "This government has pissed money into the wind"
    "This is not the Adjournment, idiot child"

    Other legislatures occasionally come up with gems such as "Ankle-biter" (Canada), "He is scared chicken" (Manitoba), "Unreliable fellows" (Gujarat) and "As the crazy horse walks out the door" and "Old buggerlugs" (New Zealand), but the Australians' consistency and range is unequalled .

    The Table is on-line at

  8. Graeme said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 5:17 am

    'Urger' is new to me, and I study Australian politics.

    Keating once derided the entire Australian Senate as 'unrepresentative swill'.
    (Because, based on the US model, it gives equal representation to each state, even though in Australia Senate elections are by proportional representation).

    His best known taunts were to then opposition leader, Dr Hewson, a neo-liberal economist. Hewson was a 'feral abacus' and Keating, behind in the polls, would not call an early election for, in Keating's words, 'I want to do you slowly'. Keating's invective is at the heart of a hit production 'Keating: the Musical'.

  9. peter said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 5:28 am

    "Urger" is an Australian insult of long-standing, meaning a conman. It had been in widespread use long before Paul Keating entered Parliament (1972, IIRC).

  10. peter said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 5:34 am

    In one Australian Federal election in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Paul Keating complained at a press conference that the Opposition, who been talking about his personal tax arrangements, were engaged in ad hominen attacks on him – "playing the man and not the ball", in his words. This gripe was just too much for one journalist present, who erupted with, "Oh, come off it, Mr Keating! Just last week you called the Opposition front-bench "sleazebags" ."

    Keating replied that when he had used the term "sleazebags" the previous week, he had been talking about the Opposition collectively, not attacking any one of them personally.

  11. peter said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 5:40 am

    Graeme said (September 11, 2009 @ 5:17 am)

    "Because, based on the US model, it [the Australian Senate] gives equal representation to each state, even though in Australia Senate elections are by proportional representation)."

    On a blog devoted to language, it is perhaps worth noting that the two chambers of the Australian Federal Parliament, established from 1901, were named (and modeled) after their US counterparts, and not after those of the colonial power. British soft power was clearly in decline from at least the 1890s!

  12. gordonoz said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 8:26 am

    One of Paul Keating's best insults came when he was berating the leader of the Country Party, who came from a family of undertakers. He described him as a man who had `accrued his wealth by stealing the pennies from the eyes of the dead.'

  13. Cheryl Thornett said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 8:46 am

    Perhaps it should also be pointed out that in UK MPs are forbidden to call each other liars in parliament.

  14. Matthew Moppett said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 8:57 am

    For both quick wit and schoolyard vulgarity, it's hard to match Keating's predecessor as Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam's famous interjection:

    Sir Winton Turnbull, a Country Party member, had been speaking on some matter or other, and announced "I'm a Country member". Whitlam quickly replied: "Yes, we remember".

  15. RobWeaver said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 8:59 am

    There's a little bit more to 'urger' than that. Specifically it means someone who encourages you to a risky or costly course of action that will benefit them significantly more than it might benefit you.

    The term originally referred to a particular kind of race-course hustler who would give hot tips – one for each likely winner – to a selection of unconnected punters so as to be able, when inevitably one of the tips won, to appear at the elbow of the bettor whose pick had come first and wheedle a share of the winnings, or at least a free beer.

  16. Thor Lawrence said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 8:59 am

    Following on from Cheryl's comment, one British parliamentary comment was: "I fear the Honourable Member is guilty of a terminological inexactitude". I seem to recall that it was said by Churchill.

  17. rootlesscosmo said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    In the late 1950's there was a sharp dispute between the Louisiana state legislature and the Governor, Earl Long; some legisators declared that the Governor was mentally ill and so should be removed from office. A.J. Liebling covered the story for the New Yorker; one of his local informants warned him against interviewing Long, saying "That man is crazy! He'll bite you in the leg!"

  18. rootlesscosmo said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 9:07 am

    Sorry–this was by reference to "ankle-biter," above.

  19. mollymooly said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 9:14 am

    @Cheryl Thornett:

    Perhaps it should also be pointed out that in UK MPs are forbidden to call each other liars in parliament.

    Ditto in Oz. The speaker forced Keating to withdraw his description of John Howard as "champion liar of 1983", which he duly did, on 29 November 1983, and again on 7 December 1983, and again on 28 March 1984.

  20. RobWeaver said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 9:15 am

    So, in America, not a reference (ankle-biter) to a small child or dog?

  21. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    I think this expresses an interesting "conflict of interest" between the rules of decorum and the rule of parliamentary immunity.

  22. Faldone said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 10:25 am

    In my experience ankle-biter is almost exclusively used to mean small child in the US. I have used it in reference to a ball pitched low outside the strike zone that the umpire has called a strike. In its more usual sense it is synonymous with rug rat.

  23. Acilius said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    Winston Churchill did coin the phrase "terminological inexactitude," though not as the euphemism for lying that it later became. As a junior minister 1906 he made an official statement about conditions in South Africa in which he conceded that the Chinese laborers there were being treated unfairly, but argued that the opposition was exaggerating when it said they were being held in slavery. "The conditions of the Transvaal ordinance… cannot in the opinion of His Majesty's Government be classified as slavery in the extreme acceptance of the word without some risk of terminological inexactitude."

  24. Adrian Morgan said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    I present a couple of observations to illustrate Keating's cultural significance from the perspective of a 32 year old Australian.

    When my class at school was learning about politics, all those years ago, we were sometimes required to take on the role of being politicians in Parliament. At least once, this simulation consisted mostly of the word "Scumbag!" being shouted across the room. I imagine that this theme was repeated in every school across the country.

    The popular card game generally known as "President" in America and as "Arsehole" in Britain is usually called "Warlords and Scumbags" in Australia. It's hard not to interpret this as evidence for Paul Keating's permanent mark on our culture.

  25. Nicholas Waller said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 11:25 am

    @ Michael Farris – Spivs in the UK are particularly associated with dodgy, generally black market dealings during rationing in the Second World War and after.

    Possibly the most sympathetic spiv in TV drama is the rather small-time Private Joe Walker of the Home Guard platoon featured in Dad's Army.

  26. Acilius said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    @Adrian Morgan: "generally known as "President" in America and as "Arsehole" in Britain"

    It isn't only card games which exhibit this property of nomenclature.

  27. Zeb said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    As previously mentioned, his colourful vocabulary was put to excellent effect in Keating: The Musical's On The Floor.

  28. Graeme said,

    September 11, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

    Jean-Sébastien: oddly enough the Speaker of Australia's House of Reps (as it's inevitably known) gave a lecture in my course last week. The tension between immunity and decorous rules for debate came up. Yes, the former invites defamation, but the latter (and rules allowing non MPs rights of reply and privileges committees to reprimand excessive attacks) are meant to ensure the attacks are factual or fair comment. But strict party voting in the Reps guarantees that the likes of Keating are never suspended from the Chamber or hauled before the committee – those punishments are reserved for lesser fish.

  29. Graeme said,

    September 12, 2009 @ 1:06 am

    'Urger'. Yes, Sidney Baker uses it four times in his chronicle of Australian Language; twice for a tipster at the track. Macquarie Dictionary lists the racing term first. Did it specialise then fall into arcane status? Or is it geographically constrained.

    I used to read Queensland Hansard in the 70s, as a child. The interjections were so brash and crude; it was like stumbling over a crude novel. But I've never stumbled across 'urger' till today.

  30. Kenny Easwaran said,

    September 12, 2009 @ 3:22 am

    Interesting that although American politics are often taken to be exceptionally dirty and distasteful among the well-established liberal democracies, a single outburst at a Presidential address to Congress is taken as hugely out of line, while all this is expected in the Parliamentary democracies.

  31. Cheryl Thornett said,

    September 12, 2009 @ 6:19 am

    It's partly the nature of the outburst and the word used, which is banned in many legislatures. Also, the US president is also head of state and does not normally take part in the day-to-day interactions of Congress. The situation was not equivalent to a British prime minister speaking in the House of Commons as part of its ordinary procedures.

    Someone somewhere has probably carried out a study of the registers used in different legislative settings.

  32. peter said,

    September 12, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

    Yes, a better parallel between the USA and countries with a Westminster-type system (eg, the UK, Australia, Canada) would be a member of Parliament shouting "You lie" during a speech to the chamber by the Queen or her representative. I don't recall this ever happening in modern times. But on one occasion about 30 years ago, some Members of the British House of Commons blocked the door to the chamber from inside to prevent members leaving to attend to her speech in the House of Lords. Presumably someone explained to Her Majesty why this impertinence occurred, and why she had to wait so long before she could start her speech.

    There is also a convention in some British Commonwealth parliaments that the maiden (first) speeches of new members are heard in silence, without interruption or heckling. This convention is not always followed. Former Australian PM, Bob Hawke, who had been a prominent trades unionist before entering Federal Parliament in 1980, was one new member whose maiden speech was heckled by several MPs opposite, although this went mostly unreported at the time.

  33. Graeme said,

    September 12, 2009 @ 8:34 pm

    This letter from The Australian newspaper (12/9/09) is apposite, if ironic. Nb Abbott is a senior conservative MP, Gillard is the Labor Deputy Prime Minister:

    "I can think of no better illustration of the distance between Australian and US politics than two recent incidents. On the one hand, a Republican congressman interjects with a rather boring ejaculation in the middle of a Presidential address. Republicans and Democrats unite, for once, to condemn the offending member for his bad manners and the fellow offers a swift and disingenous apology.

    It is, after all, one thing to slander the President as a liar, a communist, a fascist, a terrorist and a Muslim fanatic to one's constituents, but it is quite another to be discourteous to his face.

    On the other hand, Tony Abbott mocks Julia Gillard for her 'shit-eating grin' and all sides come together for a healthy chuckle. Indeed I haven't been able to wipe the shit-eating grin off my own face since."

    Houston Ash, Glebe, New South Wales.

    Abbott's indecorousness is here:

    This raises a media question as well: would say the NY Times publish the word 'shit' except as a direct quotation?

  34. Zwicky Arnold said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 9:42 am

    Graeme: "This raises a media question as well: would say the NY Times publish the word 'shit' except as a direct quotation?"

    Publications differ in their policies, and they aren't always consistent, as we've observed in Language Log many times over the years. The NYT's general policy is not to print "shit", even in direct quotations — unless it's the president who says it. See this posting by Ben Zimmer, 7/19/06, "Taking shit from the president".

  35. RobWeaver said,

    September 13, 2009 @ 11:41 pm

    My recollection is that these days the word "urger" usually appears in the group phrase "spivs and urgers", when it appears at all; although, having said that, only two instances pop up on Google. But one is from a speech ALP stalwart John Faulkner gave to the Senate in 2000.

    Calling someone a liar would be unparliamentary language, though.

    There is also a convention in some British Commonwealth parliaments that the maiden (first) speeches of new members are heard in silence, without interruption or heckling.

    In Australia, that's certainly the convention with valedictory speeches.

    would say the NY Times publish the word 'shit' except as a direct quotation?

    Was it the NYT or WashPo that censored Jon Stewart's famous snipe at Tucker Carlson with the replacement "[male pride]"?

  36. Graeme said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 6:37 am

    Very interesting. In language use then, Mr Murdoch's flag-ship conservative broadsheet in Australia is significantly more liberal than the liberal standard-bearer in the US. I doubt New York is less dis-cuss-I've than say Sydney, so I imagine it comes down to editorial decorum rather than culture.

  37. un malpaso said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    You gotta love a guy whose enemies range from "hillbillies" to "perfumed gigolos". I also love "stunned mullets"

  38. Ben Farnsworth said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

    @ Adrian Morgan-
    I live in America and I've always heard the game called "Asshole," unless we're talking about two different games. The President is just the guy who won the last hand, and the asshole is the one who lost it.

  39. Adrian Morgan said,

    September 15, 2009 @ 9:33 pm

    Ben – I was going on Internet sources, but it doesn't really matter. My point was about the Australian name, and I only provided international names so that people would know which game I was talking about.

  40. Emma W said,

    September 16, 2009 @ 10:53 pm

    Who can forget Mark Latham (a later Australian Labor Party leader in opposition at the time) calling the Howard government front bench a "conga line of suckholes" for their alleged eagerness for approval from the Bush-era US. At the time he seemed to be the inheritor of the Keating verbal mantle; alas, it was short-lived ( ). The current Australian Prime Minister is fonder of bureaucratic obfuscation, linguistically speaking. It's kind of depressing (and somewhat soporific) to listen to.

  41. marcellous said,

    December 21, 2011 @ 6:36 pm

    This is a late comment but just for the record it was Bill Hayden who made the gibe about Ian Sinclair and lifting pennies from dead men's eyes. Not a phrase he had minted himself but one which was topical in the context of accusations then current against Sinclair.

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