My advice for anyone hoping to fully understand the reporting of next year’s US presidential election would be to invest in a glossary of American sporting terms. The horse race will feature all sorts of political hardball, slam dunks, home runs, full-court presses and Monday morning quarterbacking. Lesser-known candidates will set out to prove they are ready for the majors, but probably struggle to gain ground on the frontrunners, for whom the road to the White House will no doubt be portrayed as a marathon rather than a sprint. Come debate time, the talk will be of knock-out punches, even though blood on the canvas from these televised encounters is historically rare. Nixon had a sweaty upper lip rather than a glass jaw.
The candidate ahead in the polls come November — the finish line — will probably spend the final days of campaigning trying to play down the clock without fumbling the ball. The trailing candidate who stands little hope of winning might hurl a last-minute Hail Mary pass. The eventual winner will have gone the whole nine yards, and might even have hit a homer at the bottom of the ninth with all the bases loaded. A grand slam!
Though Australia shares America’s passion for sport, thankfully its politics is nowhere near as reliant on sporting analogies and metaphors. True, occasionally you will hear of a politician kicking an issue into touch or of a minister being bowled a googly during Question Time, although friendly long-hops from the government backbenches are just as frequent. The idea that Australia ‘punches above its weight’ now doubles as its diplomatic bumper sticker. However, sport does not intrude on the language of politics to anywhere near the same degree.
Instead, my advice to anyone wanting to cover Canberra would be to invest in a textbook that is far more anatomical. Body parts are an ever-present metaphor, while bodily functions and medical afflictions have always been fashionable.
Fittingly enough, 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 republic referendum. Politicians also have to pass the great Australian ticker test. Here, the heart trumps spinelessness or the occasional loss of testicular fortitude. That said, the accusation of facelessness is becoming increasingly wounding, as Paul Howes or Bill Shorten might attest. The phrase ‘flatlining,’ which obviously indicates a lost heartbeat, is also increasingly used to describe a string of unfavourable polls — which themselves are often indicative of a haemorrhaging of support or of a leader or policy on life support or with a very weak pulse.
Rarely is there any shortage of blood, as one would expect following a particularly gory phase of federal politics during which four Liberal leaders and three Labor leaders have been slain. 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’. 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.’
The mind often triumphs over matter. Governments regularly suffer from collective nervous breakdowns, while a politician who tries simultaneously to appeal to two very different audiences is increasingly accused of political schizophrenia. Because of his tendency to flit from one policy area to the next, Kevin Rudd was accused of Attention Deficit Disorder. Paul Keating, as ever, was more blunt. For him, John Howard was simply ‘brain-damaged’.
There then are medical afflictions, which have always been in vogue. It was Keating again, that walking dictionary of Australian political slang, who likened John Howard’s job creation skills to the bubonic plague. Tony Abbott regularly compares the carbon tax to a cancer, presumably of the bowel. Kevin Rudd memorably described the global financial crisis as ‘a shitstorm’.
What does all this tell us about Australian politics? Needless to say, 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 silver-tongued.
Australian politics also lacks a dynastic dimension, which rules out much Greek mythology as a rival metaphorical touchstone. From the Adamses to the Bushes, US politics is full of oedipal overtones, and hence mythological references, which is simply not the case here. Political writers in Adelaide might occasionally reach for Homer, but not generally scribes in the Canberra Press Gallery.
Similarly, Shakespeare does not feature so prominently — as it does in Westminster or Washington, say – because so few contemporary political figures could be described as Shakespearian. True, 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. Both Gillard and Abbott are, if anything, Dickensian rather than Shakespearian.
Regularly, there are calls for greater civility in political discourse, and for lawmakers to raise the rhetorical bar. But demands for change usually fall on deaf ears. Canberra, I suspect, will continue to rely on its anatomical analogies, for that is the character of the body politic at the arse end of the world.
Nick Bryant is the BBC Australia’s correspondent, and the author of the forthcoming Adventures in Correspondentland.