MUNGO MacCALLUM. Nicknames

May 14, 2018

Treasurer Scott Morrison got very excited last week, bouncing and bubbling all over the place.  And it wasn’t just because of his pretty ordinary budget: building a stronger economy may be a worthy slogan, but it is hardly inspiring. What was really turning him on was that he (or someone talking to him) had invented a new nickname for Bill Shorten: Unbelieva-Bill.  

No, this does not mean that the opposition leader is a skeptical, as in Unbeliever Bill; it is supposed to mean that Shorten is Unbelievable! Boom tish!

The best that can be said of this zinger is that it is probably only marginally clunkier than its predecessor, Electricity Bill – which never got much traction either. The trouble with nicknames is that they have to be spot on to have an effect, and even when they do, they often end up without the perjoratives that the authors want to attach to them.

Robert Menzies was known for years as Pig Iron Bob and Ming the Merciless, but he went right on winning elections. His successors were not always so fortunate: Black Jack McEwen rejoiced in the cognomen, but Jolly John Gorton suffered. Billy McMahon, christened by his own Liberal colleagues Billy Liar and Billy the Leak, never really had a chance.

Gough Whitlam revelled in The Great Gough, although it never really caught on. Malcolm Fraser liked to be called Big Mal, but seldom if ever was. He never really lived down the Easter Island statue image.

Bob Hawke, known variously as Little Caesar and The Silver Bodgie, took both as signs of affection rather than censure. And Keating was just Keating, or preferably KEATING! to both supporters and enemies, although some in the backroom surreptitiously called him Cap’n Wacky.

John Howard was denigrated as The Rodent by George Brandis, but was more universally called Little Johnnie – not because of his height (he was, he insisted, as tall as the next man, especially if the next man was Bob Hawke) but because of his lack of vision. He was also called by the veteran journalist Ian Fitchett The Unflushable Turd – when I recorded this is one in of my books there was a confection of outrage from the right. His long time rival Andrew Peacock was originally named by Reg Withers The Colt from Kooyong, but was better known as The Gucci Kid. The Sunlamp Kid and The Show Pony, hardly complimentary.

But in more recent years the crop has been sparse, apart from Tony Abbott, reviled first as The Mad Monk and then as Captain Catholic from his university days. There were other epithets, all unrepeatable. Kevin Rudd never really went past Kevin 07. Julia Gillard got called lots of things, none more vicious than Alan jones’s line of Ju-liar, which sounded more anti-semitic than anything else.

And Malcolm Turnbull has so far survived unscathed, although Donald Trump’s Mr Trumble has had a brief vogue. Plays on his name — Malleable Turncoat, for one – just don’t resonate. Nor, I suspect, will Unbelieva-Bill. It is time to abandon the Kill Bill tactic for something a little more trenchant. Given that last week the coalition’s front bench talking points appear to have settled on the insult shifty, may I suggest a three word strategy/slogan: Shaft Shifty Shorten.

It probably won’t work either; nothing else has. But it is at least literate, if not particularly witty. A bit like Turnbull himself, really.


Matt Golding, SMH 14 May 2018


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