The view from Billinudgel

What’s in a name?
From Pig Iron Bob to Unbelieva-Bill: the trouble with nicknames in politics


Treasurer Scott Morrison got very excited last week, 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 energising him was that he (or someone he had spoken to) had invented a new nickname for Bill Shorten: Unbelieva-Bill.

No, this does not mean that the Opposition leader is a sceptic, 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 gain traction, they often end up without the pejorative connotations that the authors hoped for.

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 nickname, 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 Captain Wacky.

John Howard was denigrated as The Rodent, but was more universally called Little Johnny – 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 The Unflushable Turd by the veteran journalist Ian Fitchett – when I recorded this in one of my books there was a confection of outrage from the right. Howard’s longtime rival, Andrew Peacock, was originally named by Reg Withers The Colt from Kooyong, but was better known as The Gucci Kid; his other nicknames – The Sun Lamp Kid and The Show Pony – were hardly complimentary.

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, perhaps none more vicious than Alan Jones’s line of Ju-liar.

And Malcolm Turnbull has so far survived unscathed, although Donald Trump’s Mr Trumble had a brief life. Plays on Turnbull’s 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 talking points appear to have settled on the insult “shifty”, may I suggest a three-word strategy: Shaft Shifty Shorten.

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

Mungo MacCallum

Mungo MacCallum is a political journalist and commentator. His books include Run Johnny Run, Poll Dancing, and Punch and Judy. Visit his blog, The View from Billinudgel.

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