The Prime Minister’s bizarre “fair shake of the sauce bottle” certainly got the pundits … um, punditing. But it wasn’t some sudden eruption in the Prime Minister’s phraseology. He used the phrase as long ago as last June when he told the good folk of the Northern Territory that said sauce bottle would be fairly shaken when it came to dollops of road funding. And he also suggested that rapid but equitable agitation of the condiment container was a quintessential Australian value in an Australia Day address back in January.

It does, however, appear to be a Ruddian innovation. I’m not aware of anyone else who has ever demanded that the sauce bottle shaking be subjected to natural justice and procedural fairness requirements. One also wonders on what basis the fairness of a shaking of a sauce bottle could be measured. I thank the honourable member for his question, and it goes to the critical issue of allocative efficiency. Fairness could be measured in three ways: firstly, an accurate accounting of the number of shakes per individual recipient of the sauce; second … sorry, I’ll stop.

The language and communication skills of our politicians don’t receive sufficient attention from the political media in Australia, given they are fundamental to political success. When it does get attention, it’s usually piss-taking — Rudd’s forced efforts to appear ocker, Alexander Downer sounding like a refugee from Brideshead Revisited, Bjelke-Petersen and Pauline Hanson’s inspired inarticulacy.

Class in an important and ignored issue here, class in the Australian sense of going to the right private schools and sandstone universities. In Malcolm Turnbull and Joe Hockey the Liberal Party now has two much more traditional leaders — top Sydney private schools, Sydney University (the only Australian uni that really counts), and in Turnbull’s case Oxford — than John Howard and the MPs who helped him in to government in 1996, who were much more small business battler than St John’s College.

Like Keating before him, who left a Catholic high school at 15, Howard rose to power through hard work and talent, without the benefit of the connections and gloss provided by membership of the Establishment. The contrast with Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser — and, to an extent, Bob Hawke, who like Turnbull was a Rhodes Scholar — could not have been greater. But whereas Keating gloried in his working class vernacular, drawing on fifties and sixties popular culture as a base for an entire lexicon of derision, Howard, troubled by a hearing and speech impediment, flattened himself into a perfect echo of middle Australia.

Rudd, like Howard, was a public school kid, and from somewhere a bit less cosmopolitan than suburban Sydney. But he’s an amalgam of more complex influences. Keating and Howard lived politics and their respective parties nearly all their careers. Rudd has risen through the public service — and a specialised enclave of it — and lived overseas for extended periods. So in that hard drive there are terabytes of policy complexity and Sinology and political calculation and, probably deep down in a forgotten sub-directory, a sort of Chips Rafferty vernacular in which no crow is left unstoned, no sav goes unsucked and the lessons of Smiley Gets A Gun are never forgotten.

This is, after all, a grown man who publicly admits to doing deals over “brekkers” and loves going back to Brissy. Rudd may resort to such colloquialisms as part of a deliberate strategy but their oddly-garbled nature suggests they are being fished out of the prime ministerial memory banks at random, attached to other half-phrases implanted during a Nambour childhood spent wondering how the hell he could get out of the place.

Being Rudd, of course, it couldn’t just be said once. This the master of repetition at work, and he shook that sauce bottle three times in the one interview, including a sensational twice in the same answer, vernacular bookends to his answer about the number of women — sorry, sheilas — in his ministry. Paul Keating had a habit, Mr Speaker, had a habit, had a habit, of repeating things, repeating things Mr Speaker, at the Dispatch Box, as a way of reinforcing his verbal supremacy. Rudd just repeats things no matter where he is.

That’s why “not out of the woods” has been on high rotation for the last week, was uttered three times in the Speers interview by Rudd and another four times throughout the day. Out it came several times in interviews yesterday as well. We have been stuck in those woods since the national account figures last Wednesday, with the Prime Minister uttering it ten times that day alone. The phrase may have been borrowed from Barack Obama, who told Americans on 14 April that they weren’t out of the woods, although the OECD Secretary-General had said that the OECD wasn’t out of the woods back at the end of 2007, which appears to have been a very premature “not out of the woods” call.

A day after Obama, the IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn declared that the global economy was not out of the — evidently very crowded — woods yet either. Obama was using it again more recently about swine flu, too, in which context Rudd used it yesterday as well.

But no-one has used it with such mind-numbingly frequency as the Prime Minister. Even Wayne Swan, usually enthusiastic in his use of the Key Phrase Of The Week, has been left behind. He appears to have attempted to get his own rival line going, about the rocky road we’re on, without much success.

You can’t imagine Malcolm Turnbull sticking to such cloying catchphrases with any assiduity; he’d get too bored, and forget to use them in the course of actually responding to a question rather than seeing questions as a simple launchpad for his own messaging. Turnbull appears to regard the public as adults with whom he can have a civilised conversation. Rudd appears to regard them as little better than children. Which means the polls don’t say much for Australian voters.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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