Yesterday, Joe Hockey described Wayne Swan’s budget as a ‘magic pudding’. It’s a reference, of course, to the eponymous 1918 Australian children’s book by Norman Lindsay, featuring Bunyip Bluegum, Bill Barnacle and Sam Sawnoff who are the owners of an anthropomorphic pudding that magically replenishes itself after being eaten. At one point in the story, the pudding saves the life of the Earl of Buncle and his niece, whom Sam Sawnoff had fallen in love with, but the Earl haughtily refuses to grant Sam his niece’s hand in marriage.

Embodying the fantasy of having your cake and eating it too, the magic pudding provides an apt and peculiarly Australian symbol for any overreaching political promises. In Lindsay’s immortal passage:

A peculiar thing about the Puddin’ was that, though they had all had a great many slices off him, there was no sign of the place whence the slices had been cut.
“That’s where the Magic comes in,” explained Bill. “The more you eats the more you gets. Cut-an’-come-again is his name, an’ cut, an’ come again, is his nature. Me an’ Sam has been eatin’ away at this Puddin’ for years, and there’s not a mark on him.”

This is by no means the first time the metaphor has been served up in recent years. It was actually used to describe Wayne Swan’s previous budget (see this Fairfax headline), and prior to that, Senator Richard di Natale used it in reference to a Coalition policy (“Tony Abbott wants credit for the Greens’ Denticare plan but his magic pudding can’t deliver”).

I’d like to believe that it was Paul Keating who introduced the expression when he told the Wall Street Journal in 1982 that “The days of the magic pudding are gone in Australia. You can’t go and have a slice and come back and find it isn’t diminished. We can’t turn our back on growth and go on writing massive welfare checks.” But in fact,  disparaging references to the ‘magic pudding’ have been a feature of Australian political since at least 1948, when Liberal member Jo Gullet made a relatively lengthy reference to Lindsay’s tale. Curiously, Gullet did not treat the pudding as a representation of the fantastical promise of bounty with no consequences. Instead he invoked a subplot of the story to illustrate what he took to be an unofficial and improper political alliance between Labour and the Communist party, characterised by asymmetrical generosity :

The attitude adopted towards Communists by the Australian Labour party reminds one of the case of the Earl of Buncle in The Magic Pudding. In case honorable members have forgotten The Magic Pudding, I shall outline the circumstances. The Earl of Buncle was on one occasion in very great trouble, and he was saved from his difficulties by a character called Sam the Sailor. But when the whole affair had passed over did the Earl of Buncle demonstrate his gratitude to Sam the Sailor and give him his niece in marriage? No, he did not actually do that, but what he did is recounted in the book as follows: – “You are a noble fellow,” said the Earl of Buncle, “and here is us. [sic] for your trouble. Any time you are around our way, just give a ring on the back door and there will always be a feed for you on the kitchen table and a few bob.”

That is exactly the position obtaining between the Australian Labour party and the Communist party to-day. Members of the Communist party have been “around the back door” pretty often, and they have always found a “feed on the table” and a “few bob”.

Presumably, Joe Hockey would be wanting to identify with the prudence of the Earl of Buncle who refused to make fantastical promises he couldn’t deliver on. Whatever the case, The Magic Pudding appears to be an infinitely renewable source of political metaphors.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey