Don’t know what this steam-powered Antony Green is all about? Read on…
(Supplied: Jon Kudelka/MUP)
Think you know your Nats from your Dorothy Dixers? How to spend your sitting days on a backbench? And when you look at Sky after dark, do you see any stars?
With a federal election just weeks away, political sketchwriter James Jeffrey and cartoonist Jon Kudelka have released “possibly the world’s least helpful dictionary” to help you navigate the campaign.
The Wonks’ Dictionary: Australian Democracy in High Definition provides a satirical take on an institution some argue has itself descended into caricature.
“With some of the words, I think we’ve been almost slightly, relatively straight; with others, we’ve taken a slightly more baroque approach,” Jeffrey says.
Exhibit A: what exactly is an Antony Green?
Antony Green: The ABC’s most successful series of Ballotomaton, or mechanical election-analysis apparatus. The earliest models of this Ballotomaton were largely successful, though their track record was marred by accidents, typically first and second-degree burns to studio technicians caused by steam leakages during landslide elections… The 1970s oil crisis accelerated the development of a fully electric Antony Green. This proved to be an extremely durable model and was only superseded in 1999 when, following Mr Squiggle’s departure from the payroll, Aunty could finally afford to develop a holographic Antony Green.
The real Antony Green was watching on as the Nationals copped a whack in last month’s NSW election.
But the party’s woes are not confined to state politics.
The federal arm has also copped the odd whack recently, at times by its own hand.
And its antics — including a former leader very publicly displaying more than a flicker of ambition to resume his post — haven’t escaped the satirists’ gaze.
Nationals: A party comprised predominantly of hat-wearing country members. Generally contains a proportion of gentlemen best described as mad uncles, who — like Absinthe, plutonium and street theatre — can be very entertaining in very small doses.
In the 24-hour news bain-marie, a small dose can become a large serve — and is sometimes helped along by an apparently endless supply of otherwise-employed “commentators”.
As a “card-carrying storm trooper” of the Murdoch empire, Jeffrey is well-placed to cast judgement on the “other” 24-hour news channel.
Sky News: A televised daycare — and increasingly nightcare — centre for serving and former politicians. For this thoughtful service, a grateful nation gives its thanks.
“Not least for [Liberal MP] Craig Kelly, who’s just such a part of the furniture there now,” Jeffrey adds.
For a moment late last year, it seemed Mr Kelly’s calendar might open up and allow for even more time at Sky.
And while Jeffrey accepts this is just “pragmatism of the highest order”, it’s tinged with some sadness.
“When Christopher Pyne confirmed he was getting out of the game, I did have a couple of days of mourning,” he says.
“He’s been one of my favourite copy providers along the way. He’s quite self-aware and often the joke is at his own expense … and I think there’s an even bigger version of himself waiting to get out once he’s out of politics.”
But, all these comings and goings do at least leave the chamber doors slightly ajar for fresh blood.
Young Libs and Young Labor: The first rung on the party ladder for youthful believers. Possibly alluded to in the incubator scenes in the 1975 Doctor Who story, Genesis of the Daleks.
But they’ll need to make sure their books are in order. It can be … awkward, falling victim to that “rookie error”.
Register of interests: The official record in which politicians let it be known what they own and what freebies, upgrades and whatnot they’ve received. Sometimes the recording is done amusingly belatedly, sometimes coincidentally soon after media questioning.
A time to question
Despite covering federal politics for 10 years, Jeffrey “tragically” finds himself “champing at the bit” when Question Time rolls around.
“I’ve got the run timed perfectly from the office … take my seat at Question Time, get my pad out and watch it rip,” he says.
“A lot of the time when I’m writing, whilst I’m feeding off the quirks, the humour or just the sheer wrongness of things, I tend to figure that a good day for me in my job is, generally speaking, not a great day for the nation.”
But Question Time wouldn’t take place without parliament and its many and varied characters and opinions. So, it’s worth giving a few hoots about what it is, what it does … and why the speaker sometimes deems it best to keep the doors locked.
Parliament: The collective term for a group of owls; the institution that makes laws and is made up of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the Queen, as represented by the governor-general.
Fun fact: Owls are lovely and are found on all continents except Antarctica, so if you’re at Mawson’s Hut one night and you hear a soft hooting, rest assured it’s not an owl. Oh God, what could it be? Can you still hear it? Lock the door. LOCK THE DOOR!
So, what does parliament do? The general thrust is to introduce, debate and approve new laws or changes to existing laws.
And that begins with policy, which doesn’t have to be all that complicated once you get to the core of it.
Policy: A party’s detailed position on any given matter. Ostensibly a guide to how the party will act in regards to that matter if elected to power, but, well … ¯_(ツ)_/¯.
After a decade in the business, Jeffrey says the current crop’s contributions to Question Time provide a “bit of a mixed bag”.
“A lot of the time it does feel like it’s fallen off a bit of a cliff, quality wise,” he says.
“If you look back, there are some classic clips of Question Times past. Of course you always end up going down the Paul Keating rabbit hole.
“But there are still good moments in there — there are flashes of intelligence and wit — [and] every now and then, dignity still manages to assert itself.”
But he says there’s no use pretending that’s the dominant theme.
“Some people are just not suited to [Question Time],” Jeffrey says.
“It’s sort of wrong-headed, combative theatre and that’s not what everyone’s geared for. You see a round personality trying to be hammered into a square hole and every time they do it you think, ‘Just don’t do it. Be you.’ But there’s an expectation to perform a certain way.”
Question Time: Rowdy, low-rent circus that enlivens a parliamentary sitting day, sometimes only a tear-gas canister short of gaining formal recognition as a riot. Also, the natural environment of the Dorothy Dixer. Original purpose lost to time.
Dorothy Dixer: A friendly and often splendidly flimsy query scripted for a government backbencher to ask a senior colleague during Question Time, typically in a spectrum that ranges from the stilted to the subtly ashamed to the touchingly overkeen to get noticed by the boss and get lifted up from the cattle class of the backbench. A popular template is: ‘Why is this government good and could my almost indescribably marvellous superior outline for the House the litany of reasons why those opposite are a pack of malevolent and/or beefwitted individuals who will destroy this country and everything we hold dear if they ever get near the levers of power?’
Jeffrey says Question Time has to be experienced firsthand if one is to get a full picture of what’s really going on in the chamber.
“You do miss a lot if you watch it on TV,” he says.
“Sometimes, in the back rows … you can just see the troops on one side — when one of their own people are up — you can see the mood is just flat-lining, or everybody very pointedly goes to their phones.”
Backbench: The section of the government and opposition that contains members who are neither ministers nor parliamentary secretaries. In comparison to their frontbench colleagues, they are — in theory at least — much more free to speak their minds, especially on Sky News.
With politics, described variously as tragic mismanagement or hilarious farce, Jeffrey says the mood can be best summed up with the question: “Where were we?”
“I try to think back to when we had a relatively normal week in politics. It’s been a while.”
He says that probably dates back to when Kevin Rudd was brought down as prime minister in 2010: a spill he says federal politics hasn’t recovered from.
Spill: When senior positions in a government or party are suddenly declared vacant and open to be voted on. Generally associated with leadership challenges which, like city-dwelling ibis, were once rare but have become commonplace, unpopular, messy, and prone to making sad honking noises, pining quietly for an environment that has vanished forever.
Contemplating The Lodge
Jeffrey says Labor has been “running this brave experiment now with not rolling their leader” — and polls suggest Bill Shorten will be moving into The Lodge.
But these days a prime ministership — once seen as lasting at least as long as a bachelor degree — carries no guarantee of longevity.
Prime minister: A temporary patch-up job in a suit. In archaic usage, the head of government, as voted for by the members of the party with the largest number of seats in the House of Representatives.
We’re yet to touch on Donald Trump’s influence on global politics and the behaviour of fringe elements in Parliament, such as the latest controversy surrounding One Nation leader Pauline Hanson and her comments about the Port Arthur Massacre.
But Jeffrey says the One Nation revelations will likely just “shake off some of the more tenuously attached supporters”.
“We’re constantly reassessing, ‘What is the limit? What is the line?'” he says.
“Imagine what a time-travelling version of yourself from 2022 would came back and tell you. This may be the normal period.
“It just feels like the ground has shifted so much. A lot of people still haven’t accepted Donald Trump was elected president, the Brexit shambles. We are living in different times.”
So, has any of this helped or merely added to your indecision?
Undecided voter: A person who has failed to undergo political oxidisation to become rusted on to a particular party and instead finds themselves confronted by Australian democracy’s slender array of choices and scratching their heads in a bid to overcome the gnawing, terrible feeling that this is all there is and that they are powerless to effect change. Either that or they just don’t give a fig.
Perhaps it’s worth giving a fig — you know, the future and all that.
Jeffrey hopes these and the dozens more definitions found in The Wonks’ Dictionary can provide at least some succour.
“Our little book is just a jolly crumb thrown into the maelstrom,” he says.
“It’s our version of offering our thoughts [and prayers] to everyone during these difficult times.”