Amanda Laugesen, BA (Hons) ’97, PhD ’01 reports about how new descriptors for our national identity arise from elections.
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison won the May 2019 federal election – an election nobody expected him to win – he thanked God and called the victory one for the quiet Australians. From early 2019, Morrison had been invoking the quiet Australians in his political rhetoric. On 25 January, The West Australian reported the following after Morrison visited the south coast of New South Wales:
Away from the noise of the mainstream media, he said ‘quiet Australians’ were getting on with life and didn’t like hearing the angry mob telling them what to do. He listed issues that these Australians were ‘un-shoutily’ worried about: a strong economy, wage growth and cost of living concerns.
Before January 2019, there is little appearance of the term in mainstream media, which previously referred to people who might otherwise be called ‘unsung heroes’ – the quiet Australians who don’t look for thanks and recognition for doing something.
Morrison was creating a different sense of quiet Australians, a group of voters who were apparently not being recognised or acknowledged or having their voices heard. These were the Australians, he argued in March, who were the ‘mainstream of quiet Australians that just want to get on with their lives’ as opposed to those ‘shouting from the fringes’ (Australian Financial Review, 19 March). There is some evidence of the term – although very little – being used in similar ways to Morrison’s sense on social media before 2019. For example, @debichan wrote the following Tweet in 2014: ‘To all the quiet Australians who keep to their private lives and vote liberal.’
Ironically, few people could argue that the quiet Australians are really so quiet, nor are they being represented by a quiet Prime Minister – indeed, a descriptor for Morrison has been ‘shouty’. They are not those who are the most marginalised, disenfranchised, or powerless in society. But in this discourse, they are constructed as being the contrast to a ‘shouty’ radical leftist elite that Morrison would prefer were silent. Equally ironic, this term has come into use in Australian public discourse at the same time as Indigenous Australians are fighting for recognition through a ‘voice to parliament’ yet finding the government not particularly willing to listen.
Quiet Australians has a number of similar antecedents in political language both in Australia and elsewhere. In Australia, Robert Menzies appealed to the forgotten people and John Howard made much of speaking to the battlers. Quiet Australians echoes also the silent majority of Richard Nixon’s United States. Those on the conservative side of the political spectrum have not been the only ones to use this kind of language. A comparable term for Labor might be Paul Keating’s use of true believers for those who helped him win the 1993 election despite predictions of defeat.
The term appears to be gaining some traction, and the contraction quiet Aussie has recently made an appearance. There will no doubt continue to be discussion about who the quiet Australians really are.