Pork barrelling their boondoggles

You have to love the elections. Even if the politicians are failing to stir us with soaring words our journalists are at least trying to create some interest with theirs.

Townsville football stadium

Earlier this week (13 June) Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull promised $100 million for a new Townsville football stadium saying it was part of a bold new vision for Australia’s cities. When Bill Shorten promised the same amount last month he was accused of pork barrelling. It is not surprising that Townsville is in a marginal seat (the seat of Herbert).

Adam Gartrell, National Political Correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, reporting the story suggested the Townsville football stadium project might be a “blatant boondoggle”. Love your work, Adam!

Meanings of pork barrelling and boondoggle

Both pork barrelling and boondoggle are American political terms used for spending on projects which are selected on considerations other than merit, usefulness or practicality.

Pork barrelling is frequently used in Australian politics to describe the inexplicable process by which marginal seats receive higher funding than safe seats. Funding for the Townsville football stadium in the marginal seat of Herbert certainly would fit that usage. Americans use pork barrelling more broadly for funding of government programs that have economic benefits for a few but whose costs are borne by all taxpayers.

Boondoggle is not a word we hear very often in Australian politics. A boondoggle is a useless project that is considered to be a waste of time and money but is undertaken and continued only for political reasons. To boondoggle (that is the verb form) is to create such projects.  Adam Gartrell in his SMH article states that:

a confidential business case submitted to the Queensland government’s peak infrastructure body reports that the stadium will not be financially viable and will cost taxpayers half a billion dollars over 30 years. There’s no way it could deliver a positive cost benefit ratio …”.

The stadium will be used for approximately thirteen games of rugby league a year (which by my calculations will cost the Australian taxpayer $1.3 million per game). Well I’m with Adam on this as well—that certainly makes it a boondoggle!

Origins of pork barrelling

Pork barrelling has a long history of usage in the US. The pork barrel was a domestic storage tub for pork meat and fat. The current political definition is probably closest to an expression of U.S. President William Howard Taft as quoted in a 1909 magazine (The Outlook, 6 November):

If not a very elegant simile, it is at least an expressive one, and suggests a graphic picture of Congressmen eager for local advantage going, one after another, to the National pork barrel to take away their slices for home consumption.

Origins of boondoggle

Boondoggle arose from a 1935 New York Times article that reported that more than $3 million was being spent on recreational activities for the jobless. These make-work activities included craft classes where boondoggles (described as various utilitarian gadgets made with cloth or leather) were being produced.

A boondoggle is the US equivalent of what we might usually call a thingamajig. There are lots of similar words in historic English use: thingum (1670s), thingumbob (1751), and thingummy (1796). In the US boondoggle was superseded by gizmo from US Navy and Marine slang for anything you can’t find a name for (in about 1942).

Woggle, son of boondoggle

In a little aside, it is interesting to know that an offspring of the boondoggle is the woggle, the ring that British Scouts use to secure their scarf around their neck. Before the 1920s a scout tied his scarf with a knot. However a group of British scouts found out that the Americans were using a ring made from bone, rope or wood, which the Americans were calling a boondoggle (in the spirit of a thingamajig). The British scouts came up with a leather ring using a Turks Head knot which, in tribute to their American rivals, they called a woggle to rhyme with boondoggle.

More words, Adam

So while Bill Shorten pork barrels and Malcolm Turnbull boondoggles we look forward to next weeks’ words.