Why is everyone crazy about short kangaroos?

Former Wiggle Emma Watkins topped Google searches last Monday, swapping her yellow skirt for an elegant wedding dress. The Bride, however, missed out on Ronaldo’s penalty against Brentford – with 20,000 hits – and Scott Morrison’s chicken korma on Insta.

Elsewhere on the search list was quirky Australianism, a phrase that rushed thousands of people to their Google windows. The trigger was a news item. When he wasn’t incorporating turmeric into his curry, Morrison had agitated progressives, lamenting the prospect of a federal ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) as a mere “kangaroo court.”

The term “kangaroo court” probably originated during the gold rush in the United States, explains David Astle.Credit:Joe Gay

To be precise, the Prime Minister had despaired of events in New South Wales where former Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian had been subjected to the commission’s wringer. “The Premier of NSW has been overthrown through a wrong process, an abuse…I’m not going to bring a kangaroo court into this parliament.”

This engagement was in November. Last week the phrase was revived when Berejiklian’s successor – Dominic Perrottet – blasted the prime minister for his remarks, saying any reference to judicial marsupials destabilized the rule of law. The guard dog was not a kangaroo, he insisted. “The commission,” Perrottet added, “plays an important role in maintaining integrity and trust in our state’s politicians and officials.”

Hooray for that. A dog with teeth. Nonetheless, Perrottet’s display of probity was not greeted with confetti and overhead sombreros. Instead, 10,000 citizens took to the web, surfing to find out what a kangaroo court really entailed. How the hell did Skippy catch the hammer? Before jumping to conclusions, beware. The backstory has more curve than Ronaldo’s left boot.

For starters, the phrase isn’t Australian, despite our wildlife being smuggled in plain sight. On the contrary, the expression probably hatched on the American gold fields. Last week on radio, thanks to this push from Google, I explored the phrase with Roly Sussex, Emeritus Professor of Applied Linguistic Studies at the University of Queensland.

As he explained, “the term first appeared in California, around 1849-1850. At this point there were some 800 to 1,000 Australian prospectors seeking their fortunes. Residents quickly realized that [our forebears] sometimes decided things unofficially. Surprise, surprise: This included claiming territory with nowt through documents or permission. And so, the kangaroo court emerged.

Perhaps the currency started life as a sweet tooth, since Americans might well admire the brazen jumpers of bureaucracy. Yet West Coast mastheads were quick to add vitriol to the phrase, in equal measure to Scott Morrison’s own recipe 170 years later. Nowadays, the label means any mock trial or spectacle, where the verdict is as good as predetermined. Think of gender justice skipped, potentially judging it well inside a protagonist’s pocket.

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