16/02/2017 1:53 PM AEDT | Updated 16/02/2017 1:55 PM AEDT

How 'Socialist' Became Aussie Conservatives' Favourite Insult

Malcolm Turnbull has been sledging Bill Shorten all week.

Fairfax Media
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on the attack in Question Time

CANBERRA -- If you've been watching federal politics in recent weeks, you might have noticed an interesting insult being thrown around by conservatives, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Bill Shorten is a "socialist", according to the PM. The Greens are socialists too, says One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts; he calls them 'watermelons' (green on the outside, red on the inside).

Attorney-general George Brandis on Tuesday called Greens senator Lee Rhiannon an "old commo", or communist, to the mirth of radio host Ray Hadley.

Senator David Leyonhjelm last week made a speech mocking the Liberals for being "more socialist than Gough Whitlam".

Former Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop has lately blamed "socialists" for everything from the resignation of Sussan Ley from the health portfolio (Ley's expenses scandal was less of a factor than the "socialists", apparently) to the downfall of NSW Premier Mike Baird and the recent crackdown on politicians' expenses.

"Socialism is on the march and creeping in this country," Bishop warned in January, to the amusement of many political pundits.

"I know that socialists, like alcoholics, will blame anyone but themselves. And whereas alcoholics can damage their own family, socialists can destroy the whole country," she said later.

In the last fortnight, Turnbull has repeatedly slammed Shorten and Labor as being "socialist". On February 2, he said "like any socialist [Shorten] wants to live in a harbourside mansion but he wants to live in one that is paid for by the taxpayer".

On February 7, he joked South Australia was a "socialist paradise" after being asked about electricity infrastructure in the state, then did it again the same day, and then again on February 14.

Turnbull tried the "problem with socialists is that eventually they run out of other people's money" joke again, directed at Shorten, on February 14, too. The same day, he said Shorten "reminds me of one of those old Soviet leaders".

Using the term "socialist" is not new. A search of hansard records finds the word "socialist" has been recorded in parliamentary transcripts almost 13,000 times since 1901. The term was a favourite insult during and after the Cold War, with scare campaigns about "reds under the bed" over fears of creeping communism and Soviet influence.

But another hansard search shows Turnbull himself has only used the term "socialist" 12 times in parliament since being elected in 2004, so it is hardly a favourite insult of his. But he has used it -- aimed at Shorten -- at least six times in the last fortnight.

"I've been called worse things by better people. The sadder the insults, the more pressure he's under from his backbench," Shorten told The Huffington Post Australia, on the socialist insults.

"He's starting to crack under the pressure. It's showing every day."

So what gives? Why has 'socialist' come roaring back as an insult, to the point we're hearing it on our TVs and from the lips of the Prime Minister himself?

"Shorten isn't a socialist. They're trying to tie him to the unions," said Professor Martin Krygier, an expert in communism at the University of NSW.

"When Turnbull is calling him a socialist, what he's trying to pick at is relationships with the unions [but] unless the unions have changed a great deal, it's not an insult to be a socialist. They're proud to be socialist."

Krygier said it was "bizarre" that the term was still being used as an insult today, but said he doubted the term 'socialist' would have much impact or weight for Australians in 2017.

"My children's generation would have to have it explained. I don't think it holds much power these days. This is pure rhetorical invective when you talk about communists, there wont be any communist turn in any future I can see," he said.

"I would be surprised if it was effective. I don't think its effective now because nobody really knows what it means [but] it's hard to call Shorten a socialist when at the same time they're saying he's desperate to sit with Richard Pratt."

Emeritus Professor Graeme Gill, an expert in Soviet politics from the University of Sydney, also said he was puzzled at the term 'socialist' being used as a modern political insult.

"This is what was always claimed about the ALP during the last few decades, it's a common claim. I suspect [the government] is reviving it to do anything they can to stereotype Labor," he said.

"I assume [Turnbull] is trying to link it with claims he made last week, that Shorten is spending time with rich people, to emphasise he's a hypocrite."

Krygier said while Shorten himself is not a socialist, he has borrowed a line of attack from a self-confessed socialist -- U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders -- who built a campaign around attacking the rich over social inequality, unfair tax breaks and financial arrangements and privilege.

"Shorten's attacks on Turnbull as 'Mr Harbourside Mansion', it's appealing to some of the tropes socialists used to use, the clash between the bosses and the working classes. That's classic socialist rhetoric," he said.