‘government stroke’: meaning and origin

The derogatory Australian-English expression government stroke denotes the deliberately slow pace of work characteristic of public-sector workers.

For example, the following is from Despite the howls, it’s not all bad news, by McGuinness, about the Howard Government’s first budget, published in The Age (Melbourne, Victoria) of Saturday 17th August 1996—John Howard (born 1939), Leader of the Liberal Party of Australia from 1995 to 2007, was the 25th Prime Minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007:

There will be little sympathy for the public servants under threat of retrenchment in an electorate which has been living with the actuality or imminent threat of unemployment since at least 1990, and which has seen rapid structural change which instils fear and insecurity. Nobody loves public servants in the community generally, and the good ones have to carry the can for the all-too-many adherents of the “government stroke” approach to work.

The expression government stroke was originally used of convict labourers. (From 1788, when the British colonisation of Australia began, to 1868, about 162,000 convicts were transported from Britain and Ireland to various penal colonies in Australia.) The following is from the review of The Australian National Dictionary: A Dictionary of Australianisms on Historical Principles (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1988)—review published in Australian Foreign Affairs Record (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service) of October 1988:

There are words from the convict period, like assign, chain gang, emancipist, felonry, and government stroke and not many realise that public servant began life, like government man, as a euphemism for convict.

And the following from Meanings and origins of Australian words and idioms, published by the Australian National Dictionary Centre, explains that public servant was originally a euphemistic term for a convict assigned to public labour:

public servant
A person employed by a government authority; a member of a State or Territory public service, or the Australian Public Service. It is the Australian term for the standard English civil servantPublic servant has its origin in Australia’s history as a penal colony. Unease about the word convict led to the creation of euphemistic terms, including government man and public servant (both recorded from 1797). The convict public servant was assigned to public labour.
By 1812 public servant was used to refer to any government worker, whether free or convict, and two centuries later it is still the standard Australian term for a public service employee.

These are, in chronological order, the earliest occurrences of the expression government stroke that I have found:

1 & 2-: From the Colonial Times (Hobart, Tasmania):

1-: Of Tuesday 14th February 1837:

Hobart Town Police Report.
Monday, February 6.

Being Monday morning, the Office opened with the usual shew of drunkards—and also a number of assigned servants—most of whom had been in “Durance Vile” from Saturday night until this morning.
Mr. James Presnell complained of his assigned servant’s insolence and idleness. All last week he was very idle, and said he could not do the work he gave him by the “Government stroke.” He was ordered to the “Government stroke” on the roads for three months.

2-: Of Tuesday 30th June 1840:

Public Convict Labour.

Having frequently, since the contemplated change in the assignment system, heard the cuckoo song of the wonderful improvement that was to have been effected in the gang labour, in consequence of the special separation that had taken place between those who had arrived in the latter part of the year 1839, and the beginning of 1840, from those who arrived previously, so that the latter could not have an opportunity of acquiring the habits of the former, or what is familiarly called the Government-stroke; we have taken some little trouble to watch the progress of this contemplated change.
It is true, that the recently-arrived gangs, employed in the embankment of the harbour, some time after they commenced did the work in a fair and ordinary manner; but, during the last two months, it is very different; they are now, as indolent and as inattentive as the old gangs; and their progress, during the last month, in particular, is disgraceful, and should such be continued for any length of time, the men will be spoiled.
We may be asked, what is the reason? Is there any difference in their management? We reply, we think there is; and, we will fairly and candidly state, what we think it is. In the first place, the men are badly clothed, especially in shoes; secondly, their tools are exceedingly bad; thirdly, we think their overseers are very deficient both in skill and energy; and, lastly, although we are not certain of the fact, we are of opinion, that the men are not properly fed.
If all the convicts that are to come to the Colony, are to be improved by the same process, the new system will be a curse of the most serious aggravation; the most debilitated convict, in the hands of a settler, would perform more useful labour in one year, than any one of these would do in two, besides being separated from the example of such vicious manners and conversation, as are known to prevail in these congregations of misery and wickedness. If Capt. Maconochie * cannot manage better than is evinced by the “improved” sample produced in this Colony, the sooner he relinquishes his arduous task the better. We believe, however, that he is aware of the effect of the Government stroke; and, as his intention is to strike at the root of the disorder, he may succeed better; for here, we are of opinion, that the officers, as well as the men, have relapsed into the Government stroke habit.

* In March 1840, when he took up duties as commandant of the penal settlement at Norfolk Island, the Scottish naval officer Alexander Maconochie (1787-1860) instituted policies that restored dignity to prisoners.

3-: From the Geelong Advertiser (Geelong, Victoria) of Monday 7th March 1842:


On Monday last, the ship Regulus, with immigrants, arrived in the harbour of Geelong. On Wednesday the immigrants landed at the Jetty, and were soon after lodged on shore. The Regulus is the first emigrant ship which has been sent here; and we would applaud the apparent liberality of the Melbourne government, were we not convinced that in this transaction they have not been so much prompted by a consideration of our wants, as by a desire to relieve themselves of the superfluous supply which so far exceeds the demand of Melbourne as to render the policy of the government exceedingly embarrassing. But as the result of the present arrangement will be favorable to all parties, we can afford to overlook the abstract motives of our rulers.
Although the immigrants who have thus arrived, are not of the most useful description, a very small portion of them being available as farm labourers, still they are likely to meet with speedy engagements. In the mean time the men are employed on the public works; but we are sorry to say that they do not appear to be of much use, apparently, from the want of an active overseer. The “government stroke” is soon learned; and the proficiency of the new hands appears to exceed that of the oldest gang in the colony.

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