pet shop galah - noun: a chattering fool; an idiot.
In a 1989 speech, prime minister Paul Keating expressed frustration with the many commentators calling for microeconomic reform: ‘I mean, I guarantee if you walk into any pet shop in Australia, what the resident galah will be talking about is microeconomic policy.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 22 June 1989)
Keating, known for his turn of phrase, was elaborating on the well-established Australian sense of galah ‘fool, idiot’. This is a figurative use of galah, the name for the familiar pink and grey cockatoo found in many areas of the Australian mainland. The word derives from gilaa, borrowed from Yuwaalaraay and related languages of New South Wales.
The use of galah as a disparaging epithet is common in Australia, and dates from the 1930s. It is likely to have been influenced by the real galah’s noisy, social nature, and its loud screeching calls. TV’s Home and Away character Alf Stewart is well-known for using exclamations such as ‘you flamin galah!’
Keating’s use added a twist to the notion of the foolish galah by placing the galah in a diminished environment. It invokes the galah lording it over a pet shop, squawking about policy, and suggests a degree of deluded self-importance.
The form pet shop galah took hold in the early 1990s, mostly being found in the formulas every pet shop galah is talking about X or every galah in the pet shop (is talking about X).
The first uses mention Keating or his original comment, but later evidence appears in different contexts and also illustrates the different phrasing:
The proverbial pet shop galah is talking about corruption prevention these days. (Sydney Morning Herald, 17 January 1996)
It just needs an imagination, and a vocabulary, that’s bigger than your average pet-shop galah. (Australian, 6 December 2015)
There was a time when every galah in the coalition pet shop was talking about the importance of being innovative and nimble. (Stephen Jones MP, House Hansard, Higher Education Support Legislation Amendment, 12 September 2017)
Pet shop galah partly overlaps with the meaning of older expressions such as the man in the street, Joe Blow, or (the Australian equivalent) Fred Nerk. These refer to the average (or ordinary) person. However, their meaning is often neutral—at most, dismissive—whereas pet shop galah is always disparaging. The form every galah in the pet shop is similar to every man and his dog, although here too the connotations of the pet shop are perhaps more demeaning.
Despite its use in different contexts, much of the evidence continues to have a political or economic theme, reflecting its origin. And the term is still sometimes associated with Keating, as this recent quote demonstrates: ‘It's time to remember the tune of Keating’s old pet shop galahs. It’s time to talk micro-economics.’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 24 October 2019) It is interesting to speculate when the link to its origin will disappear.
Pet shop galah will be considered for inclusion in the next edition of the Australian National Dictionary.