'Mate' is a dirty word in Australian parliament

The storm erupted after security guards at the majestic Parliament House in Canberra were told the national greeting of " G'day mate" was now considered too colloquial and might give offence to those who either did not understand it or felt it over-familiar.

The guards were ordered to address the 226 MPs, 4,000 staff and more than one million visitors to the so-called " Pollies Palace", opened by the Queen in 1988, as " sir" or " madam".

But the directive in Thursday's daily security briefing became a cause célèbre within hours. The former Labour prime minister Bob Hawke said it smacked of the right-wing Liberal government's erosion of Australia as the land of a "fair go".

He said: "We're living in an age where the concept of mateship has been damaged to a fairly large extent by a lot of the approaches of this government. We're diminishing this whole egalitarian approach that we've been so proud of."

Kim Beazley, the current Labour leader, said: "It is a great part of Australian culture that we do call each other mate, it is a nice general description. ... I think it's pathetic that the government insists everyone goes around saluting them"

Astonishingly, the Prime Minister, John Howard, agrees with them. In July he called President George Bush "my mate" during a visit to Washington and at one time had proposed a reference to mateship in the preamble to Australia's constitution. "It's all about context," Mr Howard said. "I think we should be both courteous and gregarious. We have a treasured informality in this country and that's something we should hold on to."

Susan Butler, of The Macquarie Dictionary, said the word arrived with the convicts and developed as a special form of greeting. "Now it has an iconic status in Australian vernacular and by no stretch of the imagination is it offensive."

Now the Department of Parliamentary Services has said guards should use their judgement. "It generated such pandemonium we decided to be more general about the warning and not include mate," Hillary Penfold, the secretary for the department, said

The original order was "Ridiculous, mate", said Gerald Langer, 58, who has been a guard for 35 years. "It's part of the Australian lexicon. We were in stitches when we received it; we thought it was a joke."