Class warfare in Australia? We should be so lucky

Try telling sacked Toyota workers we live in a classless society. AAP/Julian Smith

The idea that Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan have launched a “class war” in Australia through last week’s federal budget is a huge joke. I don’t believe The Australian’s editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell even believes his own rhetoric.

A small “redistribution” of wealth, in the form of increased family benefits, hardly constitutes an attack on the privileged few. The class war argument is even harder to sustain when the budget gives with one hand and takes away with the other. Some family payments have gone up, but single mothers will be forced onto the dole.

All quiet on the North Shore

This budget has not increased the pain for Australia’s richest people and it certainly does not represent any kind of class war push-back against those with privilege or against members of the elite.

There’s nothing in this budget to make the ruling class tremble. Scrapping a 1% cut in corporate tax rates hardly constitutes class warfare; nor does throwing a few dollars at child care, disability services or education.

Wayne Swan called this budget “Labor to its boot straps” and it seems that this line has been seized upon to justify the class war rhetoric. But the boots in question would be unrecognisable to Labor’s founding fathers. They are Dolce & Gabbana gold-embossed snakeskin, not hobnail Blundstones.

Then Julia Gillard accused Tony Abbott of being out of touch with ordinary Australians because he lives in Sydney’s reasonably affluent northern suburbs. A red rag to some bulls already predisposed to snorting and charging at shadows.

Hardly enough evidence to back up headlines like “Reform agenda lost in class war” from Thursday’s Australian newspaper. But enough for Tony Abbott to jump on to the tumbrel as it rolled passed his well-upholstered doorway.

In his budget reply speech, the Opposition leader accused the government of cynically playing the “class war” card. He also repeated the myth at the heart of this nonsensical charge:

“Our country has normally been free from the class struggle that’s waged elsewhere to other countries’ terrible cost.”

The myth of a classless Australia

The idea that Australia is a classless society is a myth that many of us cling to – mateship and egalitarian stories of sacrifice in war are promoted as enduring and iconic virtues.

But it is nonetheless a myth. The truth is somewhat less saccharine. The class struggle is alive and well in Australia and low-level class war is a constant feature of daily life. Most workers know this instinctively – prices go up faster than wages, car industry handouts don’t save their jobs but (coincidence the bosses claim) seem to be equal to the “profit” announced by the “struggling” Ford Motor Company.

However, this low-level and constant class war is not talked about in these terms, particularly not in the mainstream media. It is there, it is just hidden inside unchallenged assumptions along the lines of competition and growth are good for everyone and that we are all “middle Australia”.

We can’t all be in the “middle”, some are on the top and some on the bottom. The top 1% are almost invisible except as unassailable role models of vast entrepreneurial skill and business savvy and the bottom 10% are invisible because they exist in the liminal cracks of long-term unemployment; or they are marginalised like the vast bulk of indigenous Australians.

But these groups are tiny compared to the bulk of the population: most of us work for wages or salary.

The 2012-13 budget holds out a small and rather limp carrot to this group (by far the majority of Australians) in the form of a mild redistribution of tiny amounts of “wealth”. But what it does most certainly not do is declare class war.

Four truths about class in Australia

The Australian’s headline from Wednesday – “Smash the rich, save the base” – sent out alarmist signals that the ALP might be about to charge the Stock Exchange. The front page cartoon certainly gave that impression with Wayne Swan and Julia Gillard at the head of a phalanx of marching workers, with the hammer and sickle red flag aloft behind.

But why would The Australian go down this line?

The Australian

The simple and direct answer is that it is a newspaper which supports the interests of Australia’s ruling class and, like ruling elites from Moscow to Cairo, the Australian elite is greedy. Even a small impost on profits must be resisted, at the same time such naked grasping must be dressed in the rhetoric of national interest.

A few truths have emerged from all the rhetoric about class warfare.

The first and most obvious is that the ALP is desperate. On current projections and readings of voter sentiment, there is almost no chance that Labor can win the next federal election.

The ALP response, as The Australian has pointed out correctly, has been to launch assaults on Australia’s small group of super-rich. In particular Clive Palmer, Gina Reinhart and (to a lesser extent) Twiggy Forrest.

But this does not signal a return to class war politics for the ALP – that’s actually the last thing they want – it is merely a rhetorical flourish and perhaps too little too late to save their arses at the polls.

The second truth is that The Australian is clearly in support of Australia’s ruling class and has this week cynically exploited the rhetoric of class warfare to support the Coalition’s attacks on Labor.

The third point is that the convenient national myth of a classless Australia is strong. Instead of understanding real class divisions, we prefer to think of ourselves as all being “middle Australia”.

The fourth is that Tony Abbott is now and always has been a class warrior. He learnt his politics at the sclerotic knee of B. A. Santamaria, Australia’s leading anti-communist for more than 40 years. Nothing has changed.

The struggle continues

Despite a refusal to talk about real class politics in the media, the class struggle is alive and well in Australia and low-level class war is a daily reality for many workers.

The workers at the Baiada chicken processing plant certainly know about it. They resisted full frontal attacks from Victorian police to maintain a picket line and win their union fight for improved wages and conditions.

The workers at Toyota in Melbourne also got a lesson in class warfare when the company hired a private security firm to escort sacked staff off the premises.

TAFE teachers in Victoria learned a thing or two about class warfare when their funding was cut.

Victorian nurses also learned the hard way when they were forced to take illegal action and walk off the job to save their jobs and working conditions.

If real class warfare were to erupt in Australia Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott and Chris Mitchell would all be on the same side, while the chicken pluckers of Baiada would be on the other and (I reckon) so too would be TAFE teachers, car workers and nurses.

Until then, Abbott and Mitchell’s fearmongering will remain ultimately meaningless.