return to The New City
FOR THE WORKING CLASS
An essay by Michael Thompson
(listen to Michael being interviewed about this essay)
Michael Thompson was born in 1947, and raised in working class Balmain until the early 1960s when his family moved to Sydney’s western suburbs. He left school at 14, working in a number of labouring jobs. At 20 he travelled overseas and returned to Australia not long before Gough Whitlam was elected in 1972. He got a job as a builders’ labourer in the Sydney CBD, and was involved in the so called “Green Bans”. In 1979 and 1985 Michael was awarded degrees in economics and law under the University of NSW’s mature age student scheme. Since then he has been a senior adviser to the late Peter Cook, then federal minister for Industrial Relations, a consultant to the national law firm Clayton Utz, an Adjunct Professor at the Queensland University of Technology, and a consultant to Leighton Contractors. He is the author of Labor Without Class: The gentrification of the ALP (Pluto Press, 1999).
This is the story of the university-educated middle class Left’s rise to power by installing themselves as Australia’s moral guardians, dividing the electorate into race, gender and other such groups for whom they claim to speak, and then holding the Labor Party to electoral ransom if it fails to tailor its policies to their political agendas.
It tells of their tactic of character assassinating the working class, and of how they looked after themselves very nicely.
There is a “new” class whose identity and political machinations are largely hidden from the working class. They call themselves “progressives”, while conservatives call them “inner city elites” or the “political elite”. However, for the most part, I will call them the “chattering class” as they love nothing better than sitting down to good food or a café latte and chattering away about politics. It’s their religion and sport rolled into one.
The chattering class is drawn from among the tertiary-educated middle class who have gone to university since the 60s, where they imbibed the social causes of feminism, multiculturalism, environmentalism and the like, which their counter-culture professors and lecturers had imported from America. They now occupy many of the senior positions in politics, the ABC and SBS, universities, schools, government departments and agencies, courts, discrimination and other such boards and NGOs, but also in the private, non-traded goods sector (e.g. journalists and in human resource management).
The chattering class consider themselves morally superior to other classes – Michael Warby calls it their “moral vanity”. As one of their number, Pamela Bone, put it, “it is usually the educated middle-classes who are more imbued with notions of justice and equality than any other group”.
They stereotype the working class as racists, sexists, environmental vandals (“deniers”), homophobes and neo-Nazis – as shown in most Australian made movies, such as Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Romper Stomper. A seething mass of nasty little prejudices, genetically predisposed to froth at the mouth and bark like junk-yard dogs on hearing the “dog whistle” of any populist demagogue, like Pauline Hanson.
The chattering class can’t openly smear the working class; instead, they themselves turn to the cowardly act of dog whistling, using labels such as “rednecks”, the “mob”, the “masses” and the “great unwashed” so as not to be seen singling out the working class as a class, since this would make their stereotyping plain for all to see.
In large part, this dog whistling is the job of chattering class broadcasters, journalists and commentators in the so-called “quality media”, who would have us believe their views largely reflect public opinion, notwithstanding that on most cultural (and many economic) issues they are invariably to the left of centre. If widespread disagreement with their views should surface during any public debate, they straightfacedly denounce ordinary Australians as holding extreme right-wing views. And why not? There can be no come back. For they know the working class don’t listen to Radio National, read the broadsheet newspapers or watch the ABC or SBS, and so their dog whistling is out of range of the working class’s hearing. Anyway, the working class's level of education does not give them the confidence to publicly debate those with tertiary education and, therefore, if any one of them is foolhardy enough to try they can easily be shouted down.
A favourite tactic for driving home working class moral inferiority and for undermining their confidence is to discredit the institutions they grew up believing in. Three examples of this tactic will suffice: sport, the church and the ANZAC tradition.
Footballers don’t set themselves up as role models, nor should they be harshly judged as such. Moreover, to suggest that ordinary Australians can’t appreciate the prowess of footballers without seeing them as role models for their children, is a sign of the contempt in which they are held by chattering class broadcasters, journalists and commentators.
A recent front page report in The Courier-Mail revealed that “[m]ore than 300 Queensland teachers are under investigation for inappropriate behaviour …[and] almost all 26 teachers who had their registrations suspended or cancelled in the past year were cited for sexual misconduct.” It further revealed that a “state-employed teacher went from school to school, leaving a trail of complaints about indecent behaviour to young children, before losing his job”, and it “also highlighted an issue with teachers leaving private schools under a cloud and being re-hired by Education Queensland.”
There was no such coverage in the quality media. But if the report had revealed that Catholic priests rather than public school teachers were the subject of investigations into alleged paedophile behaviour on such a scale, they without doubt would have given the investigation blanket coverage, at least until such time as the clergy were punished and removed, compensation paid, and apologies made to the victims, or charges laid and convictions entered – to be dragged up again at the first opportunity.
The chattering class claim the ANZAC tradition is not relevant to today’s Australia, or that it risks glorifying war. A view obviously not shared by all those young Australians who each year make the pilgrimage to the dawn service at Anzac Cove.
The social causes so beloved of the chattering class are frequently the source of employment opportunities in the public sector for those among them wanting to “make a difference” (e.g. those employed in the poverty industry and appointed to boards), hence their calls for increases in public spending. But their conflict of interest doesn’t end there, for they also oppose means testing and defend middle class welfare/”social engineering” (e.g. Family Payments Parts A and B and flexible work provisions in the Fair Work Act). And then there’s their rampant nimbyism.
The chattering class’s claim to moral superiority is accompanied by their incessant chant of “gimme”, “gimme”, “gimme”.
The other side of this coin is the working class’s continued under-representation at university – despite decades of government so-called “free” tertiary education initiatives.
Equity in higher education is a zero sum game (i.e. for one to win another must lose), with the chattering class having the most to lose from its introduction. Not surprisingly, therefore, they claim that working class under-representation is a result of their not valuing higher education (the implication being that working class parents are unconcerned about their childrens' future). The real cause is the working class’s lack of horizons and confidence. Society undermines the former by stereotyping them as intellectually inferior, in such Australian made television programs as Kath and Kim, while making no effort to help them expand their horizons beyond those of their family.
From their positions of power and influence the chattering class speak to politicians with a single, clamouring voice in support of their social causes.
Power within the Labor Party is now in the hands of careerists who treat the ALP (even the prime ministership) as but one step in their career paths: they believe in nothing. To them, the working class are losers. The careerists have gained the upper hand over those who, while they make politics their career, remain committed to the working class.
The careerists’ strategy involves winning the electoral support of the chattering class. To this end they willingly kowtow, tailoring Labor’s policies and candidate selection processes to demands made by chattering class “activists”. But if pandering to the activists is one of the balls the careerists have in the air, the other is the fear of offending working class sensibilities – although only rarely does this lead them to defend working class values. For they fear, far more, the electoral retribution threatened by the chattering class, for whom working class values are anathema. The chattering class would rather Labor lose an election, wait for the “it’s time” factor to kick in, and get what they can from a conservative government until such time as Labor is returned to office.
To justify their takeover of the Party, and undermine the working class’s call on it, chattering class members and politicians are at great pains to paint the pre-Whitlam ALP as morally tainted. In particular, they claim the White Australia policy was solely racially motivated, rather than predominantly aimed at protecting Australian workers from cheap imported labour.
The careerists think their juggling of the social movements and the working class makes them the masters of political power in Australia. On the surface it may look that way. But by bluffing the careerists into believing they speak for all women, all migrants and so on, and by their hollow threats to cast Labor into the political wilderness if the Party’s policies don’t reflect the social movements’ agendas, activists have proven themselves to be not jugglers, but rather the master puppeteers of Australian politics, in whose hands are held the strings that manipulate the careerists’ political moves.
The fact is that while Labor cannot win government with the working class vote alone, neither can it win without it. Witness the result of the working class deserting the Party in droves at the 1996 election because of the disrespect shown them and their values – only to swell the ranks of “Howard’s battlers”.
An alternative electoral strategy would have been - and still is - a contemporary working class made up of blue collar workers, routine white collar workers (many of who are women in the services sector), the long-term unemployed, and women from lower socio-economic backgrounds who choose to be homemakers, plus small business people and the self employed who share many of the working class’s values such as democratic government, rule of law, love of country, hard work, traditional family, personal responsibility and mutual obligation, and compassion for the genuinely needy. The Party should also appeal to those among the tertiary-educated middle class for whom socio-economic background remains the overarching source of disadvantage in Australia today. For them, the working class are not the moral and intellectual dregs of Australian society, but people whose disadvantage is for the most part not of their own making but historic; they were born into it and, therefore, governments should do all they can to ensure their children enjoy equality of opportunity with those from more fortunate backgrounds.
This is the natural constituency for any new Labor.
Despite – or may be its because of – the Party’s hacks, focus group pollsters and political advisers, the careerists are blind to the true feelings that the working class harbour towards Labor.
The working class know that the only role the Party sees them fit for is dumb service on polling booths, letter boxing, door knocking and the like. Activities that chattering class members do not deign to do – unless it’s in support of a local nimby issue.
The working class also question the ALP's commitment to Ben Chifley’s broad aim of “bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people” – embodying as it does their aspirations of a job for their kids, and a chance to improve their lot in life. For as one prominent member of the chattering class put it, “a chance for the working class to actually get the same share of the goods and resources as the middle class” has no place in “a more equal society”.
However, what undoubtedly would gall them most of all is the realisation that their Party is at best embarrassed by them. Their leaders never confront the chattering class’s stereotyping of them. Nor do they point out their finer qualities, such as:
· The sacrifices they willingly make for their children, which given their often meagre resources and precarious employment are above those the middle class is called on to make for their children.
· Their ongoing belief in the rule of law and democratic government, unlike the Communist Party stooges and their fellow travellers who not only did not, but who also mocked the working class for being duped by “the system”.
· Their achievement in making a success of multiculturalism, for it is they who, with remarkably little tension, have shared their suburbs and jobs, and intermarried with migrants and refugees.
It’s now time for all the ALP’s traditional working class supporters – not just the Howard battlers – to seriously think about abandoning the careerists who have whored their Party to the chattering class. Labor's claim to working class loyalty has been forfeited.
To contact Michael about this essay email: email@example.com
Hear Michael being interviewed about this essay on ABC Radio National's Counterpoint program.
A lightly edited version of this essay was published in the Weekend Australian of 28 - 29 August 2010, "My party was trashed by the middle class".
 The Age, 7/11/1999.
 The Courier-Mail, 24/3/2010.
 Feminist and academic Eva Cox, interviewed by Norman Swan on Radio National, 17/6/1999.
3 August 2010 return to The New City