It is all very well to be nice and good, but the Labor Party is underselling itself if this is their only appeal to convince voters of their fitness to govern. It is time Labor killed the mainstream orthodoxy that says good economic management and being nice and good are opposing options; that you can have one but not the other. It is time Labor smashed the misconception that to vote Labor, you have to be a nice person who wants to do good things for society, but that in order to do that, you can’t also prioritise economic success. It is time Labor stopped letting the Liberals get away with their tough stance on social issues in the name of good economic management when the world is finally coming to terms with the fact that you can’t have a good economy without a well-functioning society. It is time Labor fixed their narrative to broaden their electoral appeal. It is time Labor said it straight: voting Labor is both a good thing to do socially, and is also the smart thing to do economically. In fact, you can have it both ways, and you can’t have it just one way. Labor should make this story clear.
Cultural habits die hard and so it will take some effort for Labor to undo traditional assumptions about why people vote Labor. It has long been taken for granted that Labor voters are bleeding hearts; they vote for Labor because they are looked after by Labor policies, or because they care about the people who are. The Labor voter is assumed to be the person who wants to solve the homelessness problem because they feel sorry for people who are homeless. Labor voters support Gonski 1.0 because all children deserve the best start in life; their concern extends past their own family and they want to do the right thing by the entire Australian community. Policies like the NDIS, support for Medicare, for strengthening the social safety net are all Labor policies which align with Labor values of caring for people, of having a heart, of redistributing wealth so that people have better lives than they would otherwise, for taking responsibility for everyone in the nation, no matter their wealth. Please don’t get me wrong; it is not a mistake to care for others. Showing sympathy, empathy, doing the right thing, having good values is how we bring our children up and adults who can retain these values are good human beings who should be encouraged.
I know you’re ready for the but so here it comes: BUT if Labor is to rely on people voting Labor because it is the nice and good thing to do, they are letting the Liberals steal voters who believe it is all very well to be nice and good, but what puts food on the table and a roof over their head is hard-nosed business ruthlessness and the do-gooders wouldn’t know a good business opportunity if it handed them profit on a plate.
Labor has long suffered from the notion that their policies are nice to have, but unaffordable and ultimately bad for the economy. This notion has attached itself like an leech to the Liberal’s converse values that there is no money to be nice and good if people get all the social policies they might like in a magic pudding world of unlimited government spending. The Liberals use this notion as an alibi to do really horrible things to society, all in the name of ‘austerity’, under the umbrella of ‘good economic management’ and ‘fighting the debt and deficit disaster’. They cut welfare, education and health spending. They cut regulations (which protect people from harm), they cut taxes, reducing the government’s ability to pay for the policies people need. They undermine unions and prioritise the needs and wants of business owners ahead of workers, all in the name of ‘looking after the economy’.
We don’t just see this in Australia. This issue defines the left-right divide in every democratic nation on earth. Throughout the UK election campaign, if I had a dollar every time I heard Jeremy Corbyn’s policy wish-list described as ‘unaffordable’, I would have had enough money to buy Corbyn a new shirt.
Labor suffers from this perception which influences into not only voting intention, but our very ideas about how business works and what it means to be successful at making money. For instance, the boss who gives his workers a pay rise is seen to be too nice, and not hard-nosed enough to be successful in business. The idea is that the only way to make a business work is to minimise costs and maximise profits. Same goes for government spending. Take the new world-class Royal Adelaide Hospital in South Australia, built by the Labor State Government, and under constant criticism from the Liberal Opposition and their cheerleaders in the media for being ‘too expensive’. No matter that the SA government is in surplus. No matter that it is a state in one of the richest countries in the world. No matter that the old hospital it replaced was falling to bits and full of asbestos. There is an idea from the right-wing of politics that somehow spending on a brand new public hospital which will look after people to the best of the government’s ability is a waste of money. Many voters, who you would think might be a little miffed at the Liberals for telling them they’re apparently undeserving of a world-class hospital, instead congratulate the Liberals for their good economic sense.
Labor has let this situation go on for too long. Because the new hospital is not just a nice thing to have. It’s not a shiny new toy that the people don’t really need. It’s not a sop to the bleeding hearts. The new hospital makes South Australia healthier. A healthy society is a richer society. What is good for people is good for the economy. Sick people lead to sick economic outcomes. There are a million ways to say it; Labor needs to tell the story clearly and loudly so that the misconception is vanquished. Education is not a nice to have, it’s good for the economy. Policies which hurt the environment are bad for the economy. Cutting welfare hurts economic growth. Letting business profits soar to 40% while wages grow a measly 2% in the same period is not just cruel to workers, it’s economically irresponsible and shows an ignorance about the way the economy works which is dangerous for all our livelihoods.
In a nutshell, voting Labor is socially good AND economically smart. Policies which write the rules of a society so that everyone has a chance to share in prosperity, is good for everyone’s prosperity. This is because economic growth comes from everyone’s consumer spending – the poor, the middle, the rich alike – and does not trickle down from the top. It is not bleeding-heart to understand this vital economic equation; the IMF, the World Bank, the Australian Reserve Bank, all literate economists are saying the same thing. You don’t have to be a good person to vote Labor; although it’s great if you are. You can care about the economy too. Or, you can care for only one thing – your own bank balance – and still find Labor’s policies are better for the country than the Liberals’, who may I add currently run an economy teetering on the edge of recession.
Labor needs to be proud of its economic record, it needs to tell the story of why its governments have managed successful economies. Labor needs to pull not just hearts, but also minds, over into Labor voting territory. The world is growing open to this idea. Is Labor ready to take advantage?
Fair. As soon as Turnbull started peppering every statement about his 2017 Budget with the word fair, it was obvious he was responding to focus group results which said the main problem with the previous three Liberal budgets were that they were not fair. And, like an ideology that has sprung a leak, the Liberals were suddenly framed as ‘Labor-lite’, as if saying ‘we are fair’ and actually being fair were exactly the same thing. They aren’t.
I argue that the fact that the word ‘fair’ conjures a Labor frame is a bad thing for Labor and for this reason, Labor should stop using it. There are two reasons the word ‘fair’ needs to go. The first is that ‘fair’ means a completely different thing to each individual. Its subjectivity makes it a nice idea in theory, but a hopeless adjective in practice. The other reason is that the idea that a vote for Labor is a vote for fairness is actually working against Labor’s broader popularity by giving them a wishy-washy ‘vote for Labor because you’re a nice person’ vibe, when really, a vote for Labor is not just in the interests of being nice; it’s a good idea for self-interest too. Let me explain.
Back to the first reason; fair means different things to different people. We are taught as small children that to be ‘fair’, you must, usually begrudgingly, give up something you would have had otherwise. If you tell a four year old to ‘be fair and share that piece of cake with your sister’, the four year old automatically understands they’re giving something up in order to ‘do the right thing’ and ‘share’. The viewpoint that the four year old has on this situation (whether it be a resentment towards his sister eating her half of his cake, or a happy feeling inside that he gets to see his sister enjoy the cake he is also enjoying) is relative, dependent on circumstances, individual, cultural, value based, influenced by personality, ideological and all the messy things that are hard to measure about a person. Times this messiness by 22 million in the Australian electorate and then see why ‘fair’ is a stupid word because we all see ‘fair’ from a different angle.
I’m fairly sure that Turnbull, and most people rusted onto the Liberal Party, think any form of taxation is unfair. You hear them often talk about how much work the poor little souls have to do ‘for the tax man’. So, where you might see it as fair that a portion of a Liberal voter’s usually very substantial paycheque is sequestered each month in order to pay for government services which that voter may or may not benefit from directly themselves, the same person sees the same taxation contribution as theft – taking something they’ve earned from them and giving to someone undeserving. A ‘bludger’ who should be drug-tested at the Centrelink office, no less.
The whole idea of what is ‘fair’ is so complex, so misunderstood, so subjective, that any politician using the word who thinks they’re transferring a perfect meaning to everyone who hears it, is mad. I’m sure if you asked someone if they agree that ‘the budget should be fair’, they would, in the vast majority agree. But then when it comes to the nitty gritty of individual budget measures, that’s when their individual perspectives view the policy less so by the motherhood idea of what is fair, and more so by the human measure of ‘what’s in it for me’. Ask someone who is currently negatively gearing a property, or plans to in the future, if they think it’s a fair policy. Now ask someone who can’t afford to buy their own home. And this is just one obvious example. In summary, fair is great in theory, not so useful in practice.
The second reason is an even more compelling argument for Labor to give up using the word fair. As reported by Peter Lewis, no matter what Turnbull says in theory about his budget, or even what people think of the individual measures, there is an ongoing belief held by Australian voters that the Liberals represent the interests of the well off and businesses, and that Labor represents those less well off, including social, health, education and environmental policies.
Now, I’m in no way saying this is a bad thing for Labor, and obviously it’s why they do reinforce this frame constantly by reminding people that they’re for ‘fairness’ – such as not giving away $65 billion in a un-needed gift to big business when there are plenty of deserving people and projects in the community who need this government funding more. BUT, and that ‘but’ is in capitals for a reason: if Labor are going to appeal to a wider range of voters than those who already vote Labor, they need to, well, obviously, broaden their appeal.
If I were to simplistically generalise, I could venn-diagram categorise two groups of Labor voters: those whose self-interest align with Labor policies (because they are less well off, unemployed, young and needing education, sick etc) and/or are bleeding-hearts who were brought up to get a warm and fuzzy feeling from watching their sister eat half their cake and genuinely think it is government’s role to help those in need, and therefore Labor policies are the right thing to do, if you’re a good person who wants to see the world as a better place.
If Labor could just rely on these two groups to win elections, Labor would never have lost an election. In fact, if Labor are to broaden their appeal, it doesn’t do Labor any favours to frame their policies, particularly economic policies as ‘taking from the rich to give to the poor’. It doesn’t do any favours for Labor to frame themselves as ‘against the interests of business, and for the interests of the poor’ as there are lots of poor people who can’t see how being against business is good for their job prospects.
The truth is, Labor’s economic policies are good for the economy. As Wayne Swan points out, Hawke and Keating’s Laborism has been responsible for ‘26 years of uninterrupted economic growth’. The whole idea of Labor’s inclusive growth economic ideology (if you don’t know what I mean by this, read about it here), is that when more people are better off, we’re all better off. That is, when you share your cake with your sister, it’s not just because you’re a nice person, it’s because next time there is cake being shared around, you’re personally more likely to get a bigger slice from being smart about it last time. By sharing cake, there is more cake. You really can have your cake and eat it too. Ok. I’ll stop.
The point is, we all know that neoliberalism is dead, that trickle-down doesn’t work, that a tax cut doesn’t create jobs and that cutting wages is economic suicide. But, for some reason, the Liberals get away with doing all these things, whilst still holding onto the mantle of being ‘better economic managers than Labor’ – a paradox it is time Labor forcefully challenged. A big step in this direction will be resisting the argument that supporting ‘fairness’ is just about being a good person, and instead arguing that you should be a good person AND do the right thing for yourself at the same time. If Labor gets this message through, they can’t lose.
Since I’m currently researching trade union narratives, you can imagine my ears pricked up when I heard the news today that Fairfax journalists were again going on strike. This time the strike is for a week, in protest against more staff cuts, and will likely mean it is pens down for reporting the 2017 budget. So, no small fry industrial action.
Apart from being sympathetic to any group of people who are having such a shit time at work that they have to stop work in order to show their bosses how unhappy they are, I was interested to know how journalists framed this strike, in comparison to how they frame strikes in industries other than their own.
In fact, I happen to know quite a bit about how industrial action is reported in the news, since it’s the topic of my research. As I read stories reporting the Fairfax strike, I instantly noticed a character missing from the journalist reports of their professional colleagues picketing the news desks.
Before I get to this mysterious exclusion, let me take a step back in my story. For those who haven’t been following my research, I’m interested in the use of metaphorical characters in narratives, used to frame the victims, villains and heroes into a cohesive plot. I contend that these characters are used in political narratives, in communication by political groups, and by the media, to report political news.
Although my research is in its early stages, it’s already clear that when reporting industrial strike action, the characterisation by journalists is fairly consistent. This Fairfax SMH article reporting strikes by airport workers is a representative case.
The characters in the airport strike story include:
The victims: ‘International travellers are being warned of major delays next week when hundreds of immigration and border protection workers walk off the job’.
The villains: ‘The industrial strife will be the latest escalation of a bitter workplace feud between Australia’s public sector union and the federal government’. A word of note here: the conflict frame is always used to report industrial action: conflict between the employer and the union. In this case, the federal government is the employer, and they are ‘feuding’ over an enterprise agreement. In fact, the best a union seems to be able to hope for in the conflict frame is that they are seen as just as villainous as the employer, as often (and usually in News Ltd newspapers, if you can believe it!), it’s the union that is the villain, getting in the way of the heroic employer who just wants to get on with their coveted role of creating piles of money.
The heroes: [This space is intentionally blank]. In a nutshell, there are no heroes in this frame. No one wins from this action, apparently. Industrial action is just bad, wrong and shouldn’t happen, because the public will be inconvenienced by strikes, whether the strikes be in a hospital, on public transport, at a construction site, or, at a newspa… Oops.
The spokespeople represented in this story include the union boss, CPSU national secretary Nadine Flood. She is quoted as trying to appease the victims, the public, by ensuring that national security would not be risked as there were exemptions in some areas of the strike.
On the government’s side, the spokesperson is Employment Minister Michaelia Cash, who is quoted as saying: ‘it was unfortunate that the CPSU has resorted to disruptive strike action “yet again”. “This will cause harm to the public and involve a needless loss of pay for employees,”.
This type of frame, by the way, from Liberals, is typical. Notice how the ‘disruptive strike’ is the union’s fault, and that not only are the public going to suffer, but also the poor employees who lose pay by going on strike.
Think about that for a moment. By turning the workers into victims as well, Cash is making workers the victim of union industrial action. It’s actually incredibly clever framing, which the Liberal Party, as far as I can tell from my research, has been using since before there was a Liberal Party. And guess what? The journalists, even those who are fairly balanced in the way they report, in that they don’t commentate, or editorialise, or obviously make any judgment, even the good ones fall for the old conflict frame of union versus employer, with the victims being those inconvenienced by the strike.
There is a pretty key player missing from the strike story here. Have you picked it yet? Yes – it’s the worker. The voiceless, powerless worker. The article mentions that the strikes have occurred, facilitated by the union, because the airport workers have been waiting three years for an enterprise agreement to be negotiated. Did the journalist ask any of the workers what ramifications it has had on their lives that they haven’t had an enterprise agreement for three years? Nope. No worker was quoted. I’ve written before about the need for union bosses to step out from in front of the camera, and to let workers speak for themselves. Please don’t think this is any criticism of the union in wanting to do their job in speaking for workers; it’s more of an acknowledgement of how successfully the media has managed to frame unions as villainous for so long that now, they’re framed as part of the problem instead of representing the decisions of workers. So, instead of speaking for workers, the union should help workers speak for themselves. This way, when you hear about an industrial strike on the television, you would get a sound bite from the worker who is, without fail, the victim of the situation. Because guess what – they wouldn’t strike unless something really bad was happening to them at work. Guaranteed. Don’t you want to know their side of the story?
So, back to the Fairfax strike. I promised to explain which character was missing from the reports of the Fairfax strike. Have you guessed it yet? Yep. This time the union is missing. Although not completely invisible (for instance, this article quotes The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance chief executive), the key difference with the union role in this strike story is that it is not responsible for the strike action. The journalists are. (Ironically, the union will be the ones possibly fined by the Fair Work Ombudsman, but that’s another whole story).
So, how are the journalists framed in the story? Are they villains for disrupting newspaper consumers? Nope. Are they framed as villains for disrupting the profit-making venture they work for and for hurting the company’s capacity to keep other staff employed, thereby threatening more job losses? Nope. They are framed as the victims. The victims of the job cuts. The victims of terrible business decisions. The victims of a workplace dispute which has led them, unhappily, to have to strike to have their (incidentally, already very powerful) voices heard. And better than that – they are also framed as the heroes, for standing up for their rights, for not letting the company get away with doing something wrong, for, yes, you guessed it, showing the brave, respected characteristic of solidarity.
For the record, I do feel sorry for the Fairfax workers. No worker should have to go through what they’re faced with. I just hope that this experience might make them look a little differently at industrial disputes they report in the future, and wonder if it might be worth including the perspective of the worker, who, without fail, is the victim in an industrial dispute. Then, we might hear a different strike story. And, we might, as a community, have a different view of unions.
It’s been a while since I’ve written an Open Letter. Please don’t think this is due to any apathy on my part; it’s more to do with being too busy to write to you every time your behaviour warranted correspondence. In a way, it’s a sly strategy on your part; move onto the next scandal, the next mistake, the next example of gross incompetence, before we all have a chance to respond fully to the last. But today Malcolm, today I finally felt compelled to pause and type. It’s not that I think you’ve hit rock bottom – I’m too much of a realist to expect you won’t get any worse. No, it’s more that this blog has become a historical account of the political landscape, and I feel your most recent actions need to be properly condemned on the public record in a way that the mainstream media, for the most part, won’t dare to do.
Let’s get something straight right up front. You are the Prime Minister. I’m only reminding you of this because there’s no evidence of you being aware of what this means. Never before has Australia had a Prime Minister who is so scared of his own cabinet as Prime Minister Turnbull. Never before has a Prime Minister been so cowed by his backbench, so neglectful in his command of leadership to put his foot down and say ‘I’m in charge here’. Never before have we seen the games of internal division, backstabbing, sniping, placating and hiding away so destructive to the national interest.
What’s that? I hear you mumble something about Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. Not that you will ever acknowledge the fact, but really, the way Prime Minister Gillard managed to run a productive, reforming, legislatively impressive government with a one-seat majority in a minority government and an undermining rat-Rudd to contend with has just makes you look worse in comparison, not better. So I would leave her out of this if I were you.
People do say that it is the largest struggles in life which are the making of a person; that someone’s true character comes to the fore when they’re challenged. Gillard’s character stepped forward like a Daenerys Stormborn-warrior; brave, unflappable and more determined than ever to win an argument. You, on the other hand, or should I say, other planet, have shown that when nudged, you go to water.
I must say, it’s not that surprising that you’re so hopelessly equipped to stand up to your colleagues, to do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing, to put the public interest ahead of your personal strategizing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the very rich is that they are deeply disappointed when life is hard. Innate wealth and privilege is meant to insulate people like you from challenges. But when those challenges just keep getting harder and less easy to buy your way out of, well, it’s no wonder you just want to shirk away into the mansion and cry into your cash. That’s the only explanation I can reasonably come up with to explain how badly you are managing the job of Prime Minister, Malcolm. It’s kind of me to give you such an easy excuse, isn’t it?
To be fair to you, of course I will never agree with your ideological positions; your corporate tax cuts, your bashing of unions and in turn the working people they represent, the cuts to pensions and attacks on health, welfare and education. We have different political values. Everything you stand for, I stand against. So, I can’t say I’m disappointed that you’ve done all this stuff I disagree with, because I expected you, given the chance, to do all those things. But what it is fair enough for me, and everyone else in Australia who either voted for you or didn’t, to feel deeply disappointed in is your total lack of morals. Your total lack of character. And your cowardice, your selfishness, and your cruelty this lack of moral character promotes.
Let’s look at your morals. Not once in your time as Prime Minister, not once, have I found myself saying ‘well I disagree with him on most things, but I respect the decision he’s made this time’. Not on climate change policy – how do you sleep at night? Not on hate speech and embracing anti-immigration dog-whistling – you’re an absolute disgrace in everything you do to court Hanson voters.
This week you’ve made the call, through saying nothing at all, by hiding away, by pretending you don’t need to comment, to support your Immigration Minister Dutton’s blatant lies, designed to demonise asylum seekers by accusing them of paedophilia. We all know it’s messy for you to call Dutton out, to say he’s lied, to take responsibility for sacking him as Immigration Minister; he’s just as dangerous to you as Abbott. But Malcolm, just because something is messy and hard and takes a bit of bravery, doesn’t mean you need to rule it out. Were you never told as a child that nothing worthwhile was ever easy?
And what about your friend, your supporter, Kelly O’Dwyer? As you no doubt have guessed, I’m no more a fan of O’Dwyer as I am of you. But for the sake of humanity, I am offended on her behalf at the thought of a mother at home with a week-old baby finding that a collective of millionaires are colluding with two people I’m fairly safe to assume you don’t think much of, Abbott and Credlin, to steal her job. I get that you must be seething about this turn of events and that O’Dwyer probably knows she has your support in private. But you’re the Prime Minister, Malcolm. The public need your support too. The public need to see you standing up for yourself, standing up against bullies, standing up against liars and haters and connivers, who undermine public confidence in the government, who undermine your ability to run the country. Photo ops wearing camouflage just show how desperate you are. What’s next, an ever-growing array of Australian flags following you around? Your desperation stinks Malcolm. It is as humiliating to us, as it is to you.
So, enough is enough Malcolm. Since you won’t say anything, I will. You’re not cut out for the job. You’re not built of strong enough stuff. There is zero evidence you have any interest in the national interest. All we see is you taking the path of least resistance to give yourself a cosy job. You’ve let me down. You’ve let yourself down. You’ve let the country down. Resign before any more damage is done.
Nick Xenophon has capitulated to Turnbull’s big business pressure group by supporting a 5% cut to corporate taxes. That’s right; the man who markets himself as a maverick, as a pox-on-the-major-parties-houses, as literally ‘a common sense alternative’ to establishment politics, as the champion of the little guy and as someone who holds the bastards to account, has shown himself to be chief bastard.
Like a plot from a how-not-to-negotiate training video, Xenophon caved on a policy that he had forever promised to stand firm on, by letting the government gift a tax cut to businesses earning up to $50 million dollars a year, in return for a useless-piece-of-paper-report and possibly a one-off discount on energy bills for welfare recipients, no bigger than the discount you already get for paying a bill on time. The outcome of this king-maker’s negotiation is akin to swapping a Ferrari for a match box car.
So why did he do it, you ask? Why, when the Australian electorate are howling at the Liberal government’s attack on wages, when Turnbull is as popular as a wet fart in a lift, when both Xenophon and Hanson are flip-flopping around trying to find a position on penalty rates which wallpapers over their Liberal roots, when the last thing the economy needs, and the government budget needs, is to have billions of dollars flooding out to off shore tax havens when it would be much better for the economy if it were going into a nation-wide wage rise, when Xenophon’s Teflon coating has protected his ex-CEO-of-the-Retail-Traders-Association, Senator Stirling Griff, from any scrutiny of his obvious conflict of interest in voting on retail wages, why would Xenophon be so electorally inept to back the big end of town over those people who put him into a position of power in the first place? Why would he decide to wipe billions off the budget from today onwards forever, a slash and burn which will see public services kicked to the curb and every Australian’s quality of life damaged because of it, when he must know this decision will come back and bite him in the bum electorally in the short term and the long term?
Simply, Xenophon, former member of the Adelaide University Liberal Club, is doing it because he wants to. He is doing it because he can. It is a myth that he is returning to type. There is no return. This is who Nick Xenophon is and always was. A company tax cut is his ideological preference and if you voted for him expecting otherwise, well, more fool you.
I have been watching Xenophon get a free ride in the media for so long that he’s become a caricature of the loss of any real journalistic talent. He is never scrutinised, beyond what deal he might do at the last minute before a policy vote takes place. During the election campaign, no media outlet provided any substantial analysis of what Xenophon stands for, preferring instead to follow his stunt-led campaign to its shallow inevitable sound bite, criticising the Labor Party for being too Labor, the Liberal Party for being too Liberal and claiming to be neither of those things, and standing for nothing, yet no one cared because, look over there a shiny object. I’ve had people literally say to me: ‘I’m voting for Nick Xenophon because he’s not Labor or Liberal’. It’s like saying ‘I eat vanilla ice cream because I don’t like chocolate or strawberry’ and when you ask if they like vanilla flavour, they look blankly and say ‘I’ve never really held it long enough in my mouth to get an idea of how it tastes’.
In Nick Xenophon’s claim to populism, in his un-scrutinised media profile, in his free ride to do whatever he likes because he has the power to do that, we all lose. Xenophon is everything that is wrong with politics and political reporting in Australia. It’s ironic, that the man who rose to political power promising to reform gambling, who hasn’t achieved a single reform to gambling, who is more interested in doing terrible deals than talking about gambling reform, is the ultimate gamble for the electorate. I like to call Nick Xenophon the vote gamble for terrible gamblers. He’s like a box of revolting chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get, but whatever you get, it is going to taste terrible.
In her first television interview as head representative of people who work, McManus was involved in what media-insiders call a ‘gotcha moment’. Courtesy of the get-me-a-gotcha-moment-in-place-of-any-useful-political-analysis-queen, Leigh Sales. In their version of events, McManus was in hot water for backing the safety of workers at any cost, even if that cost is breaking laws designed to help employers shirk any responsibility for protecting people who work for them.
Right wingers squealed in delight when Sales drew supposably controversial comments out of McManus so early in the piece. The attacks came thick and fast from all the obvious places, including many journalists, who tut-tutted about law-breaking as if the law-breaking in question was home invasion or carjacking. Even those from Fairfax, who were more than happy to illegally strike in protest at their own colleagues being sacked, apparently can’t see the irony of criticising workers who do the same thing when a colleague is killed. Christopher Pyne, jumping on McManus like a seagull on a chip, called on her to resign. Turnbull, grasping for something to divert from his own failures, said he couldn’t work with her.
A year ago, this whole episode would have been yet another predictable, not worth mentioning, union bashing media-beat-up. But things have changed in the past few months. People have woken up to wealth inequality. Australia saw this wake up contribute to Brexit and the election of Trump. Closer to home, we’ve had One Nation pop up in Turnbull’s double dissolution, only to be over-egged and come crashing back down in the WA election, where, low and behold, Labor achieved an 8% swing in their primary vote without any help from minors.
Throughout this time, Turnbull’s government continues to be a mixture of insipid do-nothing indecision, scandal and destruction, infighting and chaos, ideological bastardy and economic incompetence while they sidestep from one policy disaster to the next. Amongst the attacks to Medicare, the undermining of welfare through the Centrelink debacle, the failure on energy policy, the distractions from fringe fundamentalists such as anti-marriage-equality and repealing hate-speech laws, there is one policy which stands shiny and red as the most detestable, a pimple on a bum of failure: an attack to wages through a cut to penalty rates. This decision was the nail in Turnbull’s coffin. Commentators and Federal Liberals can claim all they like that the electoral result in WA was a result of local issues. But there is absolutely no doubting that a cut to wages saw voters melting off Liberals like sweat from Turnbull’s, and Hanson’s brow.
Let’s get something clear. Wages are the central concern of the electorate. Yes, most of us have other concerns, including climate change, education, healthcare, infrastructure, housing affordability, energy policy, immigration, just to name a few. But first on Maslow’s Hierarchy of political needs for left-wing and right-wing voters alike is an economic indicator which is being felt personally in homes from Broome to Launceston, from Townsville to Bankstown: record low wage growth. To put it bluntly, workers aren’t paid enough for the productive labour they contribute to the economy. There is plenty of money being made. It’s just not reaching those who create it.
The electorate knows this. They might not be able to pinpoint exactly what the problem is, but they feel the anxiety of having to do more with less. They are working harder. They are paying more for housing, groceries, petrol, energy bills, healthcare and education. But they are not getting the hours they need to cover these costs, nor the pay-rises they deserve, to show how their contribution to profit is valued. Their jobs are too often casual and insecure, their wages stagnant and their lives feel stationary.
This tension and anxiety means the relationship between worker and employer, between labour and capital, is fraught. In turn, the relationship between those who represent workers – unions – in this case – Sally McManus, and those who represent capital – Turnbull, Pyne, big business, business lobbyists, Liberal donors, is more-than-usually-difficult.
When Turnbull said he can’t work with McManus, he was admitting he can’t work with workers. This isn’t a new state of affairs. Turnbull has never done anything positive for workers. Instead, he defends the employers who, as well as preferring to reward shareholders instead of workers, constantly fight for lower wages and less protections for workers. The penalty rate cut was just the latest in a long line of anti-worker policies rolled out by the Liberal government, including cuts to social and environmental policies which hurt all of us, worker or not.
When Sally McManus explained to Sales that her priority is to defend workers rather than defending laws designed to hurt workers, she wasn’t being caught in a trap. She was doing her job. Whether the media and right wing elite recognise it or not, we, workers, applaud Sally McManus for her principles. In that 730 interview, we saw a union leader standing up for us when our employers refuse to do the same. We saw a union leader standing up for us where the Liberal government refuse to do the same.
The political environment has changed in the last 12 months. Unions have been framed as the enemy for so long that the Turnbull government think they’re on a winner when they find a stick to beat unions with. What they’ve neglected to realise is that when they bash unions, they bash workers. Workers are sick of being the victim of Liberal governments. Workers are sick of being the victim of big business lobbying, which results in them taking home a shrinking share of the profits from their work. When Liberal governments bash unions, workers don’t see a hero fighting against a villain. They see a villain threatening their hero. With wage growth at record lows, workers need a hero. They have one in Sally McManus. Anyone stupid enough to fight the hero of workers, better be ready for an army poised to join their hero into battle.
If women really want to fight for a better world for women, first they need to stop being at war with each other. This war consists of attacking other women’s choices when defending your own. This behaviour is not only anti-feminism, though it is that. It is also taking us backwards, into unproductive trenches where we waste precious time and energy defending ourselves rather than working together to move forward.
A perfect example of such attack is this piece in the Fairfax papers by a stay at home mother, Catherine Williams. Williams is angry that a recent OECD report highlighting the lost productivity from parents staying at home makes it sound like, by staying home, she is a drain on society. Her argument, that she is involved in productive work through caring for children, is actually a good one. I agree that all the work parents do to care for children is valuable to society, as is any unpaid work, such as caring for older relatives, which goes largely unnoticed and unrewarded.
However, Williams apparently isn’t capable of explaining why she made the decision to stay home and care for her child, without attacking women who chose paid childcare instead.
Williams claims that her child cared for at home will be more prepared for school than a child at childcare, presumably because she is determined to teach her child to read and assumes children at childcare don’t learn anything. Offensive and wrong. She also claims children at childcare go to the doctor more often and are therefore a larger drain on the healthcare system than the sniffle-free child she cares for at home, a claim which ignores the fact that her child will get all the bugs my child gets from childcare, but just when the child is older and starts kindergarten and school. And, the third giant crack at childcare choosing-parents, is the question Williams asks about the impact of spending ‘early years with loving relatives able to give them one-on-one attention every day rather than carers in a childcare centre’. In other words, children who stay at home will be better for society than those snotty little freaks in childcare.
Patronisingly, Williams accompanied this last crack with a bracketed apology to those poor unfortunate families who have to use childcare through choice or necessity. You know, something like: ‘I know it’s not nice to be told you’re screwing up your child by using childcare, but it’s really important to my argument that I call you a bad parent so I’m going to do it anyway’.
You might be thinking Williams is an unfortunate example of a woman un-supporting of other women’s choices, but is this behaviour really that widespread? As a relatively new mother to an almost-two-year-old, I’m sorry to have to report that yes, this behaviour is widespread and it makes parenting choices really difficult. It seems that many women like Williams find it is impossible to defend their parenting choices without entering the war of attacking the opposite choice. Same thing happens with how baby sleeps are managed, whether you breastfeed or not, what school or kindergarten you choose, and it no doubt continues on well into parenthood-old-age. What do you think is implied in the words I’ve heard many times: ‘I gave up work to put my children first’? That women who don’t give up work aren’t making their children their number one priority? Offensive!
I’m also sorry to report, by vast majority, this is the behaviour of women judging other women. It gets to the point where it often feels that there are mothers out there engaged in a constant competition to prove they love their child more than everyone else, and if you would just make the same decisions as them, your child would be a more-loved, better version of themselves. So offensive!
I could quite easily write a whole article about how I am thrilled with my decision to put my child in childcare, and how well she is doing, without once comparing her to children who stay at home with a parent. I could defend my choices by describing how much I love my child, but of course I love her and of course there’s no need to have to describe this. But that’s not the point. The point is, feminism should not just be about defending an individual woman’s right to choose how they parent. Feminism should be about all of us women being a sisterhood and supporting each other in our choices, no matter what choice we made our self. And if you can’t defend your choice without attacking someone else’s, then you’re not helping the movement. It is as simple as that.