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.
It is universally accepted that workers are much less powerful than employers. The struggle for power between capitalists and workers is the basis of the left versus right political divide. Labor represents the interests of workers, and Liberals the interest of business owners. Every time workers try to take back a little power from the employers, such as by forming unions, or electing the Labor Party to government, the employers fight back, using the most powerful weapon at their disposal to put workers back in their place: money.
The ongoing war between labour and capital is played out in parliament, where Liberal governments, and their big-business lobbyists (employer unions by another name), make incremental gains for employers, such as campaigning for tax decreases, cutting government spending, smashing consumer and worker protections and this week, managing to decrease wages by cutting penalty rates.
When Labor are in power, workers have their wages protected through the undoing of Liberal industrial relations changes, such as overturning WorkChoices, and legislating for worker protections such as the minimum wage. Labor, and their allies in the union movement, turn the individually powerless workers into a much more powerful collective, and it has always been thus.
But something struck me this morning as I read ex-business-lobbyist and now government-employed-business lobbyist Kate Carnell’s reasoning for why small businesses aren’t publicly supporting cuts to penalty rates. Of course the majority of small businesses want penalty rates cut: they’ve been campaigning for this outcome for as long as I can remember. And in fact, silence from small business owners is not, as Carnell says, because ‘the last time small businesses tried to stand up and have their voices heard on penalty rates, they got absolutely poleaxed by the unions who stopped at nothing to attack and intimidate hard working mum-and-dad small business owners’. No. This has nothing to do with a union campaign, nor Carnell’s attempt to frame unions as bikies, a worn out propaganda tactic which shows not only Carnell’s lack of imagination, but also a lack of understanding of the fact that small business owners, on the most part, have nothing to do with unions as their workers, by and large, are not union members. But she knew that, didn’t she. No. What Carnell is alluding to is not small business ‘mums and dads’ scared of a union backlash against their penalty rate assault. Small business owners only have one fear motivating them to keep their mouths shut about how much they desperately want to cut their workers’ pay: fear of losing customers.
This thought reminded me why I stopped going to my local pub, when I saw a huge gold-framed notice from the owner on the wall (ironic much?) whinging about having to pay, along with taxes, and just about anything else, penalty rates. I was then reminded of the divestment movement, which encourages people to put their climate-change-concern where their mouths are, by taking their superannuation out of fossil fuel polluters. Then there’s the boycott of advertisers on the Breitbart white supremacist website. And we all remember when Alan Jones finally decided it was a good idea to apologise to Julie Gillard for saying her father died of shame, coincidentally after advertisers on his show started pulling out because of a public backlash.
So, even though it can seem for workers like they have little power, particularly when big business is in charge of the Liberal government, when you change the frame from worker to consumer, workers do have power. Just as employers often forget that the workers they are mistreating and underpaying are the very same people who are the consumers they rely on for business revenue, workers often forget their power is not just in their collective activities as workers, but as a collective of consumers. Particularly with the advent of social media, where stories of employers abusing their power over workers can be shared widely; it’s no wonder business owners have cause to fear the consequences of bad behaviour.
We all know money talks when it comes to business owners. Each of our money talks when it disappears from their cash registers. Consumer power gives all of us, worker or not, a say in how businesses treat their employees. We have no excuse not to use this power, when possible, to defend workers’ rights, to stick up for our community and to force business owners to do the right thing if they’re not willing to do it for any other reason. Let’s set a standard of how business should behave in our community by voting with our wallets.
So much of political debate comes down to the question of government intervention. Should the government manage the economy in a hands-off, neoliberal manner, following the Turnbull-free-market rulebook that says that the god-like economy will punish us for government intervention by slowing down and shedding livelihoods? Or, as per Anat Shenker Osorio’s suggestion, should the economy be viewed as a vehicle that we all use to get us where we want to go, but without a driver, that vehicle will inevitably crash?
Of course, the left versus right, hands-on versus hands-off ideologies are complicated by the obvious contradictions in some Liberal’s positions: negative gearing tax concessions, mining industry fuel tax credits and now the threat to use a clean energy fund to build coal-fired power stations, just to name a few winners-picked for the obvious benefit of the already-rich. But as a general rule, Liberals sit on the ‘let the economy rip’ side of the fence, advocating for the outdated economic theory which says a free market, with bare-minimum tax, solves all problems. Labor sits on the opposite side, where government intervention is seen not as a villain, but as a government’s central role in making sure the economy provides the best outcomes for as many people as possible.
These opposing views are obvious to the political engaged (like me!), but might not be so obvious to the general populace. That is why, when Labor wants to make an economic case for their policies which are viewed as ‘interventions’ in the economy (such as climate policy, job creation schemes, infrastructure stimulus, supporting industries such as the now-defunct car industry), Labor needs to stop using the word ‘intervention’. Why? Because the synonyms for ‘intervention’ include interference and intrusion, implying that when a government intervenes in the economy, they are doing the wrong thing. In the same way as framing expert George Lakoff suggests using the word ‘protections’ in the place of ‘regulations’, when you change the word, you change the frame. So instead of saying ‘government intervention’, Labor should be saying ‘government taking responsibility’, or even more simply: ‘government doing their job’.
Note that Turnbull recently said ‘it is not my job…’ when justifying why he wouldn’t comment on Trump’s Muslim ban. Turnbull also appears to think it is not his job to do anything about climate change. In fact, every day the Liberals show us they don’t think it’s their job to provide the public with quality healthcare and education, nor a social welfare system which protects people from falling into poverty. When opposing the mining tax, the Liberals said it was not their job to make sure future generations secured benefits from the mining boom. When orchestrating the Carbon Price scare campaign, they said it was not their job to reduce pollution and to care for the environment. When the GFC happened, the Liberals opposed Labor’s recession-dodging stimulus package. The entire legacy of the Liberal governments under Abbott and Turnbull, who have used the invention of a fake-budget-emergency to cut, slash and burn public services, in a nutshell, is the Liberals announcing ‘the business of government is not our job!’
In line with this Liberal ideological reliance on the so-called-unencumbered-free-market, their actions, when given the keys to control Australia’s economy, are akin to kicking the driver out of the moving vehicle and letting the car career towards a cliff. The public, who are the cliff-fearing passengers, have been told by vested interests for so long that a driverless economic vehicle goes much faster than one driven by a government, and that the driver just puts the breaks on this speed to the detriment of the passengers eager to get where they’re going, that the idea that the economy works better when the government isn’t in the driving seat, has become entrenched.
If the public saw the Liberal lean-government reality for what it is – a hands-off approach which could get us all killed, it becomes a scary proposition. Ironically, the Liberals have benefited from what has become an electoral conventional-wisdom that they are better economic managers than Labor, when in fact this ‘management’ they speak of is reckless endangerment by letting an out-of-control car damage the community. If Labor asked voters whether they were willing to be a passenger in an economy which has no way of navigating around corners, no way of planning its journey, no anticipation of bumps or objects on the road ahead, which would drive over a cliff if that cliff appeared in its path, they wouldn’t get into the car. Sure, they would want a driver who knew what they were doing. But the first step of competent driving is having a driver in the car. The Liberals say it’s ‘not their job’ to drive the car. So they’re the last person who should be responsible for getting the passengers safely to their destination.
Corporate tax cuts do no create jobs. It is important to understand this very simple, very obvious fact no matter what #alternativefacts you see.
The Liberal government, and their owners in the CEO-union, the Business Council of Australia, are revving up a PR campaign to spread their lies, the likes of which we haven’t seen since billionaire miners stood on the back of utes wearing pearls, pretending like they’d met their workers before. And it’s up to us: you and me and everyone you talk to about this very fact, to refute this claim until we’re tired of refuting it, but we’ll keep going because it’s seriously important to all of us.
Let’s make something clear. The Liberals and the Business Council know they are lying when they say tax cuts create jobs. That’s a given. But they have to come up with some excuse for this policy other than campaigning on a platform of more-yachts-for-CEOs. So they lie.
When you think about it for more than a millisecond, it’s not hard to see why a tax cut puts more money in the pocket of business owners and executives, but certainly does not create more jobs. Nor do tax cuts increase wages. They could increase wages if employers chose to divert the money left over from paying less tax into higher wages. But that’s like saying a dog could break their bone in half and give the other half to the cat. Possibly, but never happens.
In order to give you a real-life example of why tax cuts neither create jobs, nor encourage bosses to give their workers a pay rise, I will use the ready-made example so helpfully provided by the Business Council of Australia’s clearly out-of-their-depth PR people:
This young bartender, who incidentally is apparently working at The General Havelock in Adelaide, supposedly looks forlorn at the thought that there will be ‘fewer job opportunities around here because of high company tax’. I’ll give you a moment to compose yourself from laughing before reading on. In fact, Australia’s company tax rate is ‘not markedly out of line with the G7 countries’, but you already know the Liberals and the Business Council lie, so we’ll move on.
Let’s assume the bartender is worried there will be fewer jobs in the bar because the owners of the bar have to pay too much tax. We’ll break this idea down. Hypothetically, let’s imagine the General Havelock owners get a 2.5% tax cut, as promised by the Liberals in their Enterprise Tax Plan. That means, at the end of each month, when their accountants add up how much revenue has come through the till from selling alcohol and food, and emptying tens of thousands of dollars out of their pokie machines, and then take out the costs, which include wages, they then have a look at their profit and take out 27.5% to give to the ATO, rather than the 30% they used to pay. The accountant says to the owner, ‘good news, you’ve got more to take home this month because less has gone to the tax man’.
Now, I’m sure you can see this scene in your minds eye. You can see the accountant handing the owner the piece of paper to show the extra cash that is coming into the bank. How realistic is it to think this scene will choose-it’s-own-adventure down the path of the owner pocketing the extra cash and spending it on his own private consumption, such as a new luxury vehicle, another set of golf clubs, maybe put it towards a holiday home or an investment property. Or, will he turn to the accountant and say, ‘gee, I’m so pleased with this tax cut, I can now finally afford to hire two extra staff and grow my business’. Let that one settle for a second.
Even in this strange parallel universe where the General Havelock owner puts his 2.5% tax cut into the pay checks for new staff members, in this la la land that doesn’t exist, think about it, why does he need those two extra staff members? Why, if his bar is already running smoothly, making him enough profit that he noticed a 2.5% tax cut, and there are enough people working behind the bar like this glum looking girl, pouring beers, and there are enough cooks in the kitchen, and security guards on the door, and staff to make sure the people in the pokie lounge never get tempted to go home, why if all that’s working fine, would a tax cut go into hiring more staff? And if there was a need for more staff, because there were more customers in the bar than the bar staff could possibly serve, why hasn’t the all-knowing business owner already hired more staff to meet this demand?
Still not convinced? When was the last time you saw an ad for a bartender, maybe on Seek.com.au or on a little sign behind the bar, which said ‘bar tender job available, spending the tax-cut, enquire within’? You didn’t see this sign, because it never happened. What you do see, in reality, is the obvious reason for a job ad to exist: ‘bar tender job available, enquire within’ and when you enquire within, the job is available because a) there are too many customers (demand) and not enough people to serve them in order to make profit for the business, or b) the bar tender who used to do the job no longer does.
This is the reality for a reason. Because CORPORATE TAX CUTS DO NOT CREATE JOBS. Say it with me. Thinking otherwise is either a massive misunderstanding about the fundamental relationship between worker, boss, profit and tax, OR is a bald-face lie. So which do you think the Liberals and the Business Council will more likely own up to?
Bill Shorten’s speech at the National Press Club today laid a solid roadmap for a future Labor government. Although the speech covered many policy topics, its main focus was on a narrative which can be short-hand referred to as the ‘Labor’s with you’ story. In many ways it was a clever speech. This is why:
He acknowledged the ‘out-of-touch’ elephant in the room
Shorten acknowledged that the political class, which he quite rightly told the press-club audience included them, is perceived as out-of-touch with voters. It is at this point in a speech when a politician will usually lecture voters about the silliness of this misconception. However, Shorten didn’t do this. Instead, he said that voter distrust, anger and declining loyalty is understandable in a political system which has too many scandals (ping Susan Ley) and when campaign donation laws have meant it has taken 7 months for the public to find out how much Turnbull donated to his own campaign (apparently us punters get this figure tomorrow. My money is on $2 million. Pocket change).
To try to rebuild some trust, Shorten promised to establish another parliamentary inquiry into a national integrity commission and to support Turnbull’s transparency reforms.
Sticking with the theme of ‘Labor’s with you’, Shorten also interestingly promised to keep up his hectic schedule of town-hall meetings as he did throughout 2016, but in 2017, rather than answering questions from the floor, he will be asking the audience for their policy ideas about how to fix things. This might seem like text-book political engagement stuff, but the point is, you can’t fault Shorten’s desire to turn political talk into walk.
Jobs and skills create growth
There are two reasons Shorten’s ‘jobs and skills’ focus is a clever move. The first is that, in a political environment where every person and their dog is claiming Labor doesn’t have a purpose, it doesn’t hurt to remind people what the Labor Party is: the political arm of the Labour Movement. Yes, Labor also has come a long way in recent years in understanding the legitimate political needs and wants of what I call the ‘identity politics’ movement. But it’s impossible to ignore the very real fact that traditional Labor voters, those people who once were rusted to Labor, but now swing dangerously close to either the Liberals (Howard’s battlers) or even One Nation, are the key to Labor’s electoral fortune. To put it bluntly, if you’re a progressive who wants to see your identity politics outcome come about, you have to get on board with Labor’s appeal to traditional working class, suburban voters. And this appeal must be centred on jobs.
The helpful thing about a jobs message is it is not just about jobs. As everyone with a job knows, you can’t segment your jobs away from the rest of your daily existence. And once again, this is where Shorten has been clever. Jobs is also about being qualified for the jobs that are available. This is where Labor’s emphasis on apprenticeships and funding to vocational training became relevant. It also links to his promise to reform the 457 visa system so these visas aren’t used to bring in cheap labour, which reduces job opportunities, undermines wages and conditions and gives no incentive for companies to train Australian workers to do the same jobs. It further links to childcare, all levels of schooling education and of course, Medicare. Because if you’re not healthy enough to work, you don’t have a job. All tied up in a neat narrative bow.
He argued against Liberal ideology without attacking them
It is not true that Shorten didn’t mention the Liberals, he did. But, as if following the rules of George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant framing textbook, Shorten didn’t fall into the usual trap of arguing against Turnbull’s Liberal policies. Instead, he took the smarter path of implying the inappropriateness of Liberal policies by laying out why his alternative plan is not just one of opposition, but of a completely different view of the economy and how jobs are created.
As an example, rather than spending ten minutes explaining why Turnbull’s pet-policy corporate tax cut doesn’t ‘trickle-down’ and is just a ‘gift to overseas investors’, Shorten took the high ground by explaining that the problem with the economy is that wage growth is at historic lows. There’s a reason such an idea resonates with voters. It’s because it is true. It’s now more difficult for Turnbull to now come out tomorrow and say ‘Shorten is wrong: wage growth is not a problem, the amount of tax corporations pay is a problem’. Turnbull can and probably will of course try, but his argument has already been refuted by Shorten who argued, correctly, that it is money in workers’ pockets which creates growth and in turn jobs, and that the government should do whatever possible to increase wages in order to keep the economy driving forward for everyone, not just the executives who benefit from a corporate tax-cut.
And the media struggled to respond
The press-club members struggled to respond to Shorten’s speech for one simple reason. Relating to the point above, Shorten didn’t offer the usual adversarial, oppositional rhetoric that they’re used to copy and pasting into a ‘he said, she said’ electoral two-horse-race narrative which is basically just a lazy prism through which all of them write about politics.
This struggle was most evident in Sabra Lane’s question, when she asked if Shorten was opposing Turnbull’s refugee deal with Trump. Shorten had not, in fact, even implied he was opposed to the deal, and had rather just stated that there was no need for Turnbull to hide away from commenting on Trump’s Muslim ban out of fear of destroying the asylum seeker resettlement deal, as Trump had already confirmed the deal would go ahead. It was almost as if Lane wanted to put words in Shorten’s mouth to conjure a policy dispute for a headline, when such a headline would, in reality, completely misrepresent Shorten’s entire speech.
Without having read commentary on the speech, since this commentary is no doubt being written as I type, I can already predict that Shorten will be framed as having crafted his rhetoric in reaction to Trump’s electoral victory, ensuring the same rust-belt result doesn’t undo Labor at the next election. Again, templated journalism will be at play here which frames politicians’ only motive in life as finding a popular electoral angle, and never, low and behold to, for example, do something about low wages in order to improve economic conditions for the entire country. If someone writes anything from a different perspective, please be sure to include it in the comments below, because I would love to be pleasantly surprised.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised by Bill Shorten today. His speech, and his off-cuff questions showed how much work Labor has done on refining their policy agenda to address the real concerns of voters. I look forward to this Labor agenda continuing its onward march to defeat the Turnbull-fizza at the next election.
Remember when you were a child and you used to ask your mum for a new toy and she’d say ‘you have plenty of old toys that you hardly ever play with, why don’t play with them?’ Sometimes you would. After going through the old toy box, you’d rediscover an old favourite – a Game Boy that just needed new batteries, or a skateboard you’d forgotten about over winter which just needed a dust off and could entertain you for hours. That’s what we need to do with the progressive narrative. We need to dig it out of the back of the cupboard, brush it off, polish it up for modern day usage and all sing it from the roof tops. We don’t need a new one. We just need to up-cycle the old one.
I have read so many articles recently by fantastic left-wing voices and by impassioned people who care deeply about defeating dangerous ideologues like Donald Trump who will make the already bleeding wound of inequality hopefully not irreparably worse. Owen Jones asked the question: ‘Can the US left craft a populist alternative that convinces the millions of Americans who are angry and despondent about a society rigged against their interests? The future of the American republic is uncertain – and it may depend on the answer to that question’. Rutger Bregman suggests that too often it ‘seems as if leftists actually like losing’ and that the old-school underdog socialists are ‘Dull as a doorknob. They’ve got no story to tell; nor even the language to convey it in. Having arrived at the conclusion that politics is a mere matter of identity, they have chosen an arena in which they will lose every time’. Even though Bregman has some fantastic policy ideas, as usual, he hasn’t answered his own question: ‘what will this progressive story look like?’. So, once again, we’re all left feeling around in the dark for a unified thread to hold all our well-meaning ideas together.
In Australia, a divided progressive movement is hampering progress. Rather than fighting for and with Labor, the party of the working class, many of the more privileged progressives, who mostly live in inner cities and don’t identify as working-class, nor see any point in joining a union, have leached away to a new toy: The Greens. This leaves progressives fighting amongst ourselves with the battlelines drawn over identity politics versus labour movement priorities, and the old progressive narrative discarded by the side of the road.
I read with a mix of amusement and annoyance that ‘200 of the most exciting young people’ who were invited to attend the ‘Junket’ conference are not just fed up with Labor, but are also fed up with their newer toy, The Greens, and instead showed ‘strong support for some kind of new organisation, potentially even a political party… to channel the frustration felt by young people, and other sections of the population’. Maybe I’m just tetchy that I wasn’t invited, because I’m clearly not young or exciting enough, but the idea that young progressive Australians aren’t content to join the Labor Party and make it their own, or even to join the Greens (because that’s less work than changing the Labor Party), no, they are now wanting something brand new again, to wipe the slate clean, yet don’t seem to be able to actually explain what it is their new party would be except that it would ‘un-fuck politics’ (their words not mine). Well, that just shows how we got into this mess in the first place, doesn’t it?
Anyway, this article is not going to be yet another contribution to the ‘progressives need a new narrative’ debate without giving you my concrete suggestion about what that progressive narrative is, because that would be hypocritical. No, as I said, we already have a narrative which is perfectly useful and relevant to all of us – the inner-city-lefties, the working-class-suburbanites, the rusted-on-Labor voters, the environmentalist-hipster-Greens and the even-more-hipster-too-cool-to-join-someone-else’s-movement progressives. We just need to be better at talking about it. And most importantly, we just need to be better at talking about it AS A UNIFIED MOVEMENT. IN SOLIDARITY! As a shorthand, we could call this narrative the Golden Rule. This is what it looks like:
Your rights are my rights. Your community is my community. Your environment is my environment. When you are better off, I am better off. When you are sick, I am sick. When you are poor, I am poor. We are all in this together. So, we need to work together to uphold each others rights: rights at work, right to be free from harm, free from discrimination, free from poverty, a right to a good education, good healthcare, a right to marry who we love, to live peacefully practicing any or no religion we like. When you have a job, I have a job. When your environment is safe, my environment is safe. When you are prosperous, I am prosperous. When you are happy and well, I am happy and well. We all do our bit and everyone benefits. I care about you and you care about me. The community is better off when the community is better off. That is all that matters.
That’s the story we should be telling. Try it on. It goes with everything you want and everything I want too. And if it sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re already using it and just didn’t realise it was right there in front of you the whole time. Now, let’s stop wasting time looking for it and get to work using it.
Watch this space for more suggestions of how this narrative works in practice.