Shorten used a speech on Friday to set Labor’s economic agenda for the next Labor government. This agenda states clearly that inequality is hurting the economy, and that anything you do to reduce inequality is good for the economy. This is not just an economic announcement. It is a social one too. And it is a huge step in the right direction for Labor.
I saw this agenda coming as it’s been clear for many months that Shorten, and his Labor colleagues, have been united in their appraisal of the problem of inequality. Just to get things straight – it’s a very big moment for Australia to have our major progressive party outline how they will respond to the problem of growing inequality, and to say loudly and clearly that the answer looks nothing like neoliberal-trickle-down ‘let the market decide’ ideology. I am amongst many left-wingers who have been supporting Labor in this direction for years and so I couldn’t be happier that Labor is putting the ills of inequality at the heart of its pitch to win the next election.
But, I am both unsurprised and disappointed that the mainstream political media have not only completely missed the significance of Shorten’s agenda, but have also missed the key point. Perhaps Shorten needs to make this point more forcefully, repeat it more often, or explain to the journalists exactly why the moment is so huge. Perhaps they will get there eventually. Let’s hope so. Because otherwise what hope do voters have of understanding what Labor is saying, if the journalists don’t understand it for themselves?
Before I give examples of the failings of the political media’s coverage of Shorten’s announcement, I will make clear why Shorten’s inequality agenda is such a big deal. For my whole lifetime, Labor has been arguing against Liberal economic ideology using the same frame as the Liberals: that government intervention in the market is bad for economic growth, even when it is socially responsible. This neoliberal consensus, which is shared by the vast majority of political journalists, has meant that government spending, debt and deficit, taxation and ‘government intervention’ has become the villain. Conversely, reducing taxes, reducing spending, even when it hurts people, is congratulated as the economically responsible and heroic thing to do. So, with this frame as the context for all political discussions, politicians are assumed to be doing the ‘right thing by the economy’ and to be ‘good economic managers’ when they are slashing and burning. And they are ‘a hand-break on growth’ when they do anything but, such as introducing new taxes, regulations, social programs, spending on health and education, and anything else in the Labor Party stable. It therefore follows that the Liberals are assumed to be better economic managers, following the neoliberal playbook, whereas Labor are assumed to be bad economic managers, as they push back against the neoliberal playbook, whilst still accepting they have been playing within the rules of this playbook, and having everything they do reported from this perspective by the media. Therefore, the Liberals, Labor and the media have been reinforcing the neoliberal economic frame within the culture of Australian political commentary for a very long time. Finally Shorten has changed this. The significance of this moment can’t be overstated.
Shorten has proclaimed that trickle-down economics is bad for the economy. This means, rather than deserving the praise of being better economic managers, the Liberals are, and always have been, hurting the economy by supporting cuts to wages, by giving tax cuts only to high income earners and leaving middle and lower income earners with less money to spend in the economy. Cuts to health care, cuts to education, cuts to any social program which increases inequality, whether that be wealth inequality generally, or gender, race, disability, access to services, regional versus cities, digital connectivity, infrastructure, access to secure employment, is bad for the economic. Pretty much every element of an Australian’s life leaves them open to having to compete on a less-even playing field because of inequality. This is because the market, the neoliberal God-like decider, is terrible at distributing wealth in an equal way. Government intervention, however, can help fix this problem.
We live in a capitalist society, sure, but what Labor is saying is that big-government is not a dirty word. Government can make sure infrastructure programs are targeted to areas where employment is most needed. Government can defend wages, such as not cancelling penalty rates, and ensuring industrial laws don’t lock unions out of their representative role for workers. Government policies can ensure lower income earners have access to a comfortable and secure standard of living. Government can make sure quality education and healthcare is available to everyone, no matter their bank balance, to give every child the chance to meet their potential, rather than relying on privilege buying life outcomes, where only those who can afford to get their children ahead are entitled to climb the ladder of life-success.
There are, of course, very simple ways to help the public understand the difference between Labor’s economic argument, and the Liberals’ neoliberal agenda. Take the example of a young man who does an apprenticeship and then gets a job as a carpenter. He gets work on a construction site. His income allows him to secure a mortgage to build his family a home. He can then afford to furnish that home, so he brings income to the local furniture store. The furniture store owner gets more business, and can possibly hire a retail assistant to take over her work on weekends. That retail assistant puts money in the pocket of the local car yard by buying her first car, and she eventually moves out of home. And so on and so forth. This is how consumer demand works – not by giving the furniture store owner, and the car yard conglomerate a tax cut, which takes money out of the economy, but by growing demand in the economy through people having money to spend. Then they have money to spend and save, they can make plans in their lives, they can build homes, and be confident to live a little, to go out to cafes and restaurants, and use annual leave to go on holidays. They only feel confident to do this when they have secure, stable employment, and their effort at work is compensated with wages reflecting their contribution to the success of the business. This compact is the story Labor is now telling. It’s important to note that the carpenter needed the apprenticeship in order to kick-start this equation, and yet the Liberals have been gutting vocational education and TAFE. Repeat this breaking of the compact throughout the Liberal’s terms in government and it’s obvious why Liberal ideology is so bad for the economy and why Labor now needs to mend much of what they have broken.
So, how have journalists misunderstood this story? Predictably, News Ltd got it most wrong with the Herald Sun’s Tom Minear writing ‘Shorten has ratcheted up class-warfare rhetoric’. So it’s all spin and it’s pitting the rich against the poor? This is on a different planet level of wrong-wrong-wrong. Barrie Cassidy, in his interview with Shorten on Insiders, wasn’t far from calling the equality agenda shallow-election-spin. Or worse, ripping-off populist strategy from Corbyn and Sanders. Eye-roll. Mark Kenny’s SMH analysis wasn’t quite as narrow, but he still fell into the old frame of describing the Labor ‘heart’ battle versus the Liberal ‘head’ message, which means Labor is addressing inequality not because it’s hard-headed and good for the economy (because Liberals own that ground), but because they have a heart – they want to be nice to people. This is wrong, and Labor should correct the record on such an obvious misunderstanding of their policy platform.
The closest I’ve seen a writer get to showing they see the significance, and understand the economic thinking behind the story, is The Guardian’s Greg Jericho, who wrote: ‘The economic debate for too long was based in the old canard that there is a trade off between growth and equality’. As I’ve written recently, the old neoliberal frame which the ‘establishment’ have been using for decades – politicians and journalists alike – is that there is a choice between economic growth and social spending. No. There is not a choice. Or, as Jericho calls it, a trade-off between growth and equality. In fact it’s simpler than that. You can’t have growth without tackling inequality. This is where the heart of Labor’s story lies, and why Labor deserves congratulations not just for doing what is kind, or right, or caring, or fair. But for also doing what is economically responsible – what is best for the economy AND the people who make up that economy. I guess Shorten just needs to keep saying it until they all catch up.
I am responding to your thoughtful opinion piece in The Guardian which aims to justify the Liberal Party’s creation of The Fair Go propaganda website.
I’m so sorry that the Liberal Party feel so weak and neglected by the mainstream media that you have to spend money to create a website to get your voice out there. Feeling powerless, like you have been blocked from the national debate, must be an awful situation to find yourself in. I hadn’t realised that the readership of your mastheads at News Ltd had shrunk to such an inconsequential size that you can no longer rely on them to campaign on your behalf. How horrible for you. I wasn’t aware that your IPA representatives appearing on every ABC news show are having such a hard time getting your point of view across. It must be awful to have all this coverage and still be losing the argument.
I did know, however, that your ranting right wing cheer squad on Sky News gets less views than some of my blog posts. And I’m a nobody Andrew! I don’t even get paid for putting my opinions out there, yet more people are interested in what I have to say than watching Chris Kenny whine and bitch. This must be more than frustrating for you, poor thing. It’s no wonder you felt compelled to publish a piece in The Guardian to finally get your voice out to sizeable audience. Good on you for doing that.
But Andrew, I hope I can make you feel a bit better, a bit less meek and downtrodden, by straightening up some of the misinformation, or perhaps the misunderstanding, that you have included in your piece. Firstly, you need to remember that Australia is a democratic nation. As irritating as this fact is for you, it means that us Australians have every right to give a few dollars here and there to fund organisations that represent our interests, such as GetUp, or trade unions, or environmental groups, in order to contribute our resources towards the political debate.
I know how much you would prefer if us pesky little peasants would just sit down, shut up and let your political movement of big business money trample all over us. But that would just make things too easy for you Andrew! Us people, we have lives and opinions and rights and needs and wants, which includes the right to join political movements that represent us.
I must admit, it is an uphill battle for the sectional interests of us small guys. As you no doubt know from your Liberal Party fundraisers, big business has infinitely more money than the individuals who donate small change to environmental groups, GetUp, unions, any progressive cause you can name.
Remember when the Labor Government wanted to even up the playing field of funds distributed from selling Australia’s natural resources by introducing the mining tax, and your Liberal Party, side by side with billionaire Australians, with the all-powerful mining lobby, campaigned to kill that policy? The miners spent $22 million, which is small change to them, I know Andrew! But what hope do I have, who earns an annual salary the size of Gina Rinehart’s lunch bill, of having a say in political debates, without democratically pooling what little resources I have into a David-like voice to respond to the Goliaths representing the Liberal Party?
We noticed when Prime Minister Turnbull spent $1.75 million of his own money, again, loose change to him, to help himself get elected. Does this sound like the actions of the weak and powerless? We noticed that Julie Bishop’s Mid Winter Ball gown cost $36,000, which is substantially more than a Newstart recipient receives in a year. Cheer up Andrew, your power is in safe, rich hands!
So, really, you don’t need to feel so sad about your current predicament, where you think you’re voiceless and powerless, when really you’re holding all the cards in a loaded deck, and us little guys are barely chipping into the power you have to control the way we live our lives. For example, if unions are so big and powerful, how come some of the country’s lowest paid workers have just had their penalty rates cut after your side won your tireless campaign to reduce their wages? Why do unions face some of the toughest industrial laws in the world, such as not having the legal right to strike?
We know you’re disappointed that WorkChoices is democratically dead, buried and cremated, but in actual fact you should be cheering, as you’ve managed, against the odds, to bring in your WorkChoices-utopia by stealth, with casualisation, near-zero wage growth and precarious work the new norm for millions of Australians. This is all while your business mates reap 40% increase in profits, yet, in their powerful, almighty position, choose not to pass any of these rewards onto the workers who created the wealth. Geez Andrew, if this is what it means to be powerless, you guys are doing pretty nicely without power!
I hope this letter has made you feel better about your position in the political debate. It must be down-heartening every time you check the stats for the laughingly called ‘Fair Go’ website to find still no one is engaging in your content and you only have 242 followers on Twitter. You’ve no doubt paid Parnell McGuiness’s PR consultancy far too much money to create the site and it’s not getting anywhere near the audience these dollars would get you if you invested them in well written, relevant and less-propogandist content on a quality opinion site. But hey, you’re right that we should all have a fair go. Keep at it and us little guys will keep at it too. It’s only fair that we each do what’s in our best interest.
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.
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.