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.
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.
How do I know with certainty that Trump will fall off the rails, crash and burn and then disappear like an ugly pimple on a Clearasil ad? Because I’ve seen this movie before – Australia endured Tony Abbott as Prime Minister. The day he was elected, I thought the world had ended. But we survived. Abbott’s tenure as PM, though painful, was only two years long and was a relatively unproductive two years at that. For those unfamiliar with this story’s plot, here are the key reasons Trump will share the same fate as Abbott:
1) Negative campaigning instead of leading gets old fast
Abbott’s always-on campaign of negativity worked like a charm when campaigning. But once in power, the pessimism, sniping and constant put-downs wore thin very quickly. Just like Trump, Abbott remained in negative attack-dog campaign mode once he became Prime Minister. When people were looking to him for assurance, for confidence, for leadership, they found him bitching instead. It’s easy to criticise everything and everyone when you’re not responsible for fixing problems. But when the country needs solutions and all you have is a whining toddler saying no all the time, opinion polls go south very quickly.
2) Rudeness and weirdness become embarrassing on a national stage
When I say rudeness, Abbott was just like Trump in that before he was elected, he was a well-known sexist and also like to flame racism to cover up for a lack of policy direction. It used to infuriate me that Abbott got away with doing and saying just about anything, no matter how offensive, and how bullshit, because people just shrugged and said ‘oh well, that’s just how he is, at least he says it like it is’.
There was also always a weirdness about Abbott and bizarre decisions which quite frankly could only be put down to a very limited mental capacity. For instance, when he decided to bring back Knights and Dames, and then proceeded to Knight Prince Philip who is married to the Queen of England. Or that time he ate an onion on the TV news. Face-palming at the Prime Minister soon became a national pastime.
It’s like that guy in your group of friends who sets his farts on fire for attention, but then when his bum causes a bushfire, those who used to laugh are embarrassed to be seen with him. It got to the point in Australia where you literally could not find a single person who would admit to voting for Abbott.
It might seem like Trump gets away with rudeness and weirdness on a monumental scale, but once Abbott became the leader of Australia, all his character flaws and faults were like dirty linen aired in front of a world audience. The electorate suddenly realised that having a buffoon representing us in national conversations wasn’t so good for our international reputation. National dignity was at stake. Be patient. It will happen.
3) Broken promises will come back to bite
Days before Abbott was elected Prime Minister, he went on national television and promised ‘no cuts to education, no cuts to health, no change to pensions, no change to the GST and no cuts to the ABC or SBS’. Just like Trump, it was obvious that Abbott would make any promise necessary to win votes and damn the consequences. Then, predictably, in Abbott’s very first budget only a few months after winning the election, he took a sledge hammer to these promises.
I note Trump has done the exact same thing – after promising in a tweet that there would be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid, his Republican counterparts are already busily taking health insurance away from millions of Americans. Many of these people voted for Trump and when it occurs to them they’re worse off because he lied, they will retaliate. Who is paying for that wall again? Watch and see.
4) He won’t grow into the job
There was a common narrative around the election of Abbott, particularly from his right-wing supporters in the media (yes, our media is controlled by Murdoch too!), that he would mature into the job of Prime Minister and would leave all his tomfoolery and lack of policy talent behind, to be the statesman-like leader the country expects. Nope. Never happened.
Abbott, like Trump, was emboldened by winning the election and refused to listen to anyone except a very close circle of advisors (his chief of staff in particular who did her best to rein him in, but even obsessive micromanaging of his every move didn’t cover up his obvious lack of credibility or suitability for the job).
When Abbott was campaigning as Opposition Leader, the only people pointing out his total incompetency in every area and fact checking his bullshit were writers like me in independent media and left-wing politically engaged social media users. We all said the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes and we were all written off as partisan hacks.
But, then, like a snowball, journalists in the mainstream media began to realise that all was not well with the Abbott project and the wheels started falling off the bus amongst his colleagues too.
When his polls continued to dive to new and electorally disastrous lows, his colleagues did the only thing politicians know how to do when their ship is taking on water – they jumped off it to save their own skin. That’s how we got rid of Abbott in two years, which was a shame really looking back as I regret that the country didn’t have a chance to take our displeasure to the polls. But either way, every day without Abbott as Prime Minister was a good day (until we realised the guy who took over from him was the same pig, just wearing nicer lipstick – but don’t worry yourself about that as getting rid of Trump is your first urgent order of business).
Now, before I let you go away confident in the knowledge that Trump will not prevail, there is one last thing you need to know:
5) You’re going to have to help Trump on his way
I know you’re already doing your best in this respect, but you’re going to have to do better. Keep writing, criticising, pointing out his absurdity, sharing and posting about his failures, calling him out for his lies and bullshit, organising and generally uniting in a fierce wave of Trump-opposition.
I’m not just talking about social media. Take to the streets. I know there were protests when Trump was elected – and good on you for that. But the most success we had in Australia marching against Abbott came not when he was elected, but when he started to announce policies which were deeply unpopular in the electorate. We had a string of national March in March events which brought together tens of thousands of like-minded anti-Abbott marchers, and really helped to solidify the country’s dissatisfaction with Abbott’s policies. Here’s a link to my speech at the first March in March in front of 6,000 South Australians. Abbott was elected in 2013. The marches started in early 2014. He was gone in 2015.
I promise you that Trump and Abbott are beasts of the same breed and that the fate of Abbott awaits Trump. You’ve got mid-terms in two years to work towards. Go for it. We’re all counting on you. And if you could get rid of him before he starts World War III that would be a major bonus too. Good luck.