In my study of the stories told by the media about industrial disputes, I’ve discovered workers are surprisingly absent from the plot. The reason this is surprising is because industrial disputes are all about workers. So how can it be that they are missing from the story? To explain what is going on here, and what could be going on instead, I will use a neat Games of Thrones analogy. If you’re not familiar with Game of Thrones, read on, as I’ll provide explainers. If you are familiar with the show, and haven’t finished watching the latest season, I won’t be including any spoilers, so you’re also safe to keep reading.
For those who haven’t been following along with my PhD research at home, the case study I am analysing is the industrial dispute over stalled EBA negotiations between paid firefighters in the CFA and the CFA bosses which played out in mid-2016 during the last Federal election campaign. You would think, since the EBA is at its essence an agreement between a group of workers and their employer, that this group of workers and their employer would be front and centre of the cast of characters in the media’s reporting of the dispute. You would think. But, what I am finding, overwhelmingly, is that the workers are almost invisible in stories about EBA negotiations.
Instead, the democratically elected worker representative is the key character who takes centre stage. Yes, I’m talking about the union leader; in this case, Peter Marshall, secretary of the United Firefighters Union. And sadly, but unsurprisingly I need to report that my research is finding Marshall framed in the vast majority of stories covering the dispute as the villain of the story. The employer, who doesn’t show up all that often either, in this case the CFA, is framed as the victim in the dispute. And oddly enough, a particular quirk of this case, the main hero and victim of the story about an EBA for paid firefighters, are volunteer firefighters, who are not covered in any way shape or form by the EBA.
There is obviously a lot more to be said about my findings, which are a work in progress, and eventually will contribute to an 80,000 word thesis containing more theoretical layers than this single blog post. But one last finding that is worth noting at this point is that anyone who takes the side of the villain is, like in any narrative plot, also framed as a villain. And you guessed it, in this case this side-kick villain in cahoots with the union leader, and beholden to this king-of-all-villains is the Victorian Labor government (represented by Dan Andrews) and the Federal Labor Opposition (represented by Bill Shorten).
So, how does this representation of the big bad union boss, his co-conspirators in the Labor Party and the practically voiceless paid firefighters turn into a Game of Thrones analogy?
Peter Marshall is framed as the Night King. The Night King is the leader of the White Walkers, who represent the role of the paid firefighters in this story. The White Walkers are literally zombies and make up a massive Army of the Dead. They have no voice, except to snarl and gnash their teeth at their next victim. They don’t have much flesh, they are really just skin and bones, and like all good zombies, they blindly follow their leader with the goal of converting more humans to zombies, who then join their ranks, giving the Night King more power over his enemies. The Night King has special powers to turn huge numbers of innocent humans into zombies much more efficiently than individual White Walkers can, such as by shooting ice at them from his wand. Sort of like the way Marshall presumably is assumed to have more power to ‘unionise’ unsuspecting workers than individual union members do, turning them into pawns in his army.
At this point I want to bring in the key role that motive plays in the framing of any villain, whether it be in a fictional story, or in a political story. I am finding that the supposedly villainous Marshall is framed as behaving in evil ways due to his quest for more power. The EBA Marshall is negotiating on behalf of his zombie-voiceless-workers is not reported as a contract that seeks to improve the salaries and safety conditions for the CFA’s paid firefighters. No, the EBA is a weapon Marshall is apparently using, with the help of his beholden Labor co-conspirators, to help the United Firefighters Union take over the CFA.
Why would the union want to take over the CFA? So far I haven’t seen a journalist ask, or answer this question, but they still assume this to be the overriding motive of Marshall’s villainous actions. Similarly, in Game of Thrones, why is the Night King hell bent on increasing the size of his Army of the Dead and marching ominously towards confrontation with the humans south of the wall? Because his motive, unspoken, but obvious, is to take over, to seize more power, to grow his power base to help him get even more power. Remember the show is called Game of Thrones, and is based on a constant battle between different groups for ultimate power and control of the people.
If you don’t believe me that the industrial dispute story framed Marshall as villainously working towards his ultimate goal of taking control of the CFA on his non-stop quest to take over the world, look at this quote by The Australian’s Rick Wallace on June 3, during the heart of the dispute:
‘Premier Daniel Andrews is facing an unprecedented revolt from 60,000 volunteer firefighters and growing internal alarm after refusing to back down over the push to unionise the Country Fire Authority’.
That’s right, those poor volunteer firefighters at the CFA are being threatened with unionisation – a fate worse than death!
As part of this plot to grab power, Marshall is accused of various wicked actions, such as including a clause in the EBA which required seven paid firefighters to be dispatched to structural fires. This was a safety clause, and in reality would have no impact on volunteer firefighters, but that didn’t stop the media framing the clause as evidence of Marshall’s evil intent in his power grab of the CFA. Here is a quote from Liberal Wendy Lovell in Victorian Parliament to give you a taste of how this accusation against Marshall, and in turn the Labor Party, played out:
‘In many of our country towns this would mean houses would burn to the ground while CFA volunteers would have to sit in a truck and watch them burning as they waited for career firefighters to attend… This is no doubt a desperate measure by the UFU to have an increase in the number of paid firefighters on the ground, which will mean more union dues will be paid back to the UFU so it can then direct that back to the Labor Party in contributions’.
That’s right. Marshall is willing to let houses burn down to help the Labor Party win power. It sounds ridiculous and over the top, but remember, every single journalist who reported that this clause was ‘contentious’ had to assume that this was Marshall’s motive in including it in the EBA. A grab for power. Nothing to do with the safety of firefighters battling structural fires. That was never discussed, even when Marshall implored journalists to better understand why the clause was there. Nothing to do with the safety of the people those seven firefighters bravely pull out of a burning building. The Night King is evil because he is evil, and he wants power because he wants to be powerful. And he’ll stop at nothing to get his way, working to grow his army of zombies to help him achieve his villainous goals.
There is actually an analogy from Game of Thrones which represents an alternative narrative frame the media could use to report an industrial dispute. They’re not going to, but it’s there if they ever change their mind. And, by the by, the union movement could consider this story when trying to convince workers to join their ranks. Peter Marshall, or maybe it works better in this case to say Sally McManus, could represent the democratically elected people’s hero: Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons.
Daenerys is fighting to take her rightful place on the Iron Throne, giving her control of the Seven Kingdoms, but is currently distracted from this goal by having to fight the Night King and the Army of the Dead. For those who don’t watch the show, that’s control over everyone. As well as having dragons as children, who are very useful in fighting battles, you’ll notice in Daenerys’s title that she is Breaker of Chains. This is because she has built her army by freeing slaves (workers who aren’t paid, and are treated poorly, such as having their genitals removed!). She became Queen of the Andals and the First Men by convincing groups of people to ‘bend their knee’ to her, which means to democratically elect her as leader. Workers acting as a collective army are far more effective in having a say in their working conditions than lone soldiers. Armies need a general, a hero like Daenerys. An army like the trade union movement, a hero like Sally McManus.
Daenerys’s main opponent in Game of Thrones is the not-democratically-elected-there-by-birth-right current Queen, who is as evil as evil gets, Cersei Lannister. The Lannister family is obsessed with gold, nepotistic and cruel. I see them as representing neoliberal leaders such as Malcolm Turnbull and his big-business-backers. The Lannisters are deeply threatened by the popular Daenerys. Bring on the battle, bring on the election!
Game of Thrones might just be a fictional show, but think about the implications of the media framing the union leader as villain, and ignoring the plight of the workers in their storytelling of industrial disputes. I can tell you one thing. Zombies don’t live happily ever after. Their opponents always find a way to kill them and their leaders in the end.
The marriage equality ‘yes’ and ‘no’ camps are establishing their campaign narratives. If the ‘yes’ campaign is to win, it’s important that they understand what the ‘no’ camp is doing, and fight back against their strategy at every opportunity.
No political campaign can offer everything to everyone, so messaging must be targeted towards specific groups at the most relevant times. There are three groups that the ‘yes’ campaign need to be aware of. As per Essential Media’s latest poll, there are the ‘committed yes’ group, which make up 57% of the population. Then there are the ‘committed nos’ at 32%. And the ‘don’t knows’ at 11%.
The ‘yes’ camp has speedily mobilised an impressive grass roots campaign to get voters on the electoral roll. The narrative of this enrol campaign is spot on to encourage those in the ‘committed yes’ group who weren’t previously on the roll, or who needed to update their details, to make sure they can place the yes vote they are clearly committed to placing. Correctly, the narrative of this campaign is to invite the ‘committed yes’ voters to be part of something big, to stand up for equality, to do the right thing and to feel good about the part they have played in a big outcome. It is entirely appropriate that this narrative expand the question of marriage equality to the larger issue of standing up for human rights, and for valuing love above all else.
However, now that the enrolment deadline has passed, as much as it might go against the yes camp’s natural affinity with this enlarged ‘this is a big deal’ narrative, it’s time to turn attention away from the ‘committed yes’, and focus on the 11% of ‘don’t knows’. In order to target this group effectively, the yes narrative needs to reduce the issue of marriage equality to a smaller, less momentous decision, rather than make it the earth-changing story that the yes camp has been using in the enrolment period.
The yes camp should understand the game plan the ‘no’ camp are using, and why they’re using it. They are not targeting the ‘committed nos’, because they already have them in the bag. If people are voting no because of religious beliefs, or because of a range of ideological beliefs; everything from intolerance of diversity, to bigotry, homophobia, to conservative views of marriage, a fear of the ‘slippery slope’ outcome and unisex toilets, the no camp would be wasting their dollars preaching to the choir, and the yes camp would be wasting their effort trying to change their stuck-in-the-mud minds. The no camp, instead, have latched onto the understanding that human beings fear uncertainty. They are therefore trying to scare the ‘don’t knows’ over into the ‘committed nos’ group by expanding the question of marriage equality into an ever-growing list of scary, threatening, uncertain outcomes. That way, if people aren’t sure what the outcome of a ‘yes’ vote would be, they will be sucked into the ‘no’ narrative, believing that marriage equality will somehow threaten their mixed-gender marriages, threaten Australian values, threaten their family, threaten their right to religious freedom, to free speech, will threaten the children of gay parents, and will get its scary tentacles into a range of never-properly-explained-vague-threats to every aspect of the community. The more uncertain the no camp can make the outcome of marriage equality, the more likely the ‘I don’t knows’ will tend towards ticking ‘no’, out of a fear of not understanding what a ‘yes’ vote will mean.
This is why the yes camp need to avoid expanding the outcome of marriage equality into a bigger moment for the country than simply allowing LGBTI people to get married. I understand why some campaigners in the yes camp will find this a difficult suggestion; many of them have been fighting their whole lives to have the right to marry their beloved partner, and for them it is a huge outcome to finally be allowed to do that. For them it means acceptance, normalcy, the end of out-dated discrimination and it means being able to legally join in union with their partner. It’s an outcome as big as their whole world. But even so, the ‘don’t knows’ need to be convinced back from the ‘no’ dark side with the narrative of certainty. And this certainty needs to reduce the magnitude of the decision to its literal outcome: that everyone in the community, no matter their sexuality and gender orientation, is free to get married. A situation which will have zero impact on anyone but the people able to get married, and of course their loved ones who can celebrate with them. In fact, the more every-day, common-sense the yes camp can make this outcome, the better. So, perhaps an advertisement that shows a gay couple negotiating difficult pre-wedding plans, such as where to seat crazy aunt Linda and deciding who gets to choose which cars they arrive in. The narrative here is: we are just like you, and you are allowed to get married, so why shouldn’t we have the chance too?
This yes narrative can also be used to fight back against the tentacles-in-every-aspect-of-your-lives threat from the no camp through the simple statement of: ‘no, marriage equality is not going to change everything. It actually has a very certain outcome. All it means is that everyone can get married, just like you can’. This means not getting into debates with no campaigners about free speech, about freedom of religion, about the impact of gay marriage on the children of gay parents. It means being firm and repetitive with the promise that marriage equality impacts no one but those who currently can’t get married. Just like the mistake climate change activists have been making for years (including me) in trying to argue with deniers, by arguing with the garbage from the no campaign, you give their position legitimacy and imbed the idea that there are uncertain outcomes from marriage equality. Instead, keep it simple. Keep it small. Rinse and repeat. Celebrate when the yes vote wins. And then the battle begins to get the yes vote through parliament.
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.
Note: If you haven’t watched The Handmaid’s Tale (SBS On Demand), and plan to, this post does not include spoilers. I will give a vague idea about what the series is about, but it won’t give the plot away.
The Handmaid’s Tale mesmerised and repulsed me in equal measure. Yes, it is fiction. I get that. But art reflects life, and the life this series reflects is a little too apparent in the attitude of many powerful people in our society to make me rest completely easy in ‘that could never happen to us’ fiction watching comfort. So, what have I learned about Conservative ideology from the fictional dystopia of the Republic of Gilead? Read on to share my horror.
The rights of women are hard fought and women should be proud of how far we’ve come. But, we have a long way to go, and we should never rest on our laurels to assume our rights cannot be un-done. Mike Pence, one impeachment away from the Presidency of the United States is a staunch anti-abortionist. President Trump won the presidency after a lifetime of misogynistic, sexually lewd and disrespectful behaviour towards women. A president who owned beauty pageants, who says he would date his daughter if she wasn’t his relation, who boasts about grabbing women on the pussy and forcing himself on them, and who thinks a compliment to France’s First Lady is to tell her she’s in ‘good shape’, is the same man now removing women’s rights to maternity care from health insurance.
These are two men with power over the lives of women. They were elected by both men and women who at least disregarded their attitudes towards women, and at most support these attitudes. And don’t for a moment think those men are over there in the US, and not here in Australia. Case in point: Tony Abbott. And Malcolm Turnbull. Turnbull has continued Abbott’s legacy of disregarding the needs of women and undermining women’s rights in a myriad of seemingly small but individually devastating ways, such as through cutting funding to women’s domestic violence shelters and trying but thankfully so far failing to cut maternity leave pay.
The men who vote for, and cheerlead for these politicians are the same types of men who troll the internet for hours every day, writing abuse on Clementine Ford’s Facebook page, and supporting the army of conservative commentators who bully women who have opinions, such as Yassmin Abdel-Magied. These men, their ‘shock-jock’ idols, and their political heroes, would relish the opportunity to live in Gilead, where women aren’t allowed to read, own property, work or choose their clothes. The women of this fictional land, reduced to homemakers and childrearers, are meant to appreciate their freedom from the demands of modern society, allowing them to fulfil their ‘biological destiny’ as baby-makers. Yuck!
Why would these men relish such a world? Why would men, who campaigned to ‘lock Hillary up’ willingly take society back to the dark ages if it meant putting women back in their place, below men on the pecking order of moral authority, back in the kitchen, out of the workplace, away from decision-making, to be heard only when spoken to? There are obviously many theories about this, but the one I subscribe to is fairly simple: these men have weak characters and a low opinion of their own abilities. They don’t want to compete against women – for jobs, for respect, in an argument, in life – so the quicker women get out of their way, the better. And of course, if these same men can ensure there’s a woman slave waiting for them when they get home from work, dinner on the table, children looked after, house clean, cold beer in the fridge, well, that’s their ultimate fantasy come true.
Women like me, who dare have careers and raise children, who write political blogs, who have opinions and challenge patriarchal views, we would be hung-drawn-and-quartered in Gilead. Unless of course they needed our fertility; then we’d be raped monthly as surrogates, with the baby ripped from our arms in the birthing suite. It sounds extreme, but look how quickly men go to rape threats when challenged in online forums. Look at the way many men and women in Australia responded to our first female Prime Minister, subjecting Gillard to a barrage of misogynistic abuse, burning her at the rhetorical stake, campaigning to ‘ditch the witch’.
Watching The Handmaid’s Tale felt like a preview of what is at the end of a very slippery slope. And when you realise how many Conservative forces are pushing our society towards the slope, it is a confronting, and motivating force. We must push back. Women’s rights need to be constantly defended and aggressively fought for. The Conservatives know what they want. The Handmaid’s Tale should scare anyone against that vision to make sure we don’t proceed any way down the slope towards it.
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.