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Class, privilege, ideology

By Sarah Burnside - posted Friday, 18 June 2010

The debates over the Rudd Government’s proposed resources super-profits tax (“RSPT”) tend to confirm Waleed Aly’s recent lament that the Australian political conversation is “obsessed with teams and uninterested in ideas”.

The debate has been conducted in the manner now familiar to Australians: in sound-bites and confected outrage on both sides. More unusual, though, have been the references to social class: Liberal members and mining company executives have critiqued Kevin Rudd and Wayne Swan for employing “the divisive language of class warfare” and for playing “the politics of envy”.

The implicit presumption that Australia is a classless society builds on the old depictions of a workers’ paradise where Jack was as good as his master. The myth has been adapted for modern times. These days Australians are rhapsodised as mum-and-dad shareholders who have embraced the market and rejected class consciousness. The old divisions between workers and bosses, or the powerful and the powerless, are deemed obsolete. Labor itself has jettisoned its former commitment to socialist principles; the Hawke and Keating years saw the Party wholeheartedly embrace globalisation and privatisation.


There is, of course, some truth to the new narrative. It would be idle to pretend that social class is as determinative in 2010 as it was in 1930, and downright insulting to suggest that “aspirational” voters suffer from mere false consciousness. However, inequity persists - albeit quietly.

In his autobiography Hitch-22, polemicist Christopher Hitchens recites a joke which has an Oxford professor asking an American former graduate student what he’s working on these days:

“My thesis is on the survival of the class system in the United States.”
“Oh really, that’s interesting: one didn’t think there was a class system in the United States.”
“Nobody does. That’s how it survives.”

The silence on class is not without its beneficiaries; it allows some sectors to conceal particular motives in their contributions to national debates. Relevantly, the class-shaped gap in political discourse permits mining company executives to cloak themselves in “the national interest” in critiquing the RSPT. Thus the West Australian’s report last week that:

Fortescue Metals boss Andrew Forrest says he will be defending the interests of every Australian in his meeting on the resources tax with Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in Perth.

Those who discern some self-interest on the part of the outspoken entrepreneurs, or who comment unfavourably on the extraordinary spectacle presented by the “billionaires’ protest” in Perth last week, are then dismissed for playing “envy politics”.


Spokesmen such as Clive Palmer and Andrew Forrest have employed some decidedly retro language, attacking the government as socialists or communists and accusing them of nationalising Australia’s resources. Commentators have joined the fray, describing pro-RSPT unionists as “class warriors”. A reds-under-the-bed campaign two decades after the fall of the Berlin wall is indeed a sight to see.

The Coalition, in response to the RSPT, is busily recycling the longstanding fears that Labor members are inherently incapable of running the economy. Formerly, such fears had a very specific class-based rationale: Labor’s identity as a party of uneducated workers. The emphasis has shifted somewhat - the ALP is now caricatured as an uncomfortable alliance of pointy-headed ideologues and ex-union officials. The message, however, remains the same: these people don’t have business acumen and cannot be trusted with money.

Tony Abbott’s language has been particularly dramatic: the Opposition Leader has described the RSPT as “an almost criminal attack on miners” and accused the Rudd government of “proposing to plunge a dagger into the heart of Australia’s prosperity”. The ALP is thereby depicted as having an irrational hatred of economic success, rather than simply possessing an ideological outlook with which the Coalition does not agree.

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About the Author

Sarah Burnside is a freelance writer with experience in law and policy. She tweets cautiously at @SarahEBurnside.

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