John Howard as radical social reformer?
You better believe it. The accolade has
been bestowed by no less than former Labor
luminary, Bill Hayden.
In a speech on November 29, Mr Hayden
lamented the fact that under the Howard
Government large sections of the traditional
Labor constituency had been transformed
and imbued with "middle-class employer
values" which were in conflict with
In his remarks, made at a book launch
in Brisbane, the former Governor-General
incisively touched on two key strands
of social development in contemporary
Australia - the increasingly strained
relationship between political labor and
the unions and the extraordinary convergence
that has happened under Howard.
Despite Mr Hayden's apparent hostility
towards the current (and presumably former)
Labor leadership, he has highlighted the
dilemma Labor faces: attempting to satisfy
its union owners, a rapidly dwindling
minority, while developing policies that
appeal to a broader and heavily middle-class
constituency that is increasingly at odds
with the demands of the unions. It is
an untenable position, fraught as it is
with tensions more potentially destructive
As soon as the ALP appeases the unions,
it runs the risk of getting offside with
the broader constituency it needs if it
is to be elected; if it moves in that
direction, it ruffles union feathers and
internal divisions appear overnight.
Essentially, this was what the Hawke-Wran
report sought to address, but it was so
camouflaged that its message was decoded
only by those in the know.
Labor, curiously, has contributed significantly
to the situation in which it now finds
itself. The Australian Social Trends report
by the Australian
Bureau of Statistics two years ago
tracked the rapid decline in union membership
as a proportion of the workforce (from
51 per cent in 1976 to 40 per cent in
1992 to 26 per cent in 1999) attributing
it to three key drivers. These were structural
change in the Australian economy, union
amalgamations into larger groupings seen
by many workers as insensitive to their
needs, and the legislative environment
which began to change under the Accords
of the early Hawke years. All these were
initiatives of the then Federal Labor
Government, and to its credit, taken in
the national, rather than a sectional,
It poses an interesting conundrum for
Labor. The very dynamics of economic reform
implemented by the ALP, and taken up with
enthusiasm by the Liberals, have brought
considerable benefits to a workforce that
no longer, in most regards, defines itself
as working class.
The conundrum is further complicated
by the fact that the ALP's and the union
movement's leadership are themselves composed
of highly aspirational university-educated
people - mainly the sort of people who
have deserted what was once the traditional
Labor fold because of their changing perception
of where self-interest lies.
As to the extent to which Howard has
been an agent for change, this can be
seen mostly in his government's workplace
relations agenda which has led to the
inexorable spread of individual contracts
which has simultaneously offered added
rewards to employees while also seriously
undercutting union influence and involvement.
The unions, of course, saw it as divide
and rule; pitting worker against worker.
If it has, as Hayden suggests, spread
"middle-class employer values"
then so be it: Howard, in that case, has
not so much divided the community as having
engineered a radical convergence.
The values, to which Hayden refers, may
well be closer to the Australian norm
than many in the ALP are willing to admit;
they are aspirational values.
The old working-class rhetoric and the
idea of the class struggle which it was
designed to reflect and reinforce has
died along with the working class itself,
and it took a clear-eyed realist like
Neville Wran 20 years ago to take a hefty
swipe at all the romanticism surrounding
it when he remarked that the only thing
that was true about the working class
was that everyone in it wanted to get
out of it.
John Howard, it seems, has touched the
aspirational nerve in a most politically
effective way, and Hayden's remark, while
grudgingly conceding this, has a sour
ring to it, akin to that of the wartime
Labor minister, John Dedman, who decried
the Liberal Party for encouraging home
ownership as trying to create a nation
of "little capitalists."