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John Howard, working-class hero?

By Norman Abjorensen - posted Thursday, 12 December 2002

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 ALP traditions.

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 than creative.

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, interest.

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."

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About the Author

Dr Norman Abjorensen, a Visiting Fellow in the School of Social Sciences at the ANU, is author of Leadership and the Liberal Revival: Bolte, Askin and the Post-war Ascendancy, published next month by Australian Scholarly Publishing.

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