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Smoko: a punter's view of politics

By Ern O'Malley - posted Thursday, 15 August 2002

The opinion pages of major Australian newspapers seek to enrich our knowledge of current affairs with the thoughts of many prominent and intellectual figures. On any major issue of the day, we can find an embellishment from Emeritus Professor who’s-it or Think-Tank Director what’s-his-name. A rebuttal may come a day or two later from various political and media personalities, many of whom profess to speak for the common man, - but when did you last see a talk-back jock driving a beaten-up Kingswood?

What of the opinion of the average worker? If you work hard, you don’t have time to indulge in follies such as ripping off a letter to the editor or hitting the dog and bone to Alan Jones. The working man is essentially voiceless and impotent in public, other than on Election Day. Well, maybe not even then, unless he lives in a marginal electorate. How can we know what these working-class heroes really think?

In every industrial workshop around mid-morning, tea is poured, sandwiches unwrapped, papers are opened and discussion begins. The smoko room is a hotbed of political opinion and social commentary, often sparked by the reading aloud of a newspaper headline within a few minutes of sitting down to eat. The twelve truck mechanics I work with have political and cultural differences that are representative of a cross section of Australian society. Some of the more vocal culprits include:*

  • Taff, the stereotypical pommy shop steward;
  • The Snowman, a devoutly religious ex-soldier and resident practical joker;
  • Elvis, the wizened old rock-&-roller;
  • Sanjeev, the hardworking migrant;
  • Saltbush Bill, the workshop’s own Justice of the Peace; and
  • Penguin, the angry Kiwi who constantly reminds us that we reside in New Zealand’s "West Island".

These smoko-room conversations have one common central theme – marginalisation. The Dirty Dozen know who Don Chipp’s ‘bastards" are – politicians, of any creed. Their political persuasion doesn’t matter, as the policy differences are so few that the major parties are almost indistinguishable from each other. Every day there is something in the media that only adds to the many degrees of separation between Canberra and working class suburbia. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation gave them some brief hope when it was perceived as an anti-political movement, but the meteoric fall of Hansonism left them feeling disenfranchised. As a result, an increasing number of the guys are refusing to participate in the political process, preferring to go fishing on polling day.

It is not just the politicians in the firing line. Business and the media also come in for a spray. Every business collapse, with its revelations of the excesses paid to corporate cowboys like Jodee Rich and Ray Williams, serves to grind the working man down further. There is a lot of anger at the government’s perceived failure to effectively regulate and tax business. There is an assumption that business is allowed to run riot at the expense of the ordinary taxpayer. The media are blamed for encouraging our politicians, and failing to adequately bring them to heel.

It could be argued that the opinion of the average working Joe hardly matters in the scheme of things. The industrial worker is a dying breed, largely locked up in safe Labor electorates. To dismiss these people as irrelevant is to fail to recognize the lessons of Hansonism. The dissatisfaction that gave rise to One Nation is still out there, and could be far more dangerous with a more organized and articulate leader. Think of the Bavarian Worker’s Party in 1930’s Germany giving rise to Adolf Hitler.

So what have the Dirty Dozen been discussing lately?

The revelation of the affair between Cheryl Kernot and Gareth Evans caused a collective shudder in the smoko room, almost as if everyone had just found out their parents were still having sex. Laurie Oakes was roundly condemned for bringing this affair to their attention, as our elected representatives are assumed to be strangely asexual. Incidentally, the same assumption was also made of Laurie. Ignorance is bliss! According to Bob Ellis (Canberra Times, July 10) "His (Oakes) view is that sexual acts, when they impact on policy or leadership, are fair game." That’s not the opinion of the Dirty Dozen. They believe such information should be "on a need to know basis. Quite frankly, we didn’t need, or want, to know". As The Snowman said: "If Feral and Biggles were bumping uglies, I don’t want to know. Way to much information." Unlike Ray Cassim (The Age, July 7), our working-class heroes have no difficulty in discerning the boundary between the private and public lives of a politician.


Simon Crean is about as popular as nappy rash, particularly with our more committed unionists, who frequently vent their anger at his proposed reforms. His name is uttered with four-letter adjectives usually reserved for the likes of Tony Abbott, Peter Costello and John Howard. According to Taff: "Crean is a traitor. The unions put him where he is, and he turns around and stabs them in the back". The Dirty Dozen are assuming that the next election will be fought by Peter Costello and Simon Crean, who they see as mirror images of each other. Some of those who would normally vote Labor have talked in all seriousness about voting Green at the next election if Crean remains leader. There is strong support for the return of Kim Beazley, particularly if Howard stands aside for Costello. Elvis reckons that "Beazley is a bloody good bloke, he just gave up too easily".

Mark Latham has proved to be popular as well, though the lads were a little disappointed in the restraint he showed in calling Howard an ‘arselicker’. It might be best for all if I don’t repeat the adjectives suggested by the Dirty Dozen. Greg Sheridan (The Age, Jul 4) said, "Mark Latham was foolish to describe John Howard as an "arselicker" for being too pro-American. If Latham thinks he'll capture the aspirational voter by the use of childish four-letter words, he is not as smart as we've been led to believe." Latham’s comments did capture the attention of the Dirty Dozen, but only as a source of amusement. Labor has to work a lot harder to recapture these working class votes. Interestingly the factions of the Democrats have not even been mentioned. Have the self-appointed guardians of parliamentary honesty been reduced to irrelevancy?

The harshest language is being reserved for the once-popular Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie. The dirty dozen are appalled at his handling of the pay disputes with the nurses and police, particularly while the multi-million dollar Lang Park development is occurring. They are quite vocal on this. Taff calls Beattie "An insult to the labour movement" and the "best Tory premier since Joh". The Snowman says "he wastes a fortune on Lang Park, gives himself a huge pay rise, but is too stingy to look after the battlers". Penguin calls him a "class traitor!" and says "Beattie proves that all politicians are bastards". I think you get the drift. Beattie’s only salvation is that the opposition parties are, as Saltbush Bill says "all over the place like a mad woman’s breakfast". The weakness of the Queensland National and Liberal parties, whose leaders the Dirty Dozen are flat out putting a name to, only adds to their feeling of political impotence. They lament the failure of Hansonism, as the brief rise of One Nation at least gave them the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with Australia’s political duopoly. Look forward to the continued presence of Independents in Parliament.

There’s the bell. Smoko’s over, so I must get back to work. See you next month.

*Names have been change to protect the indifferent.

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About the Author

Ern O'Malley works in a mechanical repair shop in NSW. Of course, this is not his real name.

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