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Labor's core platitude

By Tom Clark - posted Tuesday, 13 May 2008

The Labor party are working their motherhood statements way too hard. “Working families” have been the most influential platitude in Australian politics since 2006, possibly longer.We have heard about them for years. We have elected a new federal government to fight for them. Now, we are told, the federal budget will put their needs and aspirations first.

So why has it taken until now for a political journalist to tackle the Labor Party about what “working families” actually means?

Finally, on the ABC’sInsiders a week ago (Sunday, May 4, 2008) Barry Cassidy asked Wayne Swan about the new emperor’s rhetorical raiment.


It was a simple, obvious question: “You make constant reference to ‘working families’, that they have to be protected … So who’s not? Who’s not included? Who are you not seeking to protect?”

Swan just stayed on message with his stuff - his job is to fund the working family, not to describe it. He showed no sign of knowing or caring what Cassidy’s question was about: “Well I talk about pensioners as well. I talk about singles on low incomes. They’re all part of the Australian family, Barry.”

Now the whole point of the “working families” Labor so earnestly defends is that they are indefinable. They only make sense while nobody analyses them.

Cassidy followed up on Insiders last Sunday (May 11), with the “Your Shout” segment directly invited to comment on how vacuous the phrase is. Last Wednesday (May 7) he also took up cudgels against it on John Faine’s regular 774 Mornings talk program on Melbourne ABC radio.

Say it; don’t think about it. The Chaser captured this in the lead-up to the 2007 election, when they spliced footage of Kevin Rudd mouthing his core platitude over and over again. But is this a point for only the satirists to pick out? How can such hollow rhetoric get passed off as the core principle for Australia’s policy framework - and go unchallenged?

In fairness, there is plenty of other puffery around to challenge. Brendan Nelson’s “every mother loves her baby” elegy was truly mad. Perhaps he was plagiarising “The Thin Ice” in Pink Floyd’s The Wall.


But the distraction value of other fools is not the point. “Working families” have been front and centre for Labor since before Rudd became leader. It is a phrase that will continue to drive policy well beyond the budget show.

We can try to understand working families, if that is what the government genuinely cares about. (It is not.) We can note how many families do not work, which is not just about employment. We can note how many workers do not have a family to support, however you care to define family.

But work and family are not the point, either. The point is that policy needs to be analysed according to the strength of its supporting ideas, and the supporting idea that federal Labor trots out most often is utterly vacuous.

Labor’s persisting with this nonsense for so long reveals how easy a ride the “working family” has received. It shows how little scrutiny the people who are supposed to bring us news and current affairs have applied to it.

For at least two years, it has been the news media’s job to challenge this platitude. Every journalist squibbed it until Cassidy decided enough was enough.

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About the Author

Dr Tom Clark is a senior lecturer in Communication at Victoria University, Melbourne, and the author of Stay on Message: Poetry and Truthfulness in Political Speech (Australian Scholarly Publishing).

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