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'War on business' rhetoric echoes '07 union bashing



In 2007, as a desperate Howard Government tried to fend off the resurgent Labor Opposition under Kevin Rudd, it (and its allies in big business) resorted to the time-honoured tactic of union bashing.

Still from the fake tradie adOne particularly memorable ad featured three heavy-set blokes in industrial gear storming into a workplace populated by clean-cut, immaculately attired professional types, before the screen went dark.

A dire warning of what would befall genteel, defenceless businesses if the thugs from the union movement ever got their hands on them.

Fast forward to 2016, and if the Turnbull Government aren't quite at the same game, they're certainly playing a variation of it. Enter the now notorious 'fake tradie' election ad with its claim that Australians should 'stick with the current mob' or else risk a disastrous 'war on business'.

This isn't quite the union bashing we've seen in the past. Arguably, that's because the entire term of the Abbott-Turnbull government has been a prolonged war against trade unionism.

The contentious Dyson Royal Commission, while turning up significant examples of corruption within the union movement, also singularly failed to apply the lesson of history provided by the Costigan Royal Commission: that corruption within the union movement does not operate in a vacuum, and occurs both in parallel with, and as a reflection of, corruption within the business community.

Unlike the Costigan Commission, however, the Dyson Commission didn't turned up any 'bottom of the harbour' scandals with which to vex the business world — precisely because its terms of reference didn't allow it to go there.

Nor has the Abbott-Turnbull government allowed the lesson of history to get in the way of a convenient Labor/union-bashing electoral narrative.


"The 'fake tradie' ad is part of a wider political narrative that seeks to dismiss any argument for the redistribution of wealth as 'class warfare'."


Indeed, the 'war on business' warned against in the 'fake tradie' ad is a subtle variation on the 'union thugs' alarmism seen in 2007. In it, a 'tradie' worries about Labor's 'war' against banks, miners, and people owning investment properties, and concludes from this that it will ultimately result in a 'war on business' that will cost ordinary people their jobs. One can almost envision the Liberal Party campaign strategists taking Pastor Martin Niemöller's famous condemnation of political apathy and rendering it thus:

First, they came for the banks, but I did not speak out because I was not a banker.
Then they came for the miners, but I did not speak out because I was not a miner.
Then they came for the investment property owners, but I did not speak out because I was not an investment property owner ...

And so on. In other words, the 'fake tradie' ad is an attempt to convince any potential Labor voters that a future ALP government, beholden to a corrupt union movement, would wreck the economy and precipitate mass unemployment — all for the sake of an ideological 'war' on business.

Never mind that the ALP is as impeccably neoliberal in its economic policies as the Coalition, and is at the same time doing its damndest to paint the Greens as the economic vandals of whom we should all be terrified. The 'fake tradie' ad is part of a wider political narrative that seeks to dismiss any argument for the redistribution of wealth as 'class warfare' — as a 'war on business'. Moreover, it seeks to co-opt the potential beneficiaries of any such redistribution — the working class — by aligning their interests with the interests of the bank executives, mining magnates, and those reaping the benefits of negative gearing. Never mind the revelations of the Panama Papers, which detail the extent to which the ultra-rich are defrauding the rest of humanity. In 'trickle down' economics we trust!

And this is what ultimately makes the 'fake tradie' ad so offensive. Whether or not the person in it is or isn't a 'real' tradie is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it is a primary example of the co-option of the language of class struggle and economic justice that has so thoroughly poisoned economic debate in the industrialised West since the late 70s. Implicit within this co-option is a patronising view of the working class that dismisses them as gullible dupes who can be made to entrench the privilege of the few in return for the paltry crumbs of consumer hedonism and infotainment banality.

It is an assault on the kind of solidarity that taught previous generations of working people dignity and self-respect, and which rendered aspiration in more than merely acquisitive, materialist terms. That the fake tradie ad has been widely mocked is of cold comfort: as an emblem of the prevailing milieu it is depressingly — and chillingly — effective.


Brendan ByrnePrior to being ordained as a Minister in the Uniting Church in 2011, Brendan Byrne spent 20 years working in the finance industry and as an official for blue and white collar trade unions. He is presently in congregational ministry in Melbourne, Australia.

Topic tags: Brendan Byrne, unions, Malcolm Turnbull



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Existing comments

Thank you Brendan.

Tony | 26 June 2016  

I agree entirely. It is time that we stopped pretending that we live in a democracy that respects the right of the electorate to honestly select its leaders.

Lee Boldeman | 27 June 2016  

Thank you for this article. The issue of 'retributive justice' which we detect in the egalitarian attitude of the historical Jesus, is swamped by those on the right as a "war on business". This negative approach does nothing to address the issue of the need for a "fair and equitable distribution of profit." To leave the issue of distributive justice to the concept of the "Laffer curve" or "trickle down effect" has had questionable results in both the USA and the UK. It appears that in many situations it has increased the deficit and the gap between the rich and the poor simply increase.

John Smith | 27 June 2016  

Do you ever get the feeling that you are as "mad as hell"? Thank goodness for Shaun Micalleff's ABC program that lets us have a sometimes painful laugh at ourselves and our political and social world. The propaganda and misinformation , the self interest and grasping at power that has been served up during this election campaign is truly , Brendan, "depressing and chilling". And especially when it comes from people in positions of authority that many people blindly trust. Let us all listen and thrash out politely the deeper aspects of the Australia we need, will sacrifice for and want to share with all our people and those who need refuge here. Let's "ear bash" as many of our friends , families and phone canvassers as we can in this last week before July 2. Keep on speaking out Brendan . We need voices like you saying it as it is , more than ever.

Celia | 27 June 2016  

Bias, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The Labor Party and its fellow travelers are no slouches in promoting class warfare either. The writer is also suggesting class warfare ie unions good, business bad. No doubt, whenever a job is lost it is not because of unrealistic demands placed on employers by some unions, but the greedy capitalists, who do not want to share the wealth. As far as his take on the 'fake' tradie ad, I am much more concerned that a potential Prime Minister can repeatedly lie regarding the privatisation of Medicare. Now THAT is a scare campaign!

Peter | 27 June 2016  

Thank you Brendan, such a well written article. We tolerate too many lies in society, and do not challenge the status quo at all.

Nicholas Punch O.P. | 27 June 2016  

Good on you Brendan, I have had similar experience as a former white/blue collar worker, union official and now ordained Anglican priest I see all those roles as serving .

David | 27 June 2016  

I am frequently reminded when an election is called of the words attributed to US Senator Hiram Johnson when in September 1917 he expressed his misgivings about America entering WW1: "The first casualty when war comes is truth." I paraphrase it simply: "The first casualty when an election is called is the truth." What a responsibility falls on the Fourth Estate to reveal the truth. However in so many ways the Fourth Estate in all its forms in this Information Technology age is compromised in its pursuit of the truth. Media ownership is one obvious way by which journalists and reporters are restricted in their efforts to pursue the truth or to expose lies. This results in them taking sides and playing along with the party line. Again to paraphrase the words of Karl von Clausewitz: Politics is nothing but war without military weapons. Politics may inhibit class war becoming civil war but it can at the same time cause a lot of personal and moral damage. Spin doctors have a lot to answer for.

Uncle Pat | 27 June 2016  

The "union bashing" by conservative politicians concerned for the good of all citizens (rather than only those who are members of a trade union as is the modus operandi of a union) pales into insignificance when compared with the physical bashing of union members or non-unionised workers by union employed thugs - quite apart from the promotion of frank "employer bashing" by unions backed up by glaring lying and corrupt officials in some unions.

witheld for fear of union retribution and thuggery | 27 June 2016  

It is heartening to see that Eureka Street has posted Brendan Byrne's analysis of what the Coalition is trying to do during the 2016 federal election campaign. Most serious observers of Australian politics would be aware of the past conservative attempts to demonise the union movement and the progressive side of politics. Malcolm Turnbull's reason for the double dissolution was because his government could not get its own way in trying to reintroduce the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) which originally targeted the CFMEU, but did nothing about the corruption amongst the big employers in the construction industry. We need to remember what happened in 2010 when Ark Tribe, a CFMEU member and an elected Health & Safety Representative (H&SR) called a stop work meeting on a Flinders Medical Centre construction site to address an important OH&S issue. His action was supported by an OH&S inspector of SafeWorkSA. This did not stop the ABCC from trying to have Tribe imprisoned - an unsuccessful move. Then in April 2016 the Turnbull Government closed the Road Safety Remuneration Tribunal. This tribunal was important for the safety of transport drivers and members of the public too. Any body established to stop corruption needs to investigate it from all parts of society where it occurs and it should not have powers that could allow it to undermine OH&S or public safety.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 27 June 2016  

Yes Peter bias is in the eye of the beholder'. In the eye of the super rich it is 'greed is good'. The victims of that policy have a different bias.

Reg Wilding | 27 June 2016  

The breaking of the back of organized labour is an endgame in every western industrialized country. Most recently it wasn't just the largesse of Chancellor Merkle that allowed a "slave workforce" of Syrians into Germany thru the whisperings in her ear by German big busniess. Interestingly, in this country, it is in tandem with the mantra that the "big four (banks) cant fail." LOL..really? Its unbeleivable that the govt. will underwrite (with OUR TAXES) the failure and misappropriation of funds and financial ruination of these bastions of wealth. But, regular average taxpayer is saddled with huge morgages and can barely keep aflout and our citizens are certainly have no guarentee of being underwritten in job security.

jackalision | 27 June 2016  

The Earth and its resources are there to share. 'From each according their ability, to each according to their need', was the practice of the early Christians, and it achieved outstanding uplifts in the lives of those who embraced it. In the eternal struggle between the right (the Haves), and the left (the have-nots), it is interesting how much more effort and low cunning is used by the wealthy to increase and protect their wealth, to augment the gap between the rich and the poor, and to create slogans such as labelling efforts for fairer division of profits as 'envy' and 'war on business'. And they do it with such an air of righteousness, evidently oblivious of the fate of 'Dives' (Luke 16:19)

Robert Liddy | 27 June 2016  

Brendan The suggestion in your piece that there is a patronising view of the "working class" belies the fact that many of we unpolished folk are often decieved by the well practiced spin of advertising gurus who are skilled in the art of persuading. That is after all what they are paid for. Should you not accept my simple logic, I suggest that you spend half an hour viewing the video "Kaching"

Peter Lee | 28 June 2016  

The 1% who own Large shares of Corporations live in fear of unions as they evoke memories of the French, The American and Russian revolutions. This is why for the last century the US Supreme Court has been used and abused to "Gavel Down the Rabble". The emphasis by Governments to limit education for the masses to hold them in check and the same goes for union becoming toothless around the world. History tells us that these attempts to deny the rabble at the gate becomes pitchforks vs bayonets and the vengeful blood in the eye of the mob. Better to share prosperity than to plunge us all into the madness of civil war.

john ward | 02 May 2018  

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