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Tony Abbott's class war


One way of conducting class warfare is to accuse your opponent of conducting class warfare. In his speech in reply to last week's Budget the Leader of the Opposition attacked the government for 'deliberately, coldly, calculatingly play[ing] the class war card', of portraying the political contest as 'billionaires versus battlers'.

There was a time when someone on the Government benches would have interjected to call Tony Abbott the billionaires' lacky, and pointed to some incriminating evidence is support: donations by the mining industry to his Coalition parties have soared over the past five years from a few hundred thousand dollars a year to $3 million, during which time donations to the Labor Party have gone from hardly anything to a bit less than that.

If only life, and class relations, were so simple. But they are not. It is not long since a government of which Abbott was a senior member itself played 'the class war card', but for the other side, for 'Howard's battlers'. And for most of the intervening period Labor studiously avoided playing that same card, preferring to talk about 'Australian working families' rather than battlers — or billionaires.

The frisson of comment about the terms of Abbott's assault on the Budget reflects a national ambivalence, and confusion, about class. Talk about class has never been absent from our history, but we also like to think that since no-one tugs a forelock to anyone, we (unlike the poms) are classless.

Abbott appealed to just this logic before he attacked the Government for not using it. His was 'an Australian life', he averred, 'much like yours, with Margie, raising three daughters in suburban Sydney, paying a mortgage, worrying about bills, trying to be a good neighbour and a good citizen'.

The term 'class' can itself wears much of the blame for this national confusion. 'Class' conjures up a vision of vast battalions, homogenous, distinct, and immutable. What the concept tries to draw attention to is in fact more like one of those Bureau of Metrology videos on the net, images of endlessly-swirling forces of every colour, patterned certainly, but never neat and stationary.

One of those forces is the force of language, and there is probably no time in Australia's history when the term 'class' has been so on the nose. In some ways that is a good thing, reflecting the fact that we are now much more conscious of other kinds of social relations, between genders and cultures, for example, and reflecting also the fact that in a globalising economy on a struggling planet, we are in this together.

But 'class', with its appeals to equality and fraternity, still has a job to do that the currently-preferred language of 'the market' and its insatiable lust for liberty can't do. In fact there is more of a job to be done now than at many points in the past, as a recent OECD report points out.

'Income inequality among [Australian] working people', the report says, 'has been rising since 2000 and is today above the OECD average'. The average income of the top ten per cent of earners is now ten times that of the bottom ten per cent, up from 8:1 since the mid-1990s.

Since 1980 the richest one per cent of Australians have doubled their share of the national income, from 4.8 per cent to 8.8 per cent, while the super-rich (billionaires?) have tripled their cut from one per cent to three.

It is surely not a coincidence that over the period when talking about class, however crudely or disingenuously, became the political equivalent of breaking wind, the actions and inaction of governments of both stripes have contributed to this galloping inequality.

'The growth in inequality since 2000 was driven by two forces in different periods,' the OECD says, by 'widening disparities of market incomes between 2000 and 2004, and weakening redistribution since 2004'. It points out that both 'progressivity and average tax rates have declined' since the mid-1980s, and that since the mid-1990s 'the overall redistributive effect also weakened'.

One of the things that makes class relations so complicated is that sometimes they are so simple. 

Dean AshendenDean Ashenden has written extensively on class and other social relations. 

Topic tags: Deab Ashenden, class warfare, Tony Abbott, Labor, Coalition, Julia Gillard, Federal Budget



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Existing comments

The accelerating inequality of income is a problem. Wealth usually comes either out of someone else's pocket or out of the natural resources of the nation. Certainly those that stimulate productivity should be rewarded, but just because someone gets the jump on others in realising the potential of some land or resource, they should not be entitled to Billions of dollars. Where expensive research is involved, this should be rewarded, but legislation is needed to ensure that "windfalls" should be spread more evenly for the benefit of the whole community.

Robert Liddy | 15 May 2012  

The typical Marxist tactic is to accuse someone else of divisiveness and the accusations of Abbott are such. Anything he says in his defence of course is fuel for the flame - more accusation. Labor are not interested in the substance of what he says only in accusing and stereotyping.

Skye | 15 May 2012  

Skye, is there a touch of (unintended) irony in your comment? Accusing someone of using divisiveness by using divisiveness? I think most of us would be interested in getting to the substance of Tony Abbot's speeches, if only he would say something of substance.

Frank Golding | 15 May 2012  

Let's see: Wednesday May 9 Julia Gillard: "Mr Abbott's got to get off Sydney's north shore and go and talk to some real families and get himself in the real world." Thursday May 10: Tony Abbott's budget reply speech. But, folks, Tony Abbott kicked off the class war! Ah, the left. Thanks to E.S. for collecting and mounting these pathological exhibits with such diligence.

HH | 15 May 2012  

Abbott's efforts to turn himself into a 21st century Ben Chifley are about as believable as those of Rudd, Swan and Gillard's are, and only a gormless nitwit would take any notice of his whitterings on 'class'. The problem is that most Australians don't actually understand where they sit in this 'class' debate, and are mortified if threatened with the tag 'working class'. It's true that the aristocracy of the UK doesn't exist here, and that our landed wealthy are but a Bunyip aristocracy, a mixture of moderately new 'old' money and masses of greedy self-servers who have 'made it' but have they really altered their 'aspirations' (since all politicians use that word as if it were a Holy Grail) or are they pretty well the same as those that drove them to aquire their dream 'garage with small house attached' style of 6 bedroom 8 bathroom and ensuite, uninsulated but fully airconditioned, 16 car garage starter castles? The 'aspirations' on daily display are generally lowbrow and self-centered, and need to be to justify the neo-liberal global view. They are fit for the masses required to keep fueling a consumer economy, but not fit for a 'better world', an aspiration that seems to have fallen off the public discourse list. Abbott may be a Rhodes Scholar but it doesn't seem to have done him much good.

Andy Fitzharry | 15 May 2012  

Thanks for a really insightful argument, Dean. The irony of your third last paragraph is worth quoting again and again (so I'll do it now!): It is surely not a coincidence that over the period when talking about class, however crudely or disingenuously, became the political equivalent of breaking wind, the actions and inaction of governments of both stripes have contributed to this galloping inequality.

Tom Clark | 15 May 2012  

The real problem with politicians is that so few have any class at all.

john frawley | 15 May 2012  

Frank! Tony Abbott does not have to do anything yet - he just sits by while the ALP self destructs. It is always good to remember that we need wealth and wealthy business in this country to employ people - then those people contribute to productivity by paying taxes and buying in local shops and supermarkets, garages, retail etc. Unfortunately, division comes when too many want to be the owners and drivers - and not just the workers. It is a very complex problem - but I believe, Abbott does want people to have the freedom to operate, run and own their own business and have the incentive to do that. I think if you look deeper, there is more to this man than is portrayed in the media.

Terry | 15 May 2012  

It's good to see this challenge to at least one aspect of the Opposition's response to the Budget. Talking with my sister yesterday about the Budget and Tony Abbott's response, she remarked that she'd never seen him perform so well. Yes, he's gathering strength. But he might have made a big mistake in declaring himself so openly in favour of the billionaires. The wonderful thing about democracy is that no matter how much they can afford for newspaper ads and contributions to election funds, and no matter how many they they can threaten with the sack, or how much sway they can exert on the media, each billionaire only has one vote. The vast majority of the votes will go to those ordinary people who are going to benefit from this budget. Their planet will begin to be cleaner and more sustainable. There might be a future for their children's children. Their country might have the opportunity to lead the world, yet again - this time in tiny pioneering steps towards assuring the future of our earth. And the sickening and rampantly accelerating gap between the few and the many might strike a small obstacle. The 8% bounce is interesting.

Kate Ahearne | 15 May 2012  

"A fair go" may be an over-used idiom but the slide of more and more wealth into the hands of the super-rich in recent years is crippling progress towards a fairer society in Australia. It is also bad for business and economic health. If the average family receives an increase of weekly income most of it is promptly spent - mostly on Australian goods and services. This would be good for business and for employees, would reduce unemployment and open up opportunities for young people. How can this be achieved? By using our democratic system to move towards a fairer distribution of net income after taxation This will not be easy and will be resisted by the currently-powerful and their political representatives.

Bob Corcoran | 15 May 2012  

The current Government is doing the dirty work for the Greens. Whilst most of Labor and the Coalition are following a reasonable social democratic path of fairness and economic responsibility, Julia Gillard had no choice then to obey the demand of Bob Brown. Julia Gillard was a very strong opponent to the carbon tax. The carbon tax was environmentally useless and socially and economically harmful. She used her strong opposition to the carbon tax as a key issue trying to get her elected. Australia and the rest of the world managed to deal with the large global issue of getting rid of ozone destroying substances without making an “ozone layer protection tax”. We had bi-partisan support for most environmental legislations to protect our natural heritage and to safeguard air and water. It has been estimated that over 85% of all the carbon tax collected will be wasted on administration and “social justice” experimentation. Julia Gillard is playing class war for Bob Brown by taking from the middle income earners and self funded retirees.

Beat Odermatt | 15 May 2012  

Frank Golding - depends on one's perception and what one sees. Abbott says much of substance and behaves with integrity. The accusations of divisiveness are recognisable as a Marxist letimotif in their frequency and knee jerk answer to anything that Gillard and Labor don't like.

ON a more general point, I agree with Terry 'Tony Abbott does not have to do anything yet - he just sits by while the ALP self destructs.' The lack of a 'centre' in Labor is increasingly evident. Some are utopian, some are Fabians, some idealists - some have a few ideals - but they have been a profound disappointment - in terms of values, not to mention behaviour - to many of those who placed their trust in them.

Skye | 15 May 2012  

The OECD findings are just as those described by Hacker & Pierson in their analysis of USA politics, i.e "Winner-Take-All Politics". It's evident that there has been a classwar and those with the least income have missed out while those already-rich became richer. It was about time the public became aware of this inequality and the going ons of Clive, gina & Twiggy have clearly demonstrated that the 'class' we are talking about has nothing to do with real "class" but what is meant is pure and simple WEALTH that is not contributing to improve society. It's the egotistical and selfish belief that the more money you have, the more power you should have ... and donations to the Libs clearly demonstrates their intention. Class warfare? About time we had one in the opne!!

Dante | 15 May 2012  

Abbott's class war is to accuse 1.3 million parents of spending education allowances on the pokies while whining about billionaire miners being forced to pay a fair tax.

Marilyn | 15 May 2012  

Really Beat, there is something you don't seem to understand and that is that the Greens are just Australians, not demons from outer space.

Marilyn | 15 May 2012  

An interesting but irrelvant essay. Most of what Tony Abbott says is illinformed and meaningless opinion. The real issue in respect of the inequality of income and wealth in Australia is that people on low incomes are generally poorly educated. Most of these people have poor literacy and numeracy skills and they also do not have a trade or professional qualification which would enable them to have a well paid fulltime job.

Mark Doyle | 16 May 2012  

One thing is certain, in a year or so Abbott will become Australia's PM by default, with the help of News Ltd. and the mining billionaires.. One thing is also certain, Abbott will lead a government that is devoid of poiicy or substance, just like his budget reply , a substance-challenged rhetoric. Abbott neglected to mention that the budget surplus that the previous Howard government achieved took place during global economic boom, not GFC! The Lib/Nat Coalition has yet to prove their ability to navigate the nation's economy through the turmoil of a global financial crisis the way Labor did.

Alex Njoo | 17 May 2012  

Marylin, I agree with you. The disgruntled fringe of our loony left needs a home and Bob Brown has provided one for them. It is sad however that he is misusing the environment to promote his own narrow minded outdated selfish political propaganda. Bob Brown is to the environment what Attila the Hun was to land rights.

Beat Odermatt | 18 May 2012  

"the Greens are just Australians, not demons from outer space." You'd think so, wouldn't you, Marylin, except that Brown refers to us all as "Earthians". That's sure got an alien ring to it.

HH | 18 May 2012  

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