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You are here: Home > Michael Thompson's Submission to the Hawke-Wran Committee of Review

National Committee of Review                                                                                                                     

Labor Without Class by Michael Thompson ALSO READ Michael's recent essay of August 2010 For the Working Class, which was republished by the Weekend Australian on 28 August 2010.


National Committee of Review

PO Box E1
Kingston ACT 2604
28 May 2002

The Hon Bob Hawke AC and the Hon Neville Wran AC QC

It is my fervent belief that the single greatest danger confronting our Party is the disenfranchisement of its traditional working class supporters.

It is as if the matters the National Executive chose to have examined and reported on by the National Committee of Review were designed to pre-empt discussion of the failing at the last three elections that threatens the ALP with the prospect of years in the political wilderness: the haemorrhaging of its heartland, a contemporary working class made up of blue collar workers, routine white collar workers (many of who are women in the services sector), the long term unemployed, and women from lower socio-economic backgrounds who choose to be homemakers. In 2001, we not only failed to retain the support of skilled and semi-skilled blue collar workers and women from lower income groups (Australian Development Strategies Pty Ltd); there was the added humiliation of our primary vote falling to its lowest since the 1930s. According to Senator George Campbell, there is an "alarming demographic alignment" underway, with John Howard gaining support from people in Sydney's western suburbs (he might have added from the outer suburbs of Brisbane and of the regional cities of Cairns and Townsville).

Not surprisingly, these recent election results were reflected in the 1999 ballot for a republic where the vote split along class lines, with blue collar outer suburban electorates, such as Paul Keating's old seat of Blaxland in Sydney's west, solidly voting no.

Instead the National Executive talks about "best possible candidates" and "best input", which is code for tertiary educated members. If adopted as Party policy, this would dash any lingering aspirations for political office harboured by Labor's working class members.

Next, "the relationship between the ALP…and other significant community groups" is code for the special interest groups.

Of course, the reference to the ALP's relationship with trade unions is about curtailing their influence within the Party. Why?

The unions are no longer the electoral liability they once were for Labor (and when they were, in the turbulent 60s and 70s, Whitlam won nonetheless). Nor are their officials their Party's kingmakers, although the leaders of the factions they align with use their union's numbers for this purpose. Ironically, this call comes at a time when working class influence is fast being eroded by the growing dominance within the union movement of public sector unions, teachers and the like who have little affinity with routine white collar female or blue collar male union members (in part because public sector employees are protected from the more stringent rigours of the market place). Further, unelected positions in predominantly blue and routine white collar unions are the growing preserve of students straight out of university, usually as a stepping stone to a career with the ALP.

On a related but bizarre note, Dean Mighell's reported criticisms of careerists and branch stackers having corrupted the ALP's core, of it losing sight of the needs of ordinary workers, and of forming a new political force for working people (The Australian, 19/3/02) will undoubtedly "resonate" with many blue and routine white collar workers. If, however, Mighell enjoins his members to find an alternative party to Labor or new ideological home with the Greens - the impact of whose policies (if ever implemented) would be to bring about wholesale job losses among skilled and semi-skilled workers, or see them working for third world wages in so called green industries - it is far more likely they will start to question his commitment to their economic future, rather than follow his lead. The Mighell style of union leader poses no real electoral threat to the ALP; nor does it represent the true interests of ordinary workers.

Then there is "examination of internal processes" and "measures to broaden and increase the membership of the party", which will not "resonate" with our heartland.

Obviously, they are not intended to; rather they are designed to appeal to those tertiary educated members and would be members who are not interested in committing to Labor's broad aim of improving the lot of the common people, but who see the ALP as a vehicle for pursuing the interests of their favourite social movement(s) and furthering their own careers, which of course are far from mutually exclusive goals. Indeed, never an agenda without the prospect of a job, entitlement or other personal gain is their motto. Miraculously, conflicts of interest do not tear or rot their shroud of moral superiority. As Pamela Bone confessed, "it is usually the educated middle-classes who are more imbued with notions of justice and equality than any other group" (The Age, 7/11/1999).

Likewise Carmen Lawrence's call for a broadening (Opinion, The Australian, 14/11/01), and Lindsay Tanner's for a "reinvigoration" (The Australian, 13/11/01), of the Party's membership are ruses aimed at granting "activists" pre-eminence in questions relating to Labor preselections and the Party's platform.

"Activists" are usually graduates from the immature politics of our universities (with degrees in humanities and the social sciences, whose disciplines have fallen prey to the depredations of post-modernist scholars) who join a faction so they can go straight into a member of parliament's electoral office. A career with the ALP is the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. As for the assertions of Tanner, Lawrence and the like minded Labor politicians that "activists" are put off by the factional system, in real life they revel in an environment that student politics superbly equipped them for. One could go further and say that as the factions are in most instances led by mediocrities who value conformity as much as they fear original thought (as it threatens their own dull intellects, and potentially undermines their authority), we are witnessing a meeting of minds - and hearts: factional leaders whose proud boast is "whatever it takes" and ex-campus politicians who cloak their ambition in the rhetoric of compassion.

Sadly, someone of Peter Walsh's calibre could not today gain pre-selection for the ALP.

But back to those lifers who never get a real job, or experience the struggles, hopes and disappointments of ordinary Australians, yet have the gall to lecture working class members on politics, life's experiences, whatever at Branch Meetings. Working class members are aware that the only "activity" ascribed to them is that of "loyal Dobbins": dumb service at the behest of those tertiary educated members who do not deign to work on polling booths and the like. But working class members are not fooled by "activists'" veneer of sincerity. And as a consequence of the disrespect shown them, scores of Labor's true believers have turned their back on the Party - as Fin Crisp warned they would as far back as the early 1980s, before the advent of "economic rationalism".

The focus of any examination of the Party's "internal processes", therefore, must be its disheartened working class supporters, not the whining "gimme", "gimme" of its "activist base". Of course, this is the antithesis of Tanner's and Lawrence's paean to "activists", and fobbing off of the working class with nebulous visions of "hope for the future".

Tanner's and Lawrence's imperious "let them eat words" is based on the view that, as a corollary to the decline in manufacturing and like industries, the working class (which they implicitly limit to blue collar male workers) will soon be no more than an electoral rump that can safely be ignored. In fact, ABS statistics do not support this spurious contention (See my Labor Without Class: The Gentrification of the ALP, pp. 69-70). The contemporary working class will be the mainstay of ALP electoral victories into the foreseeable future. Their predictable fall back position is that the working class are up in arms about "economic rationalism", not cultural issues, a view that was surely put to rest during the 2001 campaign - as if additional evidence were needed in the aftermath of the 1996 election debacle, where John Howard promised far more economic reform (including cuts in government expenditure, the partial sale of Telstra, and industrial relations initiatives such as Australian Workplace Agreements) than Labor ever did.

The only matter that could vaguely be said to lend itself to an examination of working class support is "strategies to increase the ALP's primary vote at federal elections". The 2001 election result highlights the unfortunately continuing validity of comments made in Labor Without Class, particularly in the final chapter, concerning Labor's traditional supporters turning to other political parties who speak to their values of democratic government, rule of law, love of country, hard work, traditional family, personal responsibility and mutual obligation, and compassion for the genuinely needy. As argued there, the working class have sensibly drawn on those values to sustain themselves during these times of major economic adjustment (that earlier Bob Hawke-led Labor Governments to their great credit initiated and carried out; and the working class by and large supported for the good of the country, despite it causing many of them personal hardship), not out of any fear or desire to turn back the clock.

This being so, the working class's grievances - which should have been accorded priority in this review - can perhaps best be dealt with by putting a hypothetical question to the leaders of both the ALP's parliamentary and organisational wings: Why do you, on the one hand, consistently fail to voice Labor's support for working class values and aspirations, and worse remain silent whilst so called elites in academia, the judiciary, church , politics (within our Party, too) and elsewhere publicly denigrate them, and stereotype ordinary Australians - that is, those who they refer to as the mob, rednecks and the like (they possess a cowardly predilection for "dog whistling") - as racists, sexists, environmental vandals and so on? Yet on the other hand you all too frequently bow to the self-righteous demands for amendments to the ALP's policies made by special interest groups, often to the detriment of the Party's traditional working class supporters?

(Never mind that their agendas are hopelessly in conflict. For example cultural relativism is all the rage among "progressives", not just multiculturalists, but feminists, environmentalists and the like. Now a typical cultural relativist would presumably uphold the right of people from other cultures to practice polygamy, arranged marriages, female circumcision, and wearing of the veil or scarf in Muslim communities. But do not hold your breath waiting for a feminist, or a so called representative of multicultural Australia, to do so - but if any do, I will gladly amend this letter to acknowledge their intellectual integrity. Nor would they see any inconsistency with Emily's List excluding from its membership - and hence from one of the more powerful networks for seating in parliament those they anoint as candidates - women who are pro-life, which includes the majority of women with religious convictions.)

But more to the point, our leaders should be asked why they have not already put such a question to themselves. Or is there an excuse for their not having done so?

Listening to its heartland does not mean - as many of our elites would have the Party believe - that equality for women, tolerance of other cultures and like issues would have to be jettisoned to accommodate working class values and aspirations (although a number of prominent Labor politicians help perpetuate this myth). After all, it is the working class who with remarkably little tension have shared their suburbs, and in more recent times their jobs, with migrants, not the baby boomers in whose gentrified suburbs the proportion of people from non-English-speaking-backgrounds is steadily declining, and whose attractively remunerated professions are the subject of constant "special pleadings… urging that, in the public interest, [they] should be exempt from the normal disciplines of competition" that those in trades and the like must operate under (Graeme Samuel, President of the National Competition Council, Paper delivered to the Australian Institute of Company Directors, 26/4/1999), not to mention the cultural protection afforded by local content rules and copyright laws. Nor was a blue collar male the architect of any "glass ceiling" that middle class women may have encountered on their way to the top.

What heeding our traditional supporters does mean, however, is that government programs will have to be based upon the working class's ethos of "a fair go": that is, not on the basis of race, gender and the like, but socio-economic disadvantage. Women, indigenous Australians and other recipients of benefits will continue to participate in those programs to the extent that they meet socio-economic criteria. The difference will be that the widespread community resentment they now face will in time turn to support.

But, I hear you say, this is the "politics of envy". It is nothing of the sort. It is the common sense and only equitable principle upon which governments can make decisions on the distribution of limited public funds. It is to be contrasted with the argument against means testing on the grounds that (double income) professionals' "compassion" for the needy will evaporate if government largesse is not inclusive of them. The bottom line of their redistributive principle is: it is not at all morally objectionable for our "rights" (so vociferously advocated by sympathetic ALP politicians) to crowd out the needs of the inarticulate poor. Whereas it should be axiomatic that Labor governments have no right making handouts from the public purse to relatively well off professionals.

"A fair go" is the only policy framework that will allow our party to broaden its membership to include sections of the middle class without terminally alienating its heartland. With it, Labor could actively campaign for electoral support amongst lower middle class people in small business, many of who share the working class's values and their economic insecurity. As well, contrary to conventional wisdom, the tertiary educated are not a political monolith, there are also the selfless kind who have no intention of teaming up with the "gimme" variety. For them, the working class are not the moral and intellectual dregs of Australian society, the stump into which our history has drained, but people whose disadvantage is for the most part not of their own making but historical; they were born into it and, as a consequence, governments should do all they can to ensure their children enjoy equality of opportunity with those from more fortunate backgrounds (especially in higher education where despite decades of Labor government initiatives they are represented at approximately half their proportion of the population - a statistic that has not changed since the 1960s!). They are totally unlike the Eva Coxes of this world who do not envisage "a chance for the working class to actually get the same share of the goods and resources as the middle class" as having any place in "a more equal society" (interviewed by Norman Swan on Radio National, 17/6/1999).

This alternative to the view of Tanner, Lawrence et al is in keeping with the consummate appeals made to the middle class by Whitlam, Wran and Hawke.

My response to the "middle-class educated" supporters of the "Whitlamite generation", such as Anne Summers (SMH 28/01/02) - who, seeing themselves in a more "compassionate" light than all other Labor voters, out of despair at our leader's lack of a "moral compass" over Australia's handling of illegal immigrants could not bring themselves to vote Labor at the last federal election, and so voted Green - is you are not as critical to Labor's long term survival as you would have the Party believe, particularly as most of your preferences will flow back to the ALP rather than to the Coalition.

By the way, such cris de coeur would have moved others far more had they been accompanied by voluntary acts of personal sacrifice, such as petitions, Town Hall meetings, demonstrations - even unlawful acts - demanding the refurbishment of the buildings and grounds at Callan Park in inner-city Balmain for use as a major facility to accommodate those awaiting determination of their refugee status (rather than agitating for them to be declared open space for the passive recreation of a privileged few). And as its villagers have become well known for caring and sharing their peninsula with those in distress or less fortunate than themselves, Balmain would be an ideal location for the temporary release of asylum seekers, women and children at least - and for those who eventually meet the requirements, permanent settlement - within the Australian community. ALP local branches and resident politicians could play a leading role.

They could educate local inhabitants on the facts of refugee settlement, for while Sydney initially gets 97% of all refugees that settle in NSW (40% of the total refugee intake in the 5 years to December 31), it is the "overburdened west, with its ethnic ghettos and its multiplying social and economic pressures, that has to absorb the overwhelming brunt. And to go on doing so, seemingly endlessly." (Alan Ramsey, SMH, 4/5/02 - based on the disingenuous answer to a question Laurie Ferguson asked the Government on March 11).

To those who say the ALP has come to rely heavily upon favourable political coverage from most broadsheet, ABC and SBS journalists and editorialists, and public broadcasters, and that the Party can expect most of these commentators to vilify Labor if its policies more faithfully reflect working class values, my answer is that most tabloid and certain broadsheet journalists, commercial television and talk back radio should more than make up for this loss. Anyway, if the ALP's leaders are publicly attacked by elites in the "quality" media and the like, they would be seen to be telling it like it is, and standing up for what they believe (given the public's trust of politicians is at such a low level, this in itself would be no small achievement). The Party should also remember that the media is not omnipotent, as evidenced by the vote on the Republic where, despite speaking with an almost unanimous voice in support of a model fashioned by our elites, ordinary Australians ignored the media's injunctions and overwhelmingly rejected the proposition put to them at the ballot box.

I enclose for your consideration a copy of my book, which covers in detail a number of the issues raised here and others in a similar vein, and trust it and my above comments will be of value to your review.

Sincerely yours

Michael Thompson