June 3, 2016

Bad for business

By Michael Lucy
Why have the Liberals stopped talking about class war?

Well, it looks like there’s a war on. Scott Morrison declared yesterday that Labor was waging war on business (and also on growth, capital, and mums and dads). Malcolm Turnbull later concurred: “It is a fact. [Bill Shorten] has declared war on business.” Turnbull had trotted out the line for a warm-up on Tuesday, but it wasn’t until yesterday that it emerged as a central line of attack.

It’s a bit of subtle repositioning on the old topic of class war. There is no class war in Australia – nothing remotely resembling one, really – but no one’s going to let that stop them. The battlelines are the traditional ones of labour vs capital: the ALP was, after all, founded to represent the interests of workers, while the Liberals began as an anti-Labor coalition. But the removal of explicit mentions of class from the government’s rhetoric is a change.

A month ago, after the budget, Turnbull wasn’t afraid of the c-word: “Labor is setting itself up for a war on business. They are setting themselves up for some kind of class war.”

So why the switch? Most likely it’s that Labor is attacking Turnbull for being “seriously out of touch”, and when Malcolm Turnbull brings up the idea of class – even if only to dismiss it – he reminds people of how rich he is. And being seen as rich and successful is a double-edged sword. As a fairly (but not entirely) frivolous Essential poll discovered the other day, voters would definitely ask Turnbull for investment advice but they think Shorten would be more likely to lend them a hundred bucks if they needed it.

In general, rich people don’t like to talk about class, for the same reason that men don’t like to talk about sexism and white people don’t like to talk about racism: when the status quo is in your favour, why go asking tough questions? (One common ploy is to dismiss any discussion of class as “the politics of envy”.)

You don’t need to be a Marxist revolutionary to think that the idea of class is a good tool to use for thinking about society. We all know that not everyone is the same: we are all individuals but we are grouped by wealth, gender, education, race, sexuality, geography, religion and a thousand other variables.

We need to recognise these different groups have different interests and goals and preferences. Politicians certainly recognise this in their policy-making – they couldn’t win an election without catering to them. At their best, political parties are machines for reconciling some of these groups to one another, and making all of them feel they have a stake in the larger social project. (One of our basic political problems is precisely that our parties do not now represent socially significant groups – this is what the hollowing out and the decline of membership and the rotting of the base has meant, on both sides.)

For a couple of decades now – when economic conditions have been favourable, when there has been enough to go around – class has not seemed one of the more relevant groupings for a lot of people. But times are changing, and wealth inequality is in the public mind in countries around the world.

With that in mind, of course Turnbull doesn’t want to talk about class. It’s putting the argument on Labor’s home turf. But business? Of course he wants to talk about business. Everyone likes business, and everyone knows Malcolm Turnbull is good at business. There’s a war you can build a campaign around.

Michael Lucy

Michael Lucy is a writer based in Melbourne.

@MmichaelLlucy

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