Bubbling along
Theatrics in Canberra don’t do much for those left behind by economic change


The last Holden 6-cylinder motor rolled off the company’s Port Melbourne production line on Tuesday morning. With that ended 68 years of local engine manufacturing, ahead of the American-owned company’s last year selling its famous Commodore model. One hundred and seventy-five workers clocked off for the final time, apparently armed with a free feed, a polo shirt, a yearbook and photo to commemorate their “contribution to our company and our industry”. Most will retire, according to reports. Some have found other jobs. Many face an uncertain future.

In Canberra, the political debate centred on the passage of the Coalition government’s signature legislation. The final sitting week was, as so often has been the case under Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull’s stewardship, akin to a curate’s egg. Yesterday, the so-called “backpacker tax” passed the Senate on a Labor-sponsored amendment, setting the rate at 10.5%, pleasing no one in particular, and embarrassing the government in the process, who desired a 15% rate. At the time of writing cross-bench senators are agitating for 13% as a compromise.

A likewise amended Australian Building and Construction Commission Bill also passed, warming the cockles of government hearts, following on the heels of the Registered Organisations Bill last week, each of which was opposed by the Labor opposition. At a lunchtime press conference Turnbull could easily have mistaken for the Cheshire cat, as he hailed the “vital” significance of these victories, notwithstanding the fact that he and the Coalition had nary a word to say of these double-dissolution “triggers” during the last election.

Writing here on Tuesday, Sean Kelly acutely observed that Turnbull’s “getting the runs on the board” narrative lacks a sense of passion, underlying philosophy or governing purpose, despite the sense that the prime minister is enjoying more fortunate parliament weeks. Labor’s not altogether perfect narrative around “fairness” stands in stark contrast.

Just as the look-at-me antics of Tony Abbott and daily disaster zone that is George Brandis are probably irrelevant to the concerns of laid-off Holden workers, one wonders what the goings-on in our nation’s political bubble mean to the majority of increasingly disengaged voters, other than froth and a fairly decent serving of bubble. The Turnbull government’s industrial relations “reforms” aren’t going to bring their jobs back, nor is a subterranean debate surrounding the precise rate at which backpacker’s income is to be taxed.

It is symptomatic of the Turnbull government’s drift and lack of purpose that it seemingly framed the final sitting week as, in effect, a giant PR opportunity, presumably with the aim of achieving a boost in published opinion polls on the back of ending the year positively.

The portents are not good for 2017. Despite claims that it is getting on with the job of “budget repair” and its economic plan, Team Turnbull is ignoring the elephant in the room. No amount of union-busting – sorry, “reform” – can assuage the real fears of the electorate.

Full-time jobs are drying up in favour of casual, insecure work. Wage growth is stagnant or going backwards. According to an Essential Report published this week, more and more Australians describe their living standards as in decline. Nearly three-quarters of respondents agreed with the survey’s proposition that “life” for “working class” and “middle class” Australians has “got worse” or “stayed about the same” “over the last few years”.  

These respondents might disagree with Turnbull’s description of the passage of his industrial relations bills as a “vital economic reform” and Workplace Relations Minister Michaelia Cash’s tribute to an “important win for the Australian people”. They might rather get the impression that the government is pursuing tangential ideological wars. That’s if they bother to take notice of the news amid the growing revelry of Christmas parties and attention-grabbing reports of pro-refugee protestors shutting down Question Time.

The same survey, however, contained a warning for Labor. While the party is still regarded as the political home of working class people – particularly in response to the question of “Whose interests do you see each party mainly represents?” – One Nation was gaining ground. Impressively so. Labor would be foolhardy to dismiss this as a simple expression of xenophobia or racism.

At the last election, while Labor retained the formerly working-class seat of Melbourne Ports, the party only won a single booth in the electorate: Fishermans Bend. Granted, there the party is primarily the victim of socio-demographic change. But it’s also true that the ex-Holden employees and thousands of recently unemployed manufacturing workers who inhabited or are soon to depart this ex-working class bastion feel a sense of political homelessness. Given the self-indulgent events too often consuming the inhabitants of the Canberra bubble, who could blame them?

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of 12 books spanning history, politics and children’s fiction, including Getting the BluesThe Write StuffA Little History of the Australian Labor PartyMateship: A Very Australian HistoryA New History of the AWU and All That’s Left


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