September 2011

The Nation Reviewed

Riding high

By Don Watson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
The Toyota HiLux and the tradie’s new world

Climb into a Toyota HiLux and at once you feel “the commanding outlook”. It’s just as the brochure says. Nissan Navara lacks very little in this regard, though Nissan calls it a “commanding presence”. The Toyota is “unbreakable”, “relentlessly tough and reliable”, “unstoppable”. The Nissan is “tough as nails”; it “looks tough, plays hard” – a bit like the Toyota, which is “ready for action when you want to play”. The Toyota has “extra grunt”; the Nissan has a “massive 170 kW of power”. It “will go as far as you dare to push it”. The HiLux is “as rugged as they come”. To promote the Navara, Nissan is running something called a “Power Up Challenge”.

It’s possible that some readers of the Monthly will not recognise either of these vehicles. Should they want to, they need only travel the arterials of our cities around 4 pm any weekday and keep an eye on the rear-vision mirror: chances are the thing tailgating you has “striking road presence”; “a big tough, powerful stance … an aggressive bonnet scoop … and large cat-like headlights … that show it means business”.

Four o’clock is the middle of ‘tradie hour’. The tradies are going home in their unbreakable and unstoppable cars. Tough as they are, they are also cosily equipped – twin cabins, 100-speaker stereo, bluetooth, cup holders, the works – because “driving hard doesn’t have to mean roughing it”. So when you drive “Australia’s most powerful tradie”, you want for nothing compared to the jerk in the hatchback. And you’ve got a lot more horse power.

They’re horse surrogates, really. Long ago the squire – or the squatter, or the trooper – enjoyed the same “commanding outlook” from the saddle. It gave him an eye-line advantage and, should he be challenged by some pedestrian or some loser on an ass, the extra grunt he needed. ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is constructed on this social arrangement. The presence of his mounted superiors was so commanding the swagman could think of nothing better than drowning himself in a billabong.

The New World was different from the old in all manner of ways, but one of the more consequential was the supply of horses. Put a poor man on a fair horse and he was as good as a rich one. This was something Ned Kelly understood: you could put a lot of social disadvantage and indignity behind you just by getting on a horse. The rural workers who began joining trade unions around the time that Ned was galloping around spitting in the establishment’s eye were wont to go on foot or bicycles.

Horse power is not always inimical to collective consciousness – think of the light horse – but historically it falls heavily on the side of brawny individualism. It plays to the idea of Australia as a land for the muscular and free-spirited, the practical over the ideological, the man of action over the ponce of abstraction.

In this sophisticated and mature capitalist democracy of ours, you might think that an aggressive bonnet scoop would not have much purchase on the public mind. But, according to a recent report in the Australian Financial Review, no other type of vehicle comes within cooee of the tradies’ sales. In 2000, six passenger cars were sold for every utility; last year it was four to one. In that decade passenger car sales increased by 7%; utilities by 25% – and twin cabin tradies, the luxury end of the market costing around $50,000, by 137%.

As the advertising for them makes clear, these vehicles signify wealth, status, taste and belief no less than any Holden or Mercedes. They go with the need to carry a wheelbarrow and to tow a trailer; and, equally, with the need to carry two trail bikes and tow a 10 metre cruiser.

They also go with the shift in national rates of remuneration, which, presumably, goes with a shift in social values. Among all the categories of trade and profession, in the last two years only labourers and plant operators have enjoyed wage increases of more than 20%. On average they now earn a good deal more than office managers, a great deal more than arts professionals and about the same as architects, auditors and accountants.

And they all go with the mining boom. According to the AFR, the editor of the local paper in Singleton earns less than a 25-year-old working at the mines – and, very likely, she goes on less expensive holidays and owns less property than he does. In Western Australia certain kinds of welders earn more than the prime minister, and a lot of labourers earn more than lawyers and treat Bali as a third home – the other two being a portable on the mine site and a 400 square metre, twin garage, three bathroom $700,000 number in a nice development on a coast somewhere (anywhere, they can fly there) on the continent.

We should be glad to see such rich rewards for physical work – albeit only for certain kinds of it – and the virtues of sturdy independence flourishing. We might wish they wouldn’t tailgate, yet be grateful for their spending power and, in their twin cabs, the old strand of larrikin joie de vivre preserved. If only we all had their extra grunt.

However, when I see their bullbars or their cat-like headlamps on my arse I confess to feeling a kind of existential threat. Not the kind I get from the kid in the old Commodore with his cap on back-to-front – he threatens nothing worse than death. But the tradie brings intimations of pointlessness. And when I hear our political leaders, I suspect at least a general trend and complete acquiescence in it. What happened to Albert Schweitzer, Mozart and the CSIRO? Where is physics, anthropology or the simple promise of the Education Acts?

That editor in the Hunter Valley says none of the local young men want to work with their heads in a newspaper office when, like Clancy, they can earn so much more with their hands outdoors. In Western Australia, the mayor of Mandurah acknowledges that only 29% of the local kids finish high school and only 1.3% go to university. Nor, we can be sure, do they want to take up farming.

It’s all over in a matter of minutes, of course, and no recourse is possible – not with that difference in horse power. Missing your back bumper by inches, they veer off to their Foxtel-fitted pads in the new suburbs and leave the roads to the losers who totter along in Corollas wondering if it is their fate to go on taking it, or if they should see what they can get on a trade-in.

Don Watson

Don Watson is an award-winning author. His books include The Passion of Private White, Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, The Bush and Watsonia, a collection of his writing.

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