April 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Once Were Warriors

By Nick Dyrenfurth
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Forgotten People, Elites and Class Warfare

On 18 January 1886, a remarkable letter to the editor appeared in the pages of the conservative Argus newspaper as a bitter wharfies’ strike brought ‘marvellous Melbourne’ to a near standstill. Its author, Bruce Smith, variously president of the Victorian Shipowners’ Association and Victorian Employers’ Union, boasted that he was the “best abused man of the day”. He went on:


The men who organised ‘labour against capital’ will have their names handed down with honour amongst the working classes; but the unfortunate individual … “organising capital against labour”, must be abused and threatened with financial ruin … I may someday be represented in picture-books as a terrible monster of the ‘Jack-the-Giant-Killer’ type, endeavouring to injure a sweet and innocent child called ‘labour’. 


Smith, acutely aware that an increasingly assertive union movement was demonising a so-called new breed of asocial employer by virtue of deploying a then novel epithet – ‘capitalist’ – was preaching to the converted. Few Argus readers would have failed to sympathise with his plight.

It seems old habits die hard in Australian public life. Our plutocratic mining magnates similarly cried poor for a full fortnight following an essay in the March edition of this magazine by the Treasurer and Deputy Prime Minister, Wayne Swan, in which he railed against the threats they were posing to democracy and Australia’s ethos of a “fair go”.

Clive Palmer labelled Swan “an intellectual pygmy”. The treasurer was “turning mate against mate”, charged Fortescue Metals deputy chairman Herb Elliott, in full-page newspaper adverts defending Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest. Elliott blithely suggested that the scion of a Westralian establishment family had “started with nothing” and “epitomises the spirit of what an Australian can do if given a ‘fair go’”.

The conservative commentariat huffed and puffed, too. Swan was a “twit” with a “totalitarian streak” who had taken “time out from his quota of speaking lies and crap about carbon dioxide … to mount his outrageous assault on freedom of speech”, harrumphed the Herald Sun’s Terry McCrann. His colleague Andrew Bolt sardonically wondered whether “Jews, Freemasons or Opus Dei” had acted in concert with the mining magnates. Meanwhile, Liberal leader Tony Abbott and his lieutenants Christopher Pyne and Andrew Robb banged on about Swan inciting “class warfare” with his “half-baked neo-socialism”, which pandered to the old-fashioned “politics of envy”.

Few conservatives, it seemed, had bothered to read Swan’s essay. Swan, dubbed Euromoney’s Finance Minister of the Year in 2011, is hardly a class warrior. He explicitly argued in his essay that “the market system is still the best mechanism for generating prosperity” and presented himself as its most ardent defender: “We can’t afford to let it be undermined by the excessive greed of a wildly irresponsible few.”

Of course, denunciations of the ALP’s predilection for class warfare are as old as the party itself. Such rhetoric is the golden, if somewhat tattered, thread that links the likes of proto-Liberals such as George Reid, via the modern Liberal Party’s deity figure, Robert Menzies, to John Howard and Abbott today. In the lead-up to the 1906 federal election, Reid stumped the country arguing that Labor’s “socialistic” class warfare threatened the sanctities of private property, religion and even marriage. “Under the evil genius of the Labour Party in Australia … an antagonism between the two great forces [capital and labour] that ought to be working in harmony [has developed],” Reid raged.

In part, the rhetorical hatred of class warfare reflected a heartfelt Liberal belief that New World Australia was materially and philosophically opposed to the endemic class divisions of the Old World (although middle-class men of means were inclined to say that). On the other hand, allegations of class warfare were a crude electioneering strategy even then, aimed at tarring the fledgling Labor Party with the brush of militant unionism and revolutionary socialism. Not only did such rhetoric seek to dissuade middle-class progressives from voting Labor but, so it was thought, more ‘respectable’ working-class types might also think twice. Initially, this strategy was a spectacular failure.

By September 1914 the precocious Australian Labor Party had held office in every state, and federally on four separate occasions. It was a remarkable series of achievements predicated on not prosecuting class warfare. Indeed, with the exception of some brief appearances during the latter part of World War I and the tumult of the Great Depression, if Labor leaders have spoken the language of class warfare it has been of a mild populist variety such as when the newly minted leader of the Labor Opposition, Andrew Fisher, addressed federal parliament in 1908. His words are eerily similar to those penned by another Queenslander circa 2012:


Will any one say that the men who do the great bulk of work in the production of wealth in this or any other country get a ‘fair deal’? … The ‘fat man’ calls for one grand scheme of reform, but declines to support any measure which benefits one class … If there is one thing more than any other which members of the Labour Party desire, it is that in seasons of abundant prosperity the lot of the toilers shall be materially improved. 


Despite the steady decline of Labor’s working-class identity after World War II, class warfare denunciations continued to occupy a hallowed place in Liberal sloganeering. As historian Judith Brett has shown, they were central to Robert Menzies’ pitch to the ‘forgotten people’ of 1940s middle-class Australia. “In a country like Australia,” Menzies declared in 1942, “the class war must always be a false war.”

With his appetite for the provision of social goods and public ownership, Menzies would appear as something of a Menshevik in today’s Liberal Party. Whereas Menzies believed that the middle class was precariously caught between the warring forces of organised labour and capital, in the view of Abbott’s Liberals, class warfare’s victims now encompass the breadth of Australian society, billionaires included. Meanwhile, the ranks of the class warriors have expanded exponentially beyond working-class unionists and Labor politicians. Dreaded inner-city tertiary-educated ‘elites’ – climate scientists, environmentalists, academics and famous actresses – now seemingly take turns oppressing the ‘battlers’ of Australian suburbia.

There is nothing new or original about any of this. Much of the Liberal’s class-war rhetoric is a direct importation of the ‘New Class’ model developed in the United States by neo-conservative intellectuals during the 1960s and ’70s and applied to the presidential campaigns of Ronald Reagan during the 1980s. According to this specious if influential theory, a new class of ‘intellectuals’ was destroying the social and economic fabric of the US courtesy of their assault on the traditional aspirational values of ordinary Americans.

It was John Howard, of course, who, as the Liberal leader during Keating’s fading prime ministership, assiduously applied such rhetoric to Australian politics. “There is a frustrated mainstream … which sees government decisions increasingly driven by the noisy, self-interested clamour of powerful vested interests,” he announced in a headland 1995 speech. “Under us, the views of all particular interests will be assessed against the national interest and the sentiments of mainstream Australia.”

Mainstream Australia was made up of ‘battlers’, similar but not identical to Menzies’ forgotten people. For all intents and purposes these included all Australians other than noisy left-wing elites and unionists: “families battling to give their children a break, hard-working employees battling to get ahead, small business battling to survive, older Australians battling to preserve their dignity”. Borrowing from Republican populist conservatism, Howard alleged their plight was all the fault of Keating’s Labor and the elites. Under Keating there had been a “major decimation of the middle class”: “It will be his political epitaph that the Labor man from Bankstown did … betray the battlers of Australian society.” Howard pinched the language of class from under the Left’s nose.

If anything, this inversion of class-war discourse has gathered pace under Abbott’s leadership. Whether it is the Gillard government’s plans to means test private health insurance rebates or Cate Blanchett’s advocacy of a carbon price, Labor and the elites are said to be waging torrid class warfare. But beyond vapid electioneering, there is a deeper political meaning to the Liberal’s hypocritical language. Invoking the spectre of class warfare prevents a serious national debate about imbalances in opportunity and influence, structural inequality and the potential redistribution of wealth in what Fisher termed “seasons of abundant prosperity”. In this way, many of the real elites – such as those who effectively control the media and big business – are shielded from any criticism.

Swan’s essay was not faultless – take the failure to admit Labor’s culpability for the mining industry’s massive public relations victory during the 2010 debate over the super profits tax. Yet it may signal that the wheels are turning on the mining industry. Australians possess a fairly decent bullshit radar. Few will believe that billionaire miners are the unfortunate victims of class warfare, any more than they’ll believe Tony Abbott’s recent fetish for fluoro vests and hard-hats is genuine.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.


Cover: April 2012
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