Australian politics, society & culture


Some thoughts about class in Australia

The C word

© Andrew Quilty / Oculi
© Andrew Quilty / Oculi
December 2013 - January 2014Medium length read

During a recent interview, a journalist pulled me up for using the c-word.

Class?” she asked with lifted eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

I found myself chewing the air a moment. Had I said something foul, something embarrassing to both of us? Discussing two of my fictional characters in terms of the social distinctions that separated them, it seemed I’d somehow broached a topic that wasn’t simply awkward, it was provocative. There was a little charge in the atmosphere. I tried not to put it down to the fact that I was talking to an employee of News Corp Australia. The reporter in question is a person of independent mind, and I admire her work, but she is, after all, in the employ of Rupert Murdoch, whose editors and columnists maintain a palace watch on what they like to call “the politics of envy”. A blur of competing thoughts went through my mind. Was she being ironic, or did she really expect me to defend any casual reference to class relations? Was I being paranoid, or was this the kind of clarification necessary in the new cultural dispensation? Did the nation’s drift to the right mean that we all needed to be a lot more careful about our public language, lest we expose ourselves to charges of insufficient revolutionary zeal?

After a mortifying beat or two, I made a clumsy attempt to explain myself, and soon saw that whatever the journalist’s own thoughts were on matters of class, the fact that she’d challenged me on my use of the word meant she’d somehow done her duty. To whom she’d fulfilled this implicit obligation wasn’t immediately clear. Beyond my initial twinge of anxiety I didn’t seriously think she had a proprietor or even an editor in mind when she baulked at the offending word. Afterwards I came to the conclusion that a Fairfax journalist or Radio National presenter might well have posed the same question out of a similar sense of duty. In itself it was, of course, no big thing; it just caught me unawares. All the same, it was a signal of the ways in which something fundamental has changed in our culture. In calling me out over my use of the c-word, the interviewer was merely reflecting the zeitgeist. I should have anticipated it. I’ve been making assumptions about our common outlook that are plainly outdated.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that citizens in contemporary Australia are now implicitly divided into those who bother and those who don’t. It seems poverty and wealth can no longer be attributed – even in part – to social origins; they are apparently manifestations of character. In the space of two decades, with the gap between rich and poor growing wider, Australians have been trained to remain uncharacteristically silent about the origins of social disparity. This inequity is regularly measured and often reported.

In October, John Martin, the OECD’s former director for employment, labour and social affairs, cited figures that estimated 22% of growth in Australia’s household income between 1980 and 2008 went to the richest 1% of the population. The nation’s new prosperity was unevenly spread in those years. To borrow the former Morgan Stanley global equity analyst Gerard Minack’s phrasing about the situation in the United States, “the rising tide did not lift all boats; it floated a few yachts”. And yet there is a curious reluctance to examine the systemic causes of this inequity. The political economist Frank Stilwell has puzzled over what he calls contemporary “beliefs” around social inequality. Australians’ views range, he says, from outright denial of any disparity to Darwinian acceptance. Many now believe “people get what they deserve”, and to my mind such a response is startling and alien. Structural factors have become too awkward to discuss.

As the nation’s former treasurer Wayne Swan learnt in 2012 when he published an essay in this magazine about the disproportionate influence of the nation’s super-rich, anybody reckless enough to declare class a live issue is likely to be met with howls of derision. According to the new mores, any mention of structural social inequality is tantamount to a declaration of class warfare. Concerns about the distribution of wealth, education and health are difficult to raise in a public forum without needing to beat off the ghost of Stalin. The only form of political correctness that the right will tolerate is the careful elision of class from public discourse, and this troubling discretion has become mainstream. It constitutes an ideological triumph for conservatives that even they must marvel at. Having uttered the c-word in polite company, I felt, for a moment, as if I’d shat in the municipal pool.

Australia’s long tradition of egalitarianism was something people my age learnt about at school. I recall teachers, dowdy folk of indeterminate politics, who spoke of “the fair go” with a reverence they usually only applied to Don Bradman or the myth of Anzac. Australia’s fairness was a source of pride, an article of faith. The nation of my childhood was not classless, however. The social distinctions were palpable and the subject of constant discussion. Where I came from – the raw state-housing suburbs of Perth in the early ’60s – there were definite boundaries and behaviours, many imposed and some internalised. The people I knew identified as working class. Proud and resentful, we were alert to difference, amazed whenever we came upon it. Difference was both provocative and exotic, and one generally cancelled out the negative power of the other. We expressed the casual racism of our time. We played sport with blackfellas but didn’t really socialise. We laughed at the ten-pound Poms with their Coronation Street accents but felt slightly cowed by their stories of great cities and imperial grandeur. The street was full of migrants who’d fled war-ravaged Eastern Europe. Like most of the locals, they worked in factories and on road gangs. They told us kids we were free, and we thought they were telling us something we already knew. As a boy, I believed that Jack was as good as his master. But I understood that Jacks like me always had masters.

I watched my grandfather work until he was in his 70s. Sometimes I carried his Gladstone bag for him. It seemed to signify his dignified position as an ordinary worker who did a decent day’s work for a decent day’s union-won pay. He’d started on the wharves in Geraldton, in Western Australia’s Mid West region, and spent decades as a labourer at the Perth Mint, and though the meekest of men he reserved a sly defiance for his “betters”. He was a union man, but his allegiance was more tribal than ideological. The most memorable thing he ever said to me came when I was 14 or so. Rolling one of his slapdash fags on the verandah of his rented house in sunstruck Belmont, he announced that I should press on with my “eddication”, because “that’s yours for life, and whatever else the bosses can get offa ya, they can’t take what’s there between yer ears”. This was the same man who’d pulled my mother out of school at 15 because there seemed no point in her staying on, the bloke whose sons were sent into apprenticeships without a second thought. Twenty years earlier, his world had been narrower, more constrained, and I’m not sure whether he encouraged me out of regret for curtailing my mother’s dreams or whether he was infected by the new sense of promise that was in the air with the rise of Gough Whitlam.

The summer of that sage moment, all things seemed possible to working people in Australia. It was as if all those Jacks and Jills with masters began to feel a new sense of promise for their children and grandchildren. As an adolescent in this new period of flux, it seemed the frontiers between classes were suddenly more provisional. Some will say class boundaries were always notional, but if they had been as permeable before Whitlam, there was certainly no evidence of it in my family, no sign of it in our street. The lines were fixed. Until the 1970s, young people followed closely in their parents’ footsteps. Not just out of solidarity or emulation, but because to a large extent origin was destiny. The children of tradesfolk became tradesfolk, and the offspring of doctors tended to find themselves in the professions. The Whitlam government didn’t completely bulldoze the walls between classes, but it did knock a few holes in the parapet, and without those liberating gaps my future would have been very different.

Compared to most fields of endeavour, sport and entertainment seem relatively porous in social terms. The arts – which often combine elements of sport and entertainment – are a little like them in this regard, though historically they have always been more class-determined than it’s comfortable to admit. Ask any director at a major theatre company in this country how many of their actors were educated in public schools. They’ll have to have a good hard think. Traditionally the world of letters is similarly class-bound, though it has changed in my decades as a practitioner. In Australia, as elsewhere, it has always been common for members of the gentry to impoverish themselves for the sake of literature, or to at least fall a few pegs into raffish bohemia along the way. Tom Keneally stood out in Australian letters because for a long time he was the most visible exception to the class rule. Hailing from Sydney’s Homebush, a son of working people, Keneally wrote himself, by accident or design, into the bourgeoisie. In his early years, he laboured in the shadow of Patrick White. The great laureate was invariably presented to the world as an oddball, but in truth White’s trajectory embodied the rule. Our purse-lipped Jeremiah was a scion of the squattocracy. His was a life of inherited mobility. He began writing in spats and ended up scowling contentedly in a cardigan and beret, and to that extent he conformed to a pattern very familiar indeed. He was, whether he knew it or not, the norm.

So as a child of the working class who has prospered to a degree unimaginable to my parents and grandparents, and done it in the arts, I am conscious that my own trajectory is atypical. And yet a career like mine is not quite the rarity it would have been a generation ago. My contemporaries Richard Flanagan and Christos Tsiolkas, who also make their living as literary novelists, are but two examples of this slow erosion of the status quo. Both seem to have emerged from what were once termed the lower orders and found themselves – by reason of income and social recognition – in the middle class. I’m not sure how they feel about their new social station, but I am reconciled to mine. In middle age I am conscious of my good fortune and happy to acknowledge that it’s more a manifestation of cultural history than individual talent. My own inheritance was a social tradition. I grew up in a country that codified the dignity of labour, that treasured decency and fairness, where the individual was valued and the collective aspirations of ordinary people were honoured, and I came of age during a social convulsion by which the culture enriched itself in a hectic explosion of hope and innovation. In that sense, I consider myself luckier than any lad born to a fortune in a previous generation.

 I was the first of my family to finish school, the first to complete a tertiary education. Like my younger siblings, I surfed the pent-up force of my parents’ thwarted hopes. They wanted us to have lives that were less subject to the whims of others – the bosses my grandfather spoke of – and they knew that access to education was the key. No one in my family spoke about economics; the future was never about money. What my parents dreamt of was simply a larger, more open existence for their children. Their hopes were rarely expressed in ideological terms. They were not political people and certainly not radicals. Billy Graham inspired them more than the distant and slightly poncy Gough. They urged us to use the gifts we were born with and to refuse to accept the status quo.

We acknowledged class distinctions as facts of life. In high school and university, class was a constant topic of conversation and study. Even at the utopian apogee of my youth I could never have imagined a time when class might be rendered obsolete by history. I certainly never foresaw an age when the very word might hang in the air like something forbidden.

Fifteen years ago, at a book party in London’s Soho, the literary editor of a newspaper, in his cups, suggested I was a bit “chippy”. I was dumbstruck. Even after the fellow was poured into a cab and my amused UK publisher had time to explain the meaning of the term, I remained bewildered. Apparently, at the sort of gentlemen’s club indispensible to British publishing, it was impolite to mention one’s social origins; it made people uncomfortable. Even the most casual, lighthearted reference to class was viewed as “making a song and dance about it”. I was among people who either had been to Oxbridge or were pretending they had. Their accents and manners – even those who’d already begun to speak like Jamie Oliver – were shaped by conceptions of class. As an exotic, I’d had something of a free pass that evening – until I mentioned the c-word. Lesson learnt, I filed that evening’s faux pas under Foreign Customs. Now a similar awkwardness has arisen at home.

In the past few years, some friends have remarked upon my anachronistic class-consciousness. Invariably they’re the children of professionals, graduates of elite schools – all of them lovely, decent people. One, the son of an architect, gave me a blue collar for my 45th birthday. It was funny; I enjoyed the joke, but I wonder what he would’ve had in store had I been a woman and a bit gender-focused, or Aboriginal and a tad race-obsessed.

 If I remain preoccupied with class, it’s not because I’m chippy or resentful. I don’t feel embittered or damaged. I have no hard-luck story to tell. But social distinctions still fascinate me. Perhaps, if I try to take the most disinterested view, their apparent demise has rendered them more compelling; their political invisibility makes them more vivid. But I find it hard to see class dispassionately, because within my family it’s still personal and immediate; it’s still a live issue. I feel it grinding away tectonically in the lives of relatives and friends who may not want to talk about class but who are subject to its force every day.

In 2010, when my face appeared on a postage stamp, I had to submit to the good-humoured sledging of relatives at pains to restrain their pride. In my family, teasing is a blood sport and a measure of affection, so I copped it with pleasure. I enjoyed their refusal to seem impressed. Of course, there were lots of jokes about having to lick the back of my head. But at certain moments it was painful to be reminded that some of them could moisten the stamp but not write the letter it was supposed to send on its way. These are the family members who only follow my stories in audio format – not because they’re too busy to be bothered with books but because they are functionally illiterate. Their curtailed educations, which have sorely constrained their adult lives, were not a manifestation of character. They were outcomes of class. When I’m with those of my friends who are privately educated, I can’t help but be mindful, now and then, of those intimate and often shameful family constraints. Prosperous Australians, even those who’ve snuck under the wire like myself, forget so easily that others are still living over-determined lives in another economy altogether. They aren’t all faceless abstractions, either. Many of them are old neighbours, school friends, relatives, and often they live close by, in the same postcode as you.

When I was young, I didn’t know people like me. By which I mean middle class: comfortable, confident, mobile. I never mixed with people from outside my own socio-economic bracket. There was no opportunity. And it seemed there was no need. I didn’t know anyone who went to a private school. The Catholic kids across the street went to the convent, but that was a step down from state school. It wasn’t until I went to the Western Australian Institute of Technology, now Curtin University, that I came into contact with people my age who’d had private educations. If Whitlam hadn’t abolished tertiary education fees in 1974, I doubt I would have made it to university at all. My parents certainly couldn’t have afforded full tuition, and if there were scholarships available to bright young oiks back then we didn’t know about them. Like so many others of my generation, as the first of a family to enter university I was an outrider on a strange and wonderful frontier. All of us were changed as a result. It expanded the curtailed and tribal world of my immediate family – exploded it forever.

“The Uni”, as my parents called it, was a revelation. The campus of the 1970s was a circus. Everywhere you looked there was a performance, an inversion, a spectacle. It was liberating and surreal. Imperious daughters of the gentry experimented with meekness. Rough-knuckled boys slowly came out as gay. Confused by all the costume and panto, some of us began shyly to ask one another about our backgrounds. For many, the schools we’d come from had given us a certain confidence that only applied within tribal boundaries. Even the posh kids were wrong-footed by the new rules. We were all at sea, only revealing ourselves in cautious increments. We looked wistfully to our new teachers as they strolled the corridors with remarkable aplomb. The tenured Marxists in liberal arts courses were not the first bourgeois citizens I ever encountered, but they were the first I spent significant time with. Their self-assurance was epic, marvellous, dizzying. Some of them took modish intellectual positions and had delusional self-hating politics, but what was most intriguing about them was not the choices they made but the fact that they’d had so many choices to make. Range of choice, I discovered, was a key indicator of class. Some choices are conferred by birth, while others have to be won by hard work. A few can only be achieved by legislation.

I didn’t miss the determined certainties of being working class. Nor did I miss its self-limiting tribalism. But I probably wasn’t prepared for the growing self-interest of the class I gradually joined. For if there’s solidarity at work anywhere in our society these days it’s among the very rich, and the middle class has watched and learnt. Middle Australia is increasingly class-conscious, and it looks to bolster its interests at every turn.

Once the old class-based educational barriers had been down for a decade, Australia seemed to have broadened somewhat. By the 1980s the old working class was harder to identify. Manufacturing was on the wane, but tradespeople began to earn incomes that were once the preserve of the middle class. It was confusing, even upsetting, for some older Australians to learn that a plumber might earn more than a teacher. This was well before the minerals boom that has enabled a bus driver in the Pilbara to pull down the salary of a doctor in Hobart.

Despite all these changes, class never disappeared from cultural consciousness. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the poor and overlooked who resorted to class discourse. The union movement that had once given voice and language to class struggle had been smashed or had imploded. Margaret Thatcher declared there was no such thing as society, and Australian governments gradually internalised that view and appropriated policies that sprang from it. Governments of both major parties oversaw a transition from collective citizenship to consumer individualism that remade our conceptions of taxation, health and education. Federal ministers – Labor and Liberal – who’d been educated in the era of Whitlam promptly pulled the ladder up after themselves. It was pay-as-you-go for my kids. Or graduate in debt. Workers were encouraged to see themselves as contractors, employers as entrepreneurs. Looking back, it seems now like something of a counter-reformation, an ugly regression. But it hasn’t been the vanquished workers pressing the language of class warfare into service. It’s the growing middle class.

The success of Middle Australia hadn’t brought the confidence you’d expect. By the turn of the century, these prospering folk seemed defensive, even a little besieged, and the class basis of much of their social discourse was either unacknowledged or completely unconscious. The boho-bourgeois inner city has long been plagued by smugness, something the suburban middle class might aspire to if only it weren’t so anxious. It takes a deep level of entitlement to be that smug. Middle Australia settled for just being fractious and snooty. Only in the past decade did we begin to hear successful tradespeople being called “cashed-up bogans”. What else could that signify but class anxiety? Very quickly, a large cohort of middle-class people found a means of codifying contempt for those rough-handed interlopers who’d been elevated by the minerals boom into Middle Australia without the benefit of the social conventions and tastes the old middle class was born to. What was the source of all this anxiety? That Jack might leapfrog his masters and give them the finger in passing. That they, Robert Menzies’ “forgotten people”, might be overtaken by the lower orders.

 When I was a kid, most people in the suburbs were likely to describe themselves as battlers – code for unpretentious, working-class toilers. Nowadays, largely as a result of the nation’s remarkable prosperity, the social centre has broadened to the degree that “Middle Australia” is normative. People are just as likely to describe themselves as battlers, but their historically large incomes belie the nature of their struggle, which often has more to do with material ambition than any issue of real hardship. In many instances, the “battles” of Middle Australia are self-imposed. But in recent years they have been valorised and pandered to. At no time was this more obvious than during the Howard years, when the term “Howard’s battlers” was deployed as a deliberate attempt to appropriate the power of class language while simultaneously declaring class a dead issue. Once it was rebadged, the middle class that the conservatives had first courted and then ennobled felt increasingly emboldened to expect greater patronage, extra tax cuts, more concessions, a larger slice of the welfare pie. As a result, subsequent governments have been forced to contend with a middle class that has an increasing sense of entitlement to welfare. And these funds were duly disbursed – largely at the expense of the poor, the sick and the unemployed. This, of course, was the real politics of envy at work. John Howard exploited middle-class resentment of the so-called welfare class and pandered to a sense of victimhood in Middle Australia that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard either couldn’t refuse or wouldn’t see. Battlers morphed into “working families” as prospering Australians were taught to minimise their good fortune and expect more state aid. From the subsidisation of private schools to the tax rules favouring the superannuation prospects of the already comfortable, this is the new welfare paradigm. Evidence of it was everywhere before the recent federal election as single mothers were stripped of benefits and middle-class parents who earnt up to $150,000 a year were promised a full wage for six months to stay home and look after their own children.

 As the Sydney Morning Herald’s economics editor Ross Gittins wrote in the lead-up to the September poll, “If you think the class war is over, you’re not paying enough attention.” He said: “The reason the well-off come down so hard on those who use class rhetoric is that they don’t want anyone drawing attention to how the war is going.” To suggest that ours is a classless society or that matters of class are resolved because of national prosperity and the ideological victory of the right is either tin-eared or dishonest. At least the Americans are brutally frank about it. Gittins went on to quote the billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who declared: “There’s class warfare alright, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

Australia may be dazzlingly prosperous, and keen to project a classless image to itself and others, but it is still socially stratified, even if there are fewer obvious indicators of class distinction than there were 40 years ago. Accent surely isn’t one of them. Postcode can be telling but not conclusive. Even job description can be unreliable. In an era of lax credit regimes, what people wear or drive is misleading, as is the size of the homes they live in. The world of surfaces has never been trickier to read. People have begun to live more ostentatiously, projecting social aspirations that owe more to the entertainment industry than political ideology. The soundest measure of a person’s social status is mobility. And the chief source of mobility is money. Whether you’re born to it or accumulate it, wealth determines a citizen’s choices of education, housing, health care and employment. It will be an indicator of health, of longevity. Money still talks loudest. Even if it often speaks from the corner of its mouth. Even if it covers its mouth entirely. And governments no longer have a taste for the redistribution of wealth. Nor are they keen on intervening to open enclaves and break down barriers to social mobility. Apparently these tasks are the responsibility of the individual.

 Where once Australia looked like a pyramid in terms of its social strata, with the working class as its broad base and ballast and the rich at the top, it’s come to resemble something of a misshapen diamond – wide in the middle – and that’s no bad thing in and of itself. I say that, of course, as a member of the emblematically widening middle. The problem is those Australians the middle has left behind without a glance.

At the bottom, of course, there are the poor, who make up almost 13 per cent of Australia’s population. The most visible of them will always be the welfare class: the sick, the addicted, the impaired and the unemployed, who only exist in the public mind as fodder for tabloid TV and the flagellants of brute radio. But if ever there was a truly “forgotten people” in our time it must be the working poor. These folk, the cleaners and carers and hospitality workers, excite no media outrage. They labour in the shadows in increasingly contingent working situations. Described as “casuals”, the only casual element of their existence is the attitude of the entities that employ them. Often on perpetual call or split shifts, their working lives are unstable. Many of them women, a significant proportion of them migrants, they have little bargaining power and low rates of union representation. As Helen Masterman-Smith and Barbara Pocock vividly document in their 2008 study, Living Low Paid, these people work in hospitals, supermarkets and five-star hotels. They mind the children of prosperous professional couples and wash their incontinent parents in care for an hourly rate most middle-class teenage babysitters can afford to turn their noses up at. It is upon these citizens’ low pay and insecurity that the prosperity of safer families is often built.

 For these vulnerable Australians, there is little mobility. And precious little of what mobility affords – namely, confidence. The cockiness that irritates the old middle class when they encounter fly-in, fly-out workers with their Holden SS utes and tatts and jetskis is rare among the labouring poor. For years I worked in a residential high-rise where the looks on people’s faces in the lifts and on the walkways ranged from wry resignation to unspeakable entrapment. Single mothers on shrinking benefits, injured workers on disability allowances, middle-aged people stocking supermarket shelves at night. Even the most functional and optimistic of them seemed tired. They were not exhausted from partying, from keeping up with all their dizzying choices; they were worn out from simply hanging on and making do. As an accidental tourist in their lives, I was struck by this weariness. And I felt awkward in their presence. Their faces and voices were completely familiar. They smelt like the people of my boyhood – fags, sugar and the beefy whiff of free-range armpit – but despite the cheerful, non-committal conversations we had on our slow ascents in the lift, I felt a distance that took many months to come to terms with. Like the expatriate whose view of home is largely antique, I was a class traveller who’d become a stranger to his own. For all my connection to family, for all the decades I’d spent in fishing towns among tradespeople and labourers, the working class I knew was no more. My new neighbours were living another life entirely.

The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman writes about the contrast between the “light, sprightly and volatile” working lives of mobile citizens at the top of society and those who are largely without choice and prospects. Comfortable, confident people, heirs of the new individualism, often view strangers in cohorts below them in astoundingly superficial terms, as if they have adopted a look, chosen an identity as they often do themselves, as if life were a largely sartorial affair. Faced with your own surfeit of choices, it’s easy to assume everyone has so many. The “liquid” elite understands exotic poverty – it rallies to it tearfully – but it often fails to recognise domestic hardship: poverty of choice, poverty born of constraint, the poverty that is working servitude or the bonded shame of unemployment. Despite the angelic appeal of market thinking, there is no gainsaying the correlation between success and certain family backgrounds, geographical locations, ethnicities and schools. Pretending otherwise isn’t simply dishonest, it’s morally corrosive.

The culture that formed me was poorer, flatter and probably fairer than the one I live in today. Class was more visible, less confusing, more honestly defined and clearly understood. And it was something you could discuss without feeling like a heretic. The decency of our society used to be the measure of its success. Such decency rescued many of us from over-determined lives. It was the moral force that eroded barriers between people, opened up pathways previously unimagined. Not only did it enlarge our personal imaginations but it also enhanced our collective experience. The new cultural confidence this reform produced prefigured the material prosperity we currently enjoy. It was government intervention as much as the so-called genius of the market that underpinned our current prosperity, and it amazes me how quickly we’ve let ourselves be persuaded otherwise.

I have no illusions about overcoming class distinctions completely. Nor am I discounting the role that character plays in an individual’s fortunes. But it disturbs me to see governments abandoning those at the bottom while pandering to the appetites of the comfortable. Under such conditions, what chance is there for the working poor to fight their way free to share in the spoils of our common wealth? No one’s talking ideology. There is no insurrection brewing. For many Australian families, a gap in the fence is all the revolution they require. But while business prospers from the increased casualisation of its workforce, and government continues to reward the insatiable middle, the prospects of help for the weakest and decency for all seem dim indeed.

About the author Tim Winton

Tim Winton is a writer. His most recent novel is Eyrie.