Role reversal as Liberals belt Labor with class war rhetoric

[This article was published by the Age in Melbourne, 2 June 2011.]

Once the Australian working class was oppressed by big business. Today it suffers under the yoke of actors and actresses.

Is it just me, or have others noticed that the Liberal Party under Tony Abbott has become the party of class war, class envy and class hate?

In an astounding rhetorical trick Cate Blanchett is attacked as a symbol of wealth and power for speaking out on climate change. Yet dollar for dollar, she barely rates against genuinely wealthy Australians such as mining heiress Gina Rinehart who is a generous supporter of the climate denial movement.

When Tony Abbott stands at the dispatch box and channels V.I. Lenin speaking passionately about Australia's 'working people' and his plan to save them, the world has gone topsy turvey.

Yet this is not new. Conservatives first discovered the working class in about January or February 1980 when Ronald Reagan's campaign for the US presidency began in earnest. Reagan's strategists found they could harvest the votes of ordinary Americans by attacking 'the elites' and appealing to 'traditional values'. Low paid and unemployed Republican voters became known as 'Reagan Democrats'.

The US neo-conservatives developed a whole theory which blamed everything wrong in the US on 'the new class', a vague, contemptuous description of rival intellectuals who supported the welfare state and civil rights. In Britain, the Thatcher's Tories attacked 'the chattering classes'.

When John Howard was Opposition leader (as Tony Abbott is now) he attacked 'powerful vested interests' which crushed the battlers in Australia. 'The families battling to give their children a break, hardworking employees battling to get ahead, small business battling to survive, older Australians battling to preserve their dignity,' he said.

Who were the vested interests who oppressed Howard's battlers'? It was not greedy banks or ruthless employers. It was 'chardonnay sipping, inner-city elites', shadowy, all-purpose targets of hate.

The anti-elitist rhetoric which has swamped political discourse in Australia has been studied by a number of scholars. Two academics, Sean Scalmer and Murray Goot of Macquarie University examined several Australian newspapers, focussing especially on columnists such as the Daily Telegraph's Piers Akerman and the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt.

Anti-elite culture warriors, they found, resorted to Australians' well-known sympathy for the underdog. This was the basis for a rhetorical trick which portrayed a distorted image of the liberal-Left as an extraordinarily powerful and all conquering force. Its critics, often rich and rightwing, were embattled and intimidated.

Apart from allowing powerful voices to play the victim, this populist discourse has a sinister side, they said. It debated issues with extreme and violent language. Those with different opinions were enemies, not adversaries in debate. Scalmer and Goot argued that 'The differences between adversaries are tactical; those that separate enemies are moral. Enemies ... are evil. Unlike adversaries, they cannot be tolerated, only destroyed.'

Today this political rhetoric is fostered by the US Tea Party and climate deniers world wide.

To those with a long memory the seizure of anti-elite rhetoric by the Right has a funny, familiar ring. Simply put, it is a distorted echo of old-style Labor rhetoric which strongly identified with the underdog and challenged big business. The Right's rhetoric is the result of a clever ideological smash and grab raid on the rhetoric of the Left.

In her book , Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class, political analyst Judith Brett from La Trobe University argued that the genius of conservatives like John Howard was that they simultaneously advanced their policies in a way that challenged Labor's core historic identity.

This identity historically grew from the poor and the working class which railed against the power of money and privilege. The antidote was the collective power of ordinary Australians, expressed in trade unions or in progressive governments.

In recent years Labor took this support for granted and desperately sought respectability. The price of respectability was that it dropped its so-called class war rhetoric. Tony Abbott was happy to scoop up the bullets and fire them back at their original owner, now disarmed.

Today the fire-power of money and privilege still exists. It was exercised brutally by mining industry's campaign against the mining tax. Yet Labor was paralysed rhetorically. It dared not use 'class war' rhetoric, even against an industry that employs very few people and whose profits largely disappear overseas.

If Labor wants to stop being used as a punching bag it could do worse than take off the gloves and start talking about the real consequences for ordinary people when climate change begins to hit. The rich will protect themselves against its effects and Labor's battlers will suffer the most.

Ordinary Australians oppressed by actors? That's Theatre of the Absurd.