When In Doubt – Sing From A Familiar Songsheet

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In 2007, as a desperate Howard Government tried to fend off the resurgent Labor Opposition under Kevin Rudd, it (and its allies in big business) resorted to the time-honoured tactic of union bashing.

One particularly memorable ad featured three heavy-set blokes in industrial gear storming into a workplace populated by clean-cut, immaculately attired professional types, before the screen went dark.

A dire warning of what would befall genteel, defenceless businesses if the thugs from the union movement ever got their hands on them.

Fast forward to 2016, and if the Turnbull Government aren’t quite at the same game, they’re certainly playing a variation of it. Enter the now notorious ‘fake tradie’ election ad with its claim that Australians should ‘stick with the current mob’ or else risk a disastrous ‘war on business’.

This isn’t quite the union bashing we’ve seen in the past. Arguably, that’s because the entire term of the Abbott-Turnbull government has been a prolonged war against trade unionism.

The contentious Dyson Royal Commission, while turning up significant examples of corruption within the union movement, also singularly failed to apply the lesson of history provided by the Costigan Royal Commission: that corruption within the union movement does not operate in a vacuum, and occurs both in parallel with, and as a reflection of, corruption within the business community.

Unlike the Costigan Commission, however, the Dyson Commission didn’t turned up any ‘bottom of the harbour’ scandals with which to vex the business world — precisely because its terms of reference didn’t allow it to go there.

Nor has the Abbott-Turnbull government allowed the lesson of history to get in the way of a convenient Labor/union-bashing electoral narrative.

 Indeed, the ‘war on business’ warned against in the ‘fake tradie’ ad is a subtle variation on the ‘union thugs’ alarmism seen in 2007. In it, a ‘tradie’ worries about Labor’s ‘war’ against banks, miners, and people owning investment properties, and concludes from this that it will ultimately result in a ‘war on business’ that will cost ordinary people their jobs. One can almost envision the Liberal Party campaign strategists taking Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous condemnation of political apathy and rendering it thus:

First, they came for the banks, but I did not speak out because I was not a banker.
Then they came for the miners, but I did not speak out because I was not a miner.
Then they came for the investment property owners, but I did not speak out because I was not an investment property owner …

And so on. In other words, the ‘fake tradie’ ad is an attempt to convince any potential Labor voters that a future ALP government, beholden to a corrupt union movement, would wreck the economy and precipitate mass unemployment — all for the sake of an ideological ‘war’ on business.

Never mind that the ALP is as impeccably neoliberal in its economic policies as the Coalition, and is at the same time doing its damndest to paint the Greens as the economic vandals of whom we should all be terrified. The ‘fake tradie’ ad is part of a wider political narrative that seeks to dismiss any argument for the redistribution of wealth as ‘class warfare’ — as a ‘war on business’. Moreover, it seeks to co-opt the potential beneficiaries of any such redistribution — the working class — by aligning their interests with the interests of the bank executives, mining magnates, and those reaping the benefits of negative gearing. Never mind the revelations of the Panama Papers, which detail the extent to which the ultra-rich are defrauding the rest of humanity. In ‘trickle down’ economics we trust!

And this is what ultimately makes the ‘fake tradie’ ad so offensive. Whether or not the person in it is or isn’t a ‘real’ tradie is irrelevant. What is relevant is that it is a primary example of the co-option of the language of class struggle and economic justice that has so thoroughly poisoned economic debate in the industrialised West since the late 70s. Implicit within this co-option is a patronising view of the working class that dismisses them as gullible dupes who can be made to entrench the privilege of the few in return for the paltry crumbs of consumer hedonism and infotainment banality.

It is an assault on the kind of solidarity that taught previous generations of working people dignity and self-respect, and which rendered aspiration in more than merely acquisitive, materialist terms. That the fake tradie ad has been widely mocked is of cold comfort: as an emblem of the prevailing milieu it is depressingly — and chillingly — effective.

© Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2016. All rights reserved. Originally published in Eureka Street as “‘War on business’ rhetoric echoes ’07 union bashing”.