This week saw criticism of Labor starting a class war. But the real class war is being fought by those who seek to erase people on low and middle incomes from the debate. And too often the media are willing participants in this erasure.
Let us be honest: Australia is a nation whose politicians are for the most part drawn from similar socio-economic (and education) backgrounds, covered by journalists who (including myself) come from similar backgrounds, and where any interruption to this course of events – such as when Ricky Muir was elected to the Senate – is greeted with a barely disguised level of condescension that someone not university educated or white collar has deigned to enter the sanctum.
It is a situation of course not solely devoted to income – gender and especially race are also major factors at play. In positions of power we remain a very white, relatively well-paid male nation (and I speak as one of that group).
It is not a situation without consequences.
Retirement age of 70? Well, that seems doable to one who sits behind a desk. The shift of jobs to the services sector? Well, after all, who would want to work in a factory? Low levels of industrial disputes? That must be good – let me quote some measure of international competitiveness while I pass over these record low wages growth and wonder at the coincidence.
It’s the type of thinking that has journalists asking “Is $120,000 the new rich” because that will generate a headline without even caring that it is more than double the median income.
And it is why I have little time for the theatre criticism that can infest political coverage where journalists writing for publications whose target audience is the very wealthiest in our society talk about how Labor’s “class war” attacks on Malcolm Turnbull are poor politics that won’t fly, and are divisive.
That’s pretty rich given today low paid fast food, hospitality, pharmacy and retail workers around the country are seeing cuts to their penalty rates.
Let us not fall into the trap of believing we can’t suggest that the situation and wealth of those in power has no impact on the policies they put forward, even while such policies actually benefit those same people who are putting them in place.
Oh no, we must instead keep to the myth that Australia is some egalitarian paradise where our history is one of everyone buckling down and working together to forge a nation against the odds. Bugger the rum rebellion, put John Macarthur on the $2 note, and bask in the warmth of misremembered history.
You only need to look at the small handful of names (think Gonski or Murray), who constantly get appointed to head inquiries or to corporate and government boards to see we are a nation where positions of influence are restricted to the few.
A nice example of this came earlier this month when the minister for communications and arts announced that Dr Brett Mason (former LNP MP and current ambassador to the Netherlands) had been appointed as chair of the council of the National Library of Australia, replacing Ryan Stokes (the managing director and chief executive of Seven Group Holdings). That same day Mitch Fifield also announced the appointment of the new chair of the council of the National Gallery of Australia – one Ryan Stokes.
Instead of acknowledging this, we must play the same game – pretending those in power, with wealth and privilege, achieved that power, wealth and privilege not due to any systemic circumstances, while in the meantime not daring to suggest they may have a vested interest in advocating policies which will ensure that system is not changed in any way that would weaken their position.
We pretend that we’re not a nation of class or powerful elites – that’s England and the USA.
At least Turnbull no longer attempts to spin his life with a veneer of egalitarian myth.
When he first became leader of the opposition in 2008, he felt the need to downplay his wealth, and in his first speech as leader spoke of how “I know what it is like to be very short of money. I know what it is like to live in rented flats.”
It caused The Australian’s Jack the Insider to note with magnificent precision that it made Turnbull “the only man in Australia to have moved from rags to riches without changing postcodes”.
Now he sees little need to play the poor working class boy made good. And similarly we should not need to pretend that polices won’t greatly benefit him and his peers while also exacerbating inequality. And neither should we hesitate to note his common strategy of erasing those on median or lower incomes from the debate.
We see this erasure in his speeches where he talks of “school principals and police superintendents” to describe those deserving of a tax cuts as being somehow not wealthy – indeed as very much middle class.
The base level salary for a Victorian police superintendent is $154,412, the median salary for a Victorian school principal in 2015-16 was $113,446. That someone would use such incomes to talk up tax cuts says all you need to know about who he sees as the most deserving.
And here I must admit the media is often hostage to this erasure as well.
Upon the passing of the income tax cuts, one newspaper ran the line “What do low-medium income earners get?” and noted that “From July next year, Australians who earn up to $125,333 will get up to $530 cash-back when they lodge their tax return”.
In 2017 the median income was $52,988 and the top 10% of employees earned more than $109,668. Congratulations to those in the top 10%, you’re now officially middle-income Australia.
It means those who are actually middle and low income workers are effectively erased from the debate – their situation ignored, and where to even raise it draws a rebuke – how dare you play the class war card! Why do you hate deserving middle class like the police superintendent?
The budget, despite what we might be led to believe, given the tax cuts that have just been passed without any savings measures attached, is not a magic pudding. Money spent on tax cuts to those presented as middle class but who are actually wealthy, means less money for those on actual low and middle incomes.
We do have a class war in Australia, and right now it is being won by those who not only would have you believe it is not occurring – and should not be mentioned – but who also would have you believe that those who are actually well off are doing it tough.
We need to be honest about who makes decisions in this country, how they are made and who they benefit. And we need to be honest about what is the reality for people on low and middle incomes. Failure to do so not only erases them from the debate, it ensures the system remains unchanged.
• Greg Jericho is a Guardian Australia columnist