Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The C word cannot remain unspoken if a legitimate assessment of Abbott Government economic and social policy is to be undertaken

Tim Winton on the C word that matters in The Monthly in December 2013:

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.

The nation of my childhood was not classless. The social distinctions were palpable and the subject of constant discussion 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.

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