Unless the inner-city leftists can get the Western Sydney types back on side, Tony Abbott will be left free to push measures that benefit his North Shore constituents to the detriment of others, writes Nigel Bowen.
Post budget, entire episodes of Q&A have passed without a single question from the audience about same-sex unions and the newspapers are full of hard-luck stories rather than think pieces about transphobia.
Could it be the Left is on the verge of re-engaging with bread-and-butter distributional issues?
There are not a lot of parallels between my life and Tony Abbott’s but as luck would have it we were both raised in the upper middle class milieu of Sydney’s North Shore.
Before proceeding further I should point out that Abbott’s current neighbourhood and my former one, while Liberal Party heartland, is neither monolithically conservative nor affluent. The area is neither devoid of low to middle income earners nor people with left-of-centre views – the likes of Tim Freedman, Peter Garrett and Mike Carlton, for example, are all past or current residents.
That noted, I believe it’s fair to say Abbott is, to an extent yet to be fully appreciated, a product of his environment and that his first budget faithfully reflects what might be labelled the North Shore worldview.
In brief, such a Weltanschauung can be boiled down to the following fundamentals: the ALP are incompetent socialists who will invariably blow up the economy whenever they gain control of the Treasury benches; public servants are bludgers; unions are a dangerous scourge; the average worker is indolent at best and dishonest at worst and welfare recipients are scroungers who should pull themselves up by the bootstraps.
Of course, such an outlook is hardly confined to Sydney’s North Shore. Both throughout Australia and in many other countries, it’s the default position of those who are well-positioned enough to opt out of the public system themselves and resent having to shell out to provide health and education services, as well as welfare and old-age pensions for the improvident lower orders.
While displaying a Google-like ingenuity at using negatively geared property, family trusts and self-managed super funds to minimise his or her tax, your North Shorian (both actual and honorary) remains all too painfully aware they are getting a bad deal. And he or she is not accustomed to being on the losing side of a transaction.
The point of this piece isn’t to debate the merits or otherwise of this Ayn Randesque mindset – North Shorians vote for their economic interests, as would be expected. The interesting issue is that in the last seven federal elections enough non-North Shorians – many of them unionists, public servants, low to middle income employees and welfare recipients – have voted for the Coalition to give it an impressive five wins/one draw/one loss record.
Both Abbott and I grew up in simpler times when it was assumed that Westies (both actual and honorary) would support Labor. Indeed, the notion they’d embrace the Liberal Party seemed to make as much sense as Penrith Panthers fans burning their club jerseys and opting to barrack for the Manly Sea Eagles or embrace rugby union.
To make sense of this political development we need to introduce a third grouping into the equation, many of them the upwardly mobile offspring of Westies or the downwardly mobile ones of North Shorians.
As is frequently observed, Inner City Types, while lacking the demographic heft of the Westies or the economic muscle of the North Shorians, are disproportionately represented among the ranks of progressive activists, ALP and Green politicians, public servants, academics, artists and, ahem, journalists.
As is also frequently observed, for the last three decades Inner City Types have had little interest in the meat and potato distributional issues of politics, preferring to devote their time and energy to causes that either have a direct bearing on people like them (i.e. seeking to ensure that well-educated, middle to upper-middle class women have the same career opportunities as well-educated, middle to upper middle class men) or relate to appealingly exotic oppressed groups (i.e. Indigenous Australians, East Timorese, Tibetans, Palestinians, boatpeople, transsexuals).
That the Westies – increasing numbers of whom were dealing with mortgage stress, job insecurity and four hour commutes to work – failed to show the appropriate concern for those experiencing Third World Problems, or saw them as competitors for scarce resources, was taken by Inner City Types as proof of their irredeemably reactionary boganism.
Of course, while the Left has been otherwise engaged the Right has been busily reversing many of the hard-won progressive victories achieved from the time of the Great Depression until the overturning of the post-war Keynesian settlement at the beginning of the 1980s.
The Coalition has now started in on undermining the social wage, which was meant to be the pay-off to non-North Shorians for the painful neo-liberal restructuring of the economy under Hawke-Keating, and which was largely maintained by the populist Howard.
If the Coalition wins a second term – and post-war history suggests a conservative federal government can expect at least three terms and possibly up to nine – deregulating the industrial relations system will undoubtedly be next on the agenda.
In much the same way Inner City Types are given to gazing wistfully at the Nordic social democracies, North Shorians admire the US, a nation where the wealth creator is venerated.
Unless the Inner City Types can rethink their political priorities and get the Westies on side, Abbott, long dismissed as “some kind of old-fashioned DLP pseudo-socialist” by observers ranging from Peter Costello to Mark Latham, looks set to Americanise Australia in a way that benefits his own North Shore constituents while imposing significant hardship on those less well located.