The things that divided us

Respectable Australians in the late 19th and early 20th century regarded Catholics and the Irish as ‘disloyal’ and discriminated against them. Today Australian Prime Minister John Howard’s government encourages paranoia about terrorism, Muslims and Arabs. The two forms of bigotry have the same basic explanation. They are divide and rule tactics and efforts to divert attention from the struggle between rich and poor.

Wealth and power in Australia are polarised. Just a twentieth of all families in Australia own more than three quarters of the shares and similar investments. This very thin layer, the capitalist class, exercises influence and control out of proportion to its numbers. We may get to vote for members of parliament, but democracy stops at the factory gate or the office foyer: Australian workplaces are all dictatorships.

The immediate concerns of capitalists, the fragile flower of ‘business confidence’ and, more profoundly, the expected rate of profit on their investments, shape their decisions. These issues dominate the financial pages of the newspapers and preoccupy prime ministers, treasurers, other ministers and heads of departments. State managers respond to business concerns because the electoral prospects and the job security of politicians emerge from both of the two main political parties, Liberals and the Labor Party, or chances of promotion of senior public servants, tend to deteriorate when growth slows and unemployment rises.

Hardly surprising then that in March 2004 within a couple of months of taking over as leader of the Labor Party, Mark Latham trekked out to rural New South Wales for a bite to eat and a chat with Lachlan, heir apparent to the Murdoch media empire. Unlike the choreography and publicity that accompanied Latham’s encounters with ordinary folk, this did not take place before the cameras. It was no public relations exercise, but a serious exchange of views. Both sides had leverage: the political patronage of the bulk of the daily newspapers in Australia on the one hand; the formulation of media policy, including media ownership rules, if Labor won government, on the other. John Howard and, for that matter, Latham’s successor as Labor leader, Kim Beazley, have long established links with the captains of industry.

The Australian working class, if we understand it as those can only survive by selling their ability to work and have little or no control over what they do on the job, makes up almost two thirds of the employed labour force. When their dependents, retired workers and the unemployed are taken into account, we find that the wider working class is about the same proportion of the whole population. Although they are a majority, workers’ influence on governments and employers depends on their ability to organise, particularly through trade unions.

When he was returned to office in the 2001 elections, Howard said that in Australia ‘the things that unite us are infinitely greater and more enduring than the things that divide us.’ He is simply wrong. Class and the experiences of oppression – according to race, gender and sexual orientation – is far more important for our experiences of life than citizenship. Indigenous Australians have a life expectancy twenty years shorter than that of other Australians. Women earn only two thirds the wages of men. Straight couples don’t have to check if it is safe before kissing in public; gays and lesbians do.

Howard can get away with his nationalist assertions because the most obvious expressions of conscious class divisions, trade unions, are currently weak. Over more than twenty years, union have been subject to the old one-two. First the stifling bearhug of Labor’s ‘Accord’ coopted union officials into cutting real wages and cracking down on rank and file militancy, especially in the construction industry. Then, from 1996, the Howard government began its efforts to discourage union membership by changing industrial relations laws.

Union density in Australia fell 48 per cent in 1982, to 23 per cent in 2002. But more than half of workers recently surveyed agreed that they would ‘rather be in a trade union’. When unions conduct serious fights to defend or extend wages and conditions they still grow. Solidarity action with the wharfies (longshoremen) in the 1998 waterfront dispute demonstrated that the working class can still mobilise effectively in its own interests.

Class underpins racism, the oppression of women, and discrimination against gays and lesbians in a variety of ways. The tactic of divide and rule is one of them. So there are plenty of precedents in Australian history for the prime minister’s victimisation of refugees, Health Minister Tony Abbott’s attacks on women’s abortion rights, and their insistence that marriage be confined to heterosexuals.

But the capitalist class benefits from the oppression of women, for example, in other ways. Compared with the costs of outsourcing washing, cleaning, cooking and raising kids which the wealthy can best afford to do, women’s unpaid labour in homes prepares workers and the next generation of workers for their jobs very cheaply. Employers, who can therefore pay lower wages, gain the main benefit.

Of course most women now work for money too. Only 25 per cent of women in 1961 had paid jobs, by 2003 the figure was 56 per cent. Here too employers benefit from women’s oppression. Full time female workers earn on average just over 80 per cent of men’s wages and if all workers are compared, the figure drops to 67 per cent.

Class struggles have shaped social movements and patterns of resistance to oppression. The movements against Australian participation in the First World War, the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq simply cannot be understood in isolation from the contemporary levels of working class mobilisation. The involvement of trade unions, the left of the Labor Party and later the Communist Party made the scale and endurance of the two earlier anti-war movements possible. Their impact was increased by workers’ strikes and bans.

Unions played an important role in the campaign against Australian participation in the invasion of Iraq. The Trades Hall Council in Melbourne, for example, initiated the Victorian Peace Network. Close to a million people in Australia demonstrated against the Howard government’s policy on between 14 and 16 February 2003. Huge numbers of workers attended, but as citizens rather than as unionists. The weakness of the union movement and limited involvement of the Labor Party in the movement were major factors in its rapid decline after US, British and Australian troops occupied Iraq.

Class is built into this system, based on production for profit. Class and other social conflicts will keep on happening. And when they flare up, such conflicts puncture John Howard’s image of Australia, filled with hot air about a fair and tolerant country, united against external threats.

Rick Kuhn is a senior lecturer in politics at the Australian National University and a contributor to Socialist alternative. Class and struggle in Australia, which he edited, has just been published by Pearson Australia. He can be reached at [email protected]

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