Modern Labor’s Forgotten Workers

Written by:
4 December 2020
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What ACTU boss Sally McManus said about blue-collar workers at the National Press Club a few days ago doesn’t quite compare with Hillary Clinton describing Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables”.

But the comments from McManus, nonetheless, provide an insight into the priorities of the ACTU and show how far removed from the opinion of mainstream Australians the union movement has become.

The ACTU used to help Labor get elected to government. In 2007 the ACTU’s campaign against WorkChoices was pivotal to Kevin Rudd’s electoral success. Today unions might still provide Labor with the money and the arms and legs for election campaigns, but the policy preoccupations of the unions’ leadership increasingly reflect the concerns of a far-from-representative cohort of the Australian population.

To be fair, McManus was not talking about blue-collar workers as such, for in the context of the debate about the Labor Party’s policy on climate change, McManus described the focus of the as-yet-undeclared Labor leadership aspirant, Joel Fitzgibbon on the employment of blue-collar workers as “narrow” and “old-fashioned”.

McManus said “Climate change is not an issue that affects just one group of workers … In many different ways, a whole lot of industries like our tourism industry and others, are going to be affected by climate change. So whenever we narrow our thinking and we have some idea, old-fashioned idea actually, of blue-collar workers, we are really narrowing who are talking about because climate change affects everyone.”

McManus might think the idea of “blue-collar workers” is old-fashioned, but there”s at least one million Australians employed in blue-collar jobs.

It’s difficult to imagine Scott Morrison talking of blue-collar work as “old-fashioned”, which goes some way to explaining the extraordinary result of an opinion survey reported in these pages on Monday.

In a poll in eight Labor-held seats in suburban and inner-regional areas in Queensland, NSW, Tasmania and Western Australia when voters were asked which party was represents “working Australians” 46 per cent of voters said the ALP and 38 per cent the Liberal Party. That’s not an overwhelming outcome for Labor, given it regards itself as the party of the workers.

There was another interesting survey reported this week. A poll of 1000 Australians conducted by JWS Research showed that Labor’s climate change wars are fascinating to party insiders but not very relevant to anyone else.

When people were asked to name three issues that personally interested them and that the Australian government should focus on only 19 per cent of those surveyed replied “the environment-climate change”. Or put another way, climate change is not one of the three most important issues to 81 per cent of Australians. That is hardly the sort of finding one would expect given the media attention devoted to the topic.

Hospitals, health care and ageing, the economy and finances, and employment and wages are the issues Australians are focused on and will be for sometime yet.

The Morrison government is not one for enacting sweeping philosophical ambitions or developing grand narratives of political economy. However survey results such as these demonstrate the scope for the Coalition next year and beyond to reshape the country’s political and policy landscape.

The development of an agenda for industrial relations reform that’s presented, not as a productivity-enhancing measure as was WorkChoices, but as a way to get more Australians into work should not be beyond the capacity of the Coalition.

Similarly, if the Coalition does decide, as it should, to try to repeal the legislated increases in the superannuation guarantee, it will face a ferocious onslaught from the Labor Party, the ACTU and the superannuation industry – but it’s a fight the Coalition can win if it is presented as a necessary response in a post-COVID world.

While Labor spends its time talking to itself about climate change and to the 19 per cent of Australians concerned about the issue, the Coalition is talking about jobs.

In all likelihood if Australians were surveyed and asked to name one economic policy of the ALP they would say opposition to tax cuts. The reality is that at the moment, as Labor MPs such as Fitzgibbon, and Chris Bowen have basically acknowledged, Labor has nothing much to say to the workers of Australia, whether they’re blue collar or not.

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