Values rhetoric: what the “class warfare” name calling is really about

The big talking points from the last few weeks in relation to federal politics have been around the apparent split in the ALP over compulsory superannuation and whether taxing the top two percent of income earners constitutes “class warfare.”

In a previous post, I made it clear that I’m not a policy person. I honestly don’t know whether what the government plans to do in relation to compulsory superannuation is good, not good or somewhere in between.

My understanding is that compulsory superannuation was a policy enacted by the ALP in the 1980’s and 1990’s to turn every member of the workforce into a capitalist and make every working person responsible for their own destiny by making it possible for them to pay for their own retirement rather than relying solely on the pension in their old age.

It had both micro and a macro objectives. The micro objectives revolved around making sure everyone maintained a decent standard of living by providing them with an annuity income to sustain themselves for the rest of their lives after they retired from the workforce (most of this objective got lost during the Howard period of government) and the macro objectives related to issues like the demographics of Australia in the 21st century, making sure wages growth and inflation were under control, building the financial services industry and giving the union movement a renewed purpose in the information age.

This policy has created a $1.5 trillion industry in Australia and is one of the most important economic reforms of any government (ALP or Coalition) in the country’s history.

The actual policy is not the issue I want to address in this post as what I’ve written above is pretty much all that I know in relation to it.

What is very interesting to observe is people who are experts on policy feeling extremely depressed about the national political conversation devolving to petty name calling and accusations of “class warfare” when what the current ALP government is doing in a policy sense is no different to what the Hawke and Keating government did when they were in power.

For example: the current ALP government has tripled the tax-free threshold under its carbon pricing policy, yet this gets derided as “class warfare” and socialism when it’s taking one million people out of the tax system!

How is taking one million people out of the tax system “class warfare?”

The reason it gets lumped in this sort of category and all of that other “bad stuff” the political “right” often accuses the political “left” of doing to the economy has zero to do with the actual policies the government is implementing. The reason it happens is mostly because of the values rhetoric coming from the ALP and more specifically the constituency they’re targeting in their communications!

The mere act of writing that last paragraph probably puts me at risk of being strangled by people dealing with extremely complex policy issues as it trivialises what they do for a living and the many years they’ve spent mastering such knowledge in order to provide value to the community, but it’s the truth!

When Paul Keating talks about compulsory superannuation, you’ll hear him talk in terms of financial capitalism, why it’s strange that the Coalition are opposed to universal compulsory retirement savings when such a policy would be the dream of pretty much every conservative political party around the world.

While doing this, Keating will often tell the personal story of how Reagan economic adviser Martin Feldstein told him that the Republicans would have kissed the Democrats if they had gotten the union movement to agree to the entire workforce saving 1% of their income for retirement let alone 9% with an agreement to get it to 15% and how strange the Coalition were to back-flip on their 1996 election promise to take the super guarantee charge to 15% of employees incomes when it was already agreed to by the union movement and they would have been the beneficiaries of any political benefits resulting from the change.

When saying these sorts of things, Keating isn’t only targeting what you’d consider the average ALP “base” voter. He’s targeting a much larger audience and aligning the ALP’s values to what they value.

When the current government talks about superannuation, all they talk about is making sure that everyone gets a “fair go” and it being an important “Labor” reform. The values rhetoric, the communication style and who the messages are targeted at are entirely different.

Another example is industrial relations. When the Keating government talked about enterprise bargaining, the emphasis of the message was on moving away from the old centralised wage fixing system and towards a system that was focused on productivity while making sure no one got left behind (which is why the “no disadvantage test” was a key part of the policy and one of the big differences between it and WorkChoices).

At the time, this was considered extremely radical. Keating will often describe the process of implementing the policy as similar to “putting the union movement in a headlock and pulling out their rotten teeth with an old pair of pliers.”

When the current government introduced the Fair Work Act, the policy wasn’t that much different to the Keating enterprise bargaining system, yet the policy is derided as a return to the old union biased centralised wage fixing system and all the bad things that were associated with it (wages breakouts, high inflation, declining productivity etc, etc, etc) without any evidence or data.

Maybe this is because the business community and certain sections of the media are angry that the government got rid of WorkChoices and want to punish the ALP out of spite.

I take a different view.

The reason there is now a call from within the ALP for a return to the Hawke/Keating method of governance has nothing to do with the policies of the current government. It’s entirely due to the values rhetoric, communication and tone coming from the current ALP leadership team and their supporters, how it’s unsustainable and how it’s contributed significantly to the ALP government’s significant decline in support.

The reason the Fair Work Act gets derided so much by certain sections of the media and the business community is not because of the policy itself. That was evident in the QANTAS dispute in November 2011. The reason it gets derided so much is because certain people in the ALP want to pretend that the policy IS centralised wage fixing in order to play to a certain constituency that they are extremely insecure about holding as their positions and power rely on their patronage and belief in the status quo.

In short: the ALP’s messaging isn’t targeting the entire Australian community. They are only focusing their messaging towards the ALP base and the union movement.

The battle right now that is going on between people like Simon Crean, Martin Ferguson and others on one side and Julia Gillard, Wayne Swan and others on the other side is not one over policy.

The current policy “debate” the ALP are engaged in publicly is merely a sideshow for the real issue which revolves around the party’s long-term electoral strategy. Whenever the Hawke/Keating model is invoked by anyone, it’s really a call to end the ALP’s relentless obsession with targeting their communication to the base and their supporters and start focusing on what resonates with the rest of Australia as well as a reduction of union influence both on and within the party.

Had Hawke or Keating been accused of class warfare, they would have laughed at it because their messaging and values rhetoric was immune to such accusations and whoever was making them would simply look ridiculous. The reason the current government gets bogged down by it is because their messaging and values rhetoric is targeted squarely at “the base.” There is no persuasion mechanism to get people who aren’t voting for the ALP to vote for the ALP.

You’ll often hear Wayne Swan talk about the “fair go” while attacking billionaires such as Clive Palmer, Gina Rinehart and Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest. When the ALP are labelled divisive, this is an example of what’s causing it.

What the ALP should be doing is demonstrating how without their governance and economic stewardship during the events of the global financial crisis, their investments in infrastructure, the productive workforce and the Australian community these people wouldn’t be billionaires.

I think they should be showing how the ALP made these people rich through their actions while framing prosperity and economic aspiration as a concept that can only be achieved by an active, pragmatic government rather than deriding these people as “not one of the base” and taking every opportunity to attack them for that fact.

This week’s poll from Essential Media Communications (2nd April 2013) asked respondents to rate both the ALP and the Liberal Party in relation to what attributes they associated with them. One of the most telling results was on the “divided” attribute.

Here’s the ALP’s results:

  6 July 09 14 Mar 10 27 April 11 28 May 12 2 April 13 Change since Jul 09
Divided 30% 36% 66% 73% 82% +52%

As we can see, the divided attribute has gone up 52% since July 2009. Over the last few weeks, it’s become very evident that the divide is far more than a mere personality contest over the leadership of the party. There is a real divide over policy in the ALP that has manifested itself the public debate and they have been unable to resolve it over the past three years.

Here’s the Liberal Party’s results:

  6 July 09 14 Mar 10 27 April 11 28 May 12 2 April 13 Change since Jul 09
Divided 74% 66% 49% 37% 32% +42%

This table shows that the Liberals divided attribute has fallen from 42% from 74% in July 2009 to 32% now.

I think the reason for the sharp rise in the divided attribute rating for the ALP and the sharp fall in the rating for the Liberal Party is because of values rhetoric. The ALP has forgotten where the splits are in the Liberal Party’s ideology and allowed them to unite as a party against anything the ALP propose, implement or stand for.

One of the reasons the Hawke and Keating government were able to win five elections was because they knew how to take large chunks of the Liberal Party’s philosophy and values (open markets, competition, productivity, achievement, excellence, entrepreneurial spirit) and then re-frame them on progressive, socially democratic terms.

The current ALP government seems to have forgotten how to do that. Policy positions on issues and values rhetoric are not the same thing! Tony Abbott understands this which explains why he has made such a big deal out of campaigning around blue collar, manufacturing, unionised areas and making it clear he won’t reintroduce radical free market policies such as WorkChoices.

While the ALP primary vote remains below 38%, expect the values rhetoric battles within the ALP such as the present one over “taxing” compulsory superannuation contributions to continue.

Remember to tune in for next week’s episode of “ALP Values Rhetoric Debates on public display” featuring an all time favourite of many: asylum seeker policy! … “<inaudible>”

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One thought on “Values rhetoric: what the “class warfare” name calling is really about

  1. intuitivereason April 4, 2013 at 9:21 pm Reply

    It’s a good insight this; that the framing of policy says more about the intent than the policy itself. Framed differently the same policy achieves different ends.

    A curious case of life immitating art?

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