If he had been voted in as prime minister on 18 May 2019, Bill Shorten proposed to pay for increased government spending with a crackdown on franking credits, future limitations on negatively geared property assets (that were grandfathered) and new measures to limit multinational company tax avoidance. Amongst other significant campaign shortcomings, Shorten failed to convince Australian about the fairness of these polices.
According to former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard, the ALP loss was proof that Australians rejected Bill Shorten’s “class warfare” tactics and his “radical” action on climate change. “I think one of the ways where he went wrong was to try and divide the country,” Mr Howard said. “I mean, running on class warfare. One of the proud boasts of this country is that we are not driven by class. We treat people equally. We inherited wonderful things from the British. But one thing we didn’t inherit was class distinction. And he made a terrible mistake.”
Let’s put to one side the view that Australia has always been a classless egalitarian society, a myth widely debunked by historians and sociologists including Humphrey McQueen, John Rickard, Craig McGregor, R.W. Connell and T.H. Irving. No capitalist society can be free of class divisions and Australia is no exception to the rule.
What makes Howard’s remarks significant, however, is his confidence that Australians do not think that existing disparities of wealth and income are the result of class warfare successfully won by ruling political and business elites over decades. And, crucially, that any attempts by unions and the ALP to close these gaps are in fact evidence of a divisive class warfare strategy. Howard is inverting reality.
Conservative and reactionary politics can sometimes be chaotic and risible at others. However, one strength of both approaches has been to present the status quo as normal, a product of invisible forces uncontaminated by ideology and the interference of government in the natural workings of the market. When Howard says “we treat people equally”, he means that there are good reasons why some Australians are billionaires and others fall through the cracks into poverty and despair: social cleavages are part and parcel of modern life and little can or should be done to ameliorate them.
Changing policy can be difficult, so it is vitally important that proponents convincingly explain the need for it. On franking credits and negative gearing changes, Shorten argued they were required to pay for spending commitments instead of focussing on their inherent unfairness to those who do not own property and shares. He gave the impression they were a regrettable necessity instead of arguing that they were socially just and progressive.
The same can be said of tax loopholes for companies and high income earners, as well as capital gains and superannuation concessions. Taxpayer subsidies to private schools and private health insurance funds also inherently favour the wealthy and are not available to low income families. Contrast these government policies, and others such as the LNP’s reluctance to investigate malfeasance by banks and financial institutions, with the treatment given to those who depend on penalty rates, the minimum wage, or the representation of trades unions. Far from running a “class war strategy”, the ALP timidly joined hands with the LNP to deny it and effectively cover it up.
The ALP should ignore calls for moving to the “sensible centre”, avoiding the extremes of left and right as if politics can be easily plotted on a linear spectrum. That is just another way of saying “we don’t believe in anything, have no principles which inform our policies and will do whatever it takes to win”. Before policy development and improved communication with the electorate preoccupies Shorten’s successor, he must first reverse what we could call, for convenience, Howard’s onus of proof.
He must demonstrate that existing social divisions are not normal or natural – they are not the result of happenstance or bad luck – but are in fact the product of structural economic forces which shouldn’t be accepted by anyone as inevitable or unchangeable in a civilised society. The only way to avoid ameliorative measures being branded “class warfare” in the future is to clearly show that successful “class warfare” by privileged elites is precisely what got us to these current inequities. This used to be called raising class consciousness.
Precisely the same approach is required to reverse deleterious changes to the earth’s climate. The current trajectory is incompatible with the planet’s sustainable life support systems. The problem must be clearly understood before appropriate measures are implemented. This will mean taking on climate change deniers including those who, for political reasons, attack environmental science.
The consequences of industrial capitalism can be seen everywhere. They are financial, environmental, technological and social. A social democratic party which denies or refuses to understand them before constructing policies to deal with them is doomed to failure.
Dr Scott Burchill is senior lecturer in international relations at Deakin University.