It is a matter of despair that Australian politics has become all about faux larrikinism, leaving much of the population marginalised by bad policy.
Are larrikins what we really need as political leaders? Lech Blaine’s recent essay Top Blokes, (Quarterly Essay, 83/2021) explores the persona, and Jack Waterford recently questioned on this website whether Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s abandoning the larrikin personality had been the right move. I agree that by eschewing plain speaking and daring Albanese has impoverished the Australian Labor Party (ALP), but whether larrikinism is what he or the country needs, I doubt.
It’s time to bury the larrikin myth, as I think Blaine is arguing, although his exposé of Scott Morrison’s cynical embrace of the Sharks rugby league team and the working-class man left me feeling angry about what it overlooked. The essay lays bare the lack of principle in modern political thinking but its focus on “top blokes” marginalises important structural changes in the terrain of Australian class.
Blaine covers familiar ground for me. I went to school with Rowan Dean, who appears in the essay for having pronounced the death of the Australian larrikin from too much political correctness. Dean was at Canberra Boys Grammar. I was at the girls’ school. We lived in the inner south, the middle-class children of professionals. I’m now appalled by Dean’s self-serving, ideological verbiage. What happened to the nerdy boy who loved The Beatles and who, along with Richard Glover and others, came first in the state for English in 1976?
I was privileged growing up to think my basic education would finish only at the end of my bachelor’s degree. So I hate the scorn that tinges Blaine’s use of the phrase “university-educated” and I am troubled by what the past decade of higher education policy has done to both universities and TAFEs. Waterford points out — correctly — that Albanese’s focus on infrastructure misses placing tertiary education as a vital pillar of the knowledge economy.
I had gone reluctantly to the private school but it turned out to be liberating: we girls were taught we could be whatever we wanted to be. So it pains me now to see women in power trying to be more blokey than the blokes. My parents then supported me at university (fee-free in those days) but extras had to come from part-time jobs. I worked as a copy kid at The Canberra Times. Bizarrely and lucratively, I was a member of the Transport Workers Union because I drove around Canberra checking that letters to the editor were genuine.
I learned what it was like to be on strike. My flatmates were journalists during the 1980 strike. I watched two unions, the Australian Journalists Association and the Printers and Kindred Industries Union, at loggerheads, while friends struggled to support their young families and scab labour kept newspapers in production. That strike was about rates for using VDUs (visual display units). It was part of the revolution in work that has transformed what it meant to be a blue-collar or a knowledge worker, and in turn transformed labour’s political and union allegiances.
A few years later, when foreign affairs minister Bill Hayden walked into my office in the Australian embassy in Jakarta, I was so surprised the only thing I found to say was that we’d joined the Department of Foreign Affairs in the same year, 1983! Then I didn’t expect I’d be working for him, but I did in 1988. Despite his suspicions of the Canberra elite, and in my case of my accent (my mother was a Pom), he chose me to be the departmental liaison officer. I admired the work Hayden (the member for Oxley where Blaine comes from) did on Indochina, which laid essential groundwork for his successor Gareth Evans; learned from him the importance of trade policy; and had good debates about democratic socialism. I didn’t like what I saw in the corridors of Parliament House, although I still voted Labor.
I resigned from the public service in 1998, no longer wanting to represent an Australia on the road to becoming the mean, cruel country we now are, one at the forefront of denying the existential threat facing the planet. For many of the 20-plus years since, I have been part of the freelancing workforce, feeling the anxiety about the next contract, having to fall over backwards for clients and watching rates for writing work stagnate then dwindle. And also knowing the advantages of flexibility, on which younger workers now place a premium.
Today I despair that politics has become, as Blaine depicts it, all about faux larrikins and the numbers. Numbers that deceive. The big-bearded coal miners (and a few smiling girls used by mining companies to project an image of gender equality and clean, green policies), who earn more in a year than I ever have, swallow up political attention. This leaves the rest, both those living in marginal electorates in Queensland or the Hunter Valley and the two-thirds of Australians who live in cities, poorly served by politics and, more importantly, threatened by bad policy.
Top Blokes made me feel irrelevant, made me put pen to paper. But what about all the others who didn’t rate a mention and won’t be writing a riposte: the vast majority of workers (only 14 per cent now belong to a union) employed not in mining or the trades — the larrikins in Blaine’s essay — but in healthcare, administration and retail; all those in the creative industries left to cope on their own during the pandemic; the people who follow soccer or prefer going to museums and galleries; the farmers grappling with climate change?
Blaine weaves a few individual stories into his essay about class. We meet his own family, true battlers, and Omar and Abdul, who give us a glimpse of the changing face of Australian anti-authoritarianism. But the latters’ stories are not enough to add ballast to just two sentences about the role of women (Grace Tame), refugees (Behrouz Boochani) and First Nations people (Adam Goodes) in inspiring social change. Instead, merely citing those names shows how much identity politics has come to frame the debate.
I do agree with Blaine that over 25 years we have seen the conservatives drive a wedge into our society: “pitting working-class battlers against the inner-city elite, top blokes against tall poppies, coalmines against universities, larrikins against feminists and gays, patriots against Aboriginals, Muslims and asylum seekers”.
Yet, that list excludes a lot of people. I certainly don’t see myself in Blaine’s account of class and power. Who represents my values in today’s political landscape? Who cares about an ageing, middle-class, white, female, bleeding-heart liberal? I don’t support a football team and I don’t have a state affiliation — does that make me un-Australian? I want to see action on human-induced climate change, on forging an independent foreign policy and celebrating the innovation and creativity of our migrants, and on progress towards a Makarrata commission. Does that mean I should vote for the Greens?
What I find most troubling is that, in facing off the pretend larrikin Scott Morrison, the ALP’s tactic is to be as small a target as possible, with a platform that clings to outmoded ideas about the way we work and who Australians are. In short, merely to do the electoral arithmetic. It’s a far cry from the inspiration of Gough Whitlam, and then the intelligent pragmatism of Bob Hawke, and doesn’t add up to hope for a better Australia.