By Dr George Venturini
What are the problems?
First in line seems to be the perennial problem of Australian identity.
In such ethnically different society it is difficult to define who or what is an Australian. Generalisations do not help.
Early last year J. D. Anthony wondered about Australian identity. Is it advancing or waltzing? (Australian identity: Advancing or waltzing?) He wrote that many Australians, both ‘old’ and ‘new’ know little about the flag, less about the concept of ‘nation’, and practically nothing about the anthem they sing/mumble on occasions such as Australia Day. They may just reach the second part which says:
“Beneath our radiant Southern Cross
We’ll toil with hearts and hands;
To make this Commonwealth of ours
Renowned of all the lands;
For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share … ”
There is more than one obstacle there: the Southern Cross? The welcome to those who have come by sea?
But there is more: “in Australia all three common markers of nationhood – Flag, Anthem and National Day – are clearly devoid of monumental symbolism, overt division, sense of superiority or pretensions of grandeur.
In some ways this mirrors the favourite identity that Australians, until now, have chosen for themselves. It is formulated in different ways, but typically includes a laconic, egalitarian figure who stands up for the underdog and reckons everyone should get a fair go; a good sportsman or woman who likes a beer and a laugh; a bronzed Aussie who either rides through the outback or patrols a surf beach – probably male; one whose values are measured by football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars.”
Curiously, “the Bureau of Statistics reveals that the current ‘average’ Australian is a 37 year old woman who works part time as a sales assistant! She finished school and went on to further training, got married or partnered up and has two children. She is a non-practising Christian. At 71.1 kg and 161.8 cm tall, she is officially overweight.”
And the picture that most Australians like to paint of themselves is: one who values time over money, family over possessions, and who is optimistic about the future.
But these stereotypes ignore the real diversity of Australia and more pertinently do not help to understand an Australian’s identity.
Racism in the Constitution
Plainly put, the Australian Constitution is racist. It was not written as a people’s constitution. Instead, it was a compact between the Australian colonies designed to meet, above all things, the needs of trade and commerce.
As professor George Williams wrote: “The document does not expressly embody the fundamental rights or aspirations of the Australian people. It contains few provisions that are explicitly rights-orientated. According to Lois O’Donoghue, a former Chairperson of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission: ‘It says very little about what it is to be Australian. It says practically nothing about how we find ourselves here save being an amalgamation of former colonies. It says nothing of how we should behave towards each other as human beings and as Australians’.”
Racism was reflected in the terms of Australia’s Constitution:
Section 25 recognised that the States could disqualify people from voting in the elections on account of their race.
Section 51(xxvi) provided that the Commonwealth Parliament could legislate with respect to “the people of any race, other than the aboriginal race in any State, for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws”. This was the so-called ‘races power’.
Section 127 went further in providing: “In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted.” Significantly, neither provision spoke of Indigenous peoples as people, but in the latter case as “aboriginal natives.”
Williams again: “Section 51(xxvi) was inserted into the Constitution to allow the Commonwealth to discriminate against sections of the community on account of their race.
Of course, Aboriginal people were not subject to this section. However, this was not because they were to be protected, but because it was thought that the Aboriginal issues were a matter for the States and not the federal government.
By today’s standards, the reasoning behind s 51(xxvi) was clearly racist. Edmund Barton, the Leader of the 1897-1898 Convention and later Australia’s first Prime Minister and one of the first members of the High Court, stated at the 1898 Convention in Melbourne that the power was necessary to enable the Commonwealth to “regulate the affairs of the people of coloured or inferior races who are in the Commonwealth.”
In summarising the effect of s 51(xxvi), John Quick and Robert Garran, writing in 1901, stated that: “It enables the Parliament to deal with the people of any alien race after they have entered the Commonwealth; to localise them within defined areas, to restrict their migration, to confine them to certain occupations, or to give them special protection and secure their return after a certain period to the country whence they came.
One framer, Andrew Inglis Clark, the Tasmanian Attorney-General, supported a provision taken from the United States Constitution requiring the “equal protection of the laws.” This clause might have prevented the federal and state Parliaments from discriminating on the basis of race.
However, the framers were concerned that Clark’s clause would override Western Australian laws under which “no Asiatic or African alien can get a miner’s right or go mining on a gold-field.” Clark’s provision was rejected by the framers who instead inserted s 117 of the Constitution, which merely prevents discrimination on the basis of state residence.” This was done to appease Sir John Forrest, Premier of Western Australia.
Classism in Australia
Egalitarianism is an article of faith in Australia. While the nation still faces issues of class, Australians tend to be uncomfortable about discussing these or acknowledging their extent.
But faith is not reason. Reason and experience suggest otherwise, and class is alive and well in Australia.
To mention class in Australia is likely to provoke cries of ‘class warrior’ or ‘chardonnay socialist’, as if class were invented by ‘communists’ or idle ‘wankers’. Behind the vitriol and mockery is what John Howard invented the ‘aspirational’ Australia, an ideal: Australians have freedom, mobility and opportunity – the oppression of other countries or eras is long gone. And because of some fantasy, attempts to improve inter-generational poverty or deprivation are misguided: class is a thing of the past.
With the exception of much of the Indigenous population, most Australians have a high standard of living, relative to many countries: low infant mortality, long life expectancy, low levels of crime and so on.
Any departure from this ‘norm’ is regarded as lower class – someone from the ‘criminal suburbs’: areas of socio-economic disadvantage, where crime is more frequent and danger perceived as greater.
This is not to say there is no violence, coercion or exploitation among the upper middle-classes. But research continually finds clusters of disadvantage: problems of physical and mental health, crime and deprivation, going hand in hand with very specific locations, ethnicities and education.
When George Orwell was living rough with the tramps in northern England, his Etonian English had not left him. “Even with miners who described themselves as Communists,” he wrote in The road to Wigan Pier, “I found that it needed tactful manoeuvrings to prevent them from calling me ‘sir’.”
As Damon Young, author, philosopher and fellow at the University of Melbourne, wrote: “[Australians] have a flatter society but the patterns of class remain, from disadvantage to dress.” And in the broadsheet press, such unusual appearance of ‘values’ often confirms Orwell’s observation: “It is easy for me to say that I want to get rid of class-distinctions, but nearly everything I think and do is a result of class-distinctions. All my notions … are essentially middle-class notions.”
As Orwell wrote, people often sneer at class – dress it in burlesque Hollywood clothes and laugh at it, or mock it as the crumbled ruins of a bygone age. (Damon Young, ‘Instructive lesson in class at the auctioneers’, The (Melbourne) Age, 18 August 2010.
Australians often set aside the notion of class and disregard such ‘minor matters’ as financial means, and the luck of being born ‘on the right side of the tracks’ into a wealthy family, ‘of the right kind’ – as it were. They easily attribute such ‘different circumstances’ to ‘individual choice’ and ‘choice of life-style’.
The only time Australians are prepared to discuss class openly is when it can be viewed from the safe distance of the past or another country. Class in this world is a simple matter of legend, of upstairs/downstairs.
Income, occupation, residence and eating and activity habits are all part of what defines people’s class.
In everyday’s life popular culture makes no sense without class. Consider plays – and movies based on the plays – like David Williamson’s Don’s party and Emerald City, or read novels like Helen Garner’s Monkey grip and Christos Tsiolkas’ The slap, or watch comedies such as The Castle, Kath & Kim to see that they are premised on the social realities of class. (Christopher Scanlon, ‘No one wants to admit it, but there’s a class system in Australia’, Business insider, 25 February 2014).
The existence of class is further dealt with by Tim Winton in a recent essay on ‘Some thoughts about class in Australia’.
He opened by saying: “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that citizens in contemporary Australia are now implicitly divided into those who bother and those who don’t. It seems poverty and wealth can no longer be attributed – even in part – to social origins; they are apparently manifestations of character. In the space of two decades, with the gap between rich and poor growing wider, Australians have been trained to remain uncharacteristically silent about the origins of social disparity. This inequity is regularly measured and often reported.
In October, John Martin, the OECD’s former director for employment, labour and social affairs, cited figures that estimated 22% of growth in Australia’s household income between 1980 and 2008 went to the richest 1% of the population. The nation’s new prosperity was unevenly spread in those years. To borrow the former Morgan Stanley global equity analyst Gerard Minack’s phrasing about the situation in the United States, “the rising tide did not lift all boats; it floated a few yachts”. And yet there is a curious reluctance to examine the systemic causes of this inequity. The political economist Frank Stilwell has puzzled over what he calls contemporary “beliefs” around social inequality. Australians’ views range, he says, from outright denial of any disparity to Darwinian acceptance. Many now believe “people get what they deserve”, and to my mind such a response is startling and alien. Structural factors have become too awkward to discuss.”
Because of these misguided ‘beliefs’, anybody reckless enough to declare class a live issue is likely to be met with howls of derision. According to the new mores, any mention of structural social inequality is tantamount to a declaration of class warfare.
Despite all the changes of the past thirty-forty years, class never disappeared from cultural consciousness. Surprisingly, it was not the poor and overlooked who resorted to class discourse. The union movement that had once given voice and language to class struggle had been smashed or had imploded. It all began with Margaret Thatcher declaring that there was no such thing as society. “Australian governments gradually internalised that view and appropriated policies that sprang from it. Governments of both major parties oversaw a transition from collective citizenship to consumer individualism that remade our conceptions of taxation, health and education. Federal minister – Labor and Liberal – who’d been educated in the era of Whitlam promptly pulled the ladder up after themselves” wrote Winton.
During the Hawke years, as during the corresponding years of the Thatcher government, the transfer of wealth, from the bottom to the top, was epic. That was done by a Labor government, by the Treasurer Paul Keating, and by the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. So the ground has been well and truly laid for the inevitable – that is, an extreme political system which was to be implemented by the Abbott government.
The final piece of Jesuitism arrived with John Howard in 1996. He perverted the familiar word ‘battlers’ and re-deployed the word – as Winton wrote – “as a deliberate attempt to appropriate the power of class language while simultaneously declaring class a dead issue. Once it was rebadged, the middle class that the conservatives had first courted and then ennobled felt increasingly emboldened to expect greater patronage, extra tax cuts, more concessions, a larger slice of the welfare pie. As a result, subsequent governments have been forced to contend with a middle class that has an increasing sense of entitlement to welfare. And these funds were duly disbursed – largely at the expense of the poor, the sick and the unemployed. This, of course, was the real politics of envy at work. John Howard exploited middle-class resentment of the so-called welfare class and pandered to a sense of victimhood in Middle Australia that Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard either couldn’t refuse or wouldn’t see. Battlers morphed into “working families” as prospering Australians were taught to minimise their good fortune and expect more state aid.”
As the Sydney Morning Herald’s economics editor Ross Gittins wrote in the lead-up to the September 2013 poll, “If you think the class war is over, you’re not paying enough attention.” He said: “The reason the well-off come down so hard on those who use class rhetoric is that they don’t want anyone drawing attention to how the war is going. To suggest that ours is a classless society or that matters of class are resolved because of national prosperity and the ideological victory of the right is either tin-eared or dishonest. At least the Americans are brutally frank about it.” Gittins went on to quote the billionaire investor Warren Buffett, who declared: “There’s class warfare alright, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
In this kind of new ‘new world’, “people have begun to live more ostentatiously, projecting social aspirations that owe more to the entertainment industry than political ideology. The soundest measure of a person’s social status is mobility. And the chief source of mobility is money” Winton wrote.
Whether one is ‘born to it’ or accumulates it, in Australian society wealth determines a person’s choices of education, housing, health care and employment. It will be an indicator of health, of longevity. Money still talks loudest. Even if it often speaks from the corner of its mouth. Even if it covers its mouth entirely. And governments no longer have a taste for the redistribution of wealth. Nor are they keen on intervening to open enclaves and break down barriers to social mobility. Apparently these tasks are the responsibility of the individual.
Where once Australia looked like a pyramid in terms of its social strata, with the working class as its broad base and ballast and the rich at the top, it has come to resemble something of a misshapen diamond – wide in the middle … The problem is those Australians the middle has left behind without a glance.
At the bottom, of course, there are the poor, who make up almost 13 per cent of Australia’s population. The most visible of them will always be the welfare class: the sick, the addicted, the impaired and the unemployed, who only exist in the public mind as fodder for tabloid TV and the flagellants of brute radio. But if ever there was a truly “forgotten people” in our time it must be the working poor. These folk, the cleaners and carers and hospitality workers, excite no media outrage.
Winton concluded his essay with some bitterness: “ … it disturbs me to see governments abandoning those at the bottom while pandering to the appetites of the comfortable. Under such conditions, what chance is there for the working poor to fight their way free to share in the spoils of our common wealth? No one’s talking ideology. There is no insurrection brewing. For many Australian families, a gap in the fence is all the revolution they require. But while business prospers from the increased casualisation of its workforce, and government continues to reward the insatiable middle, the prospects of help for the weakest and decency for all seem dim indeed.” (Tim Winton, ‘Some thoughts about class in Australia – The C word’, The monthly, December 2013-January 2014).
To be continued . . . Tomorrow: What do Australians believe?
Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini – ‘George’ devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975, invited by Attorney-General Lionel Keith Murphy, Q.C., he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra – to serve the Whitlam Government. In time he witnessed the administration of a law of prohibition as a law of abuse, and documented it in Malpractice, antitrust as an Australian poshlost (Sydney 1980). He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.
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