ABC RADIO NATIONAL PODCAST
CLASS ACT PART FOUR: DON’T MENTION IT
THURSDAY, 5 APRIL 2018
SUBJECTS: Inequality, Class.
RICHARD AEDY: Hello, I'm Richard Aedy. This is Class Act on Big Ideas. We're looking at social class in Australia. In part one, you heard what our class system looks like and how we all fit into it. Part two was about how we got to where we are. And part three looked at inequality and social mobility – both are worse than they used to be.
This time we'll hear about why we don't talk about class, but we listen when other people do. There's also some ideas on what we can do about inequality, and what might be the beginning of a return to facing up to class, something we've done in Australia for most of the past 230 years – just not for the last 30. Here's the thing. We have a class system. It shapes the life we lead. But just like the movie Fight Club, the first rule of our class system is that you do not talk about our class system. The second rule of our class system is that you do not talk about our class system. It's weird. Here's the novelist Tim Winton.
TIM WINTON: Sometimes I wonder if we allow ourselves to feel about class, because we certainly don't always allow ourselves to talk about it. I think we're squeamish about it and I guess there's lots of reasons for that. I guess one of those reasons might be that the sense that we're told from on high, whether that's in politics or in entertainment or the cultural world, that we're living in a kind of post-class society, that we're all even now, that we've reached the end of history, everything's been sorted and capitalism has fixed all our woes.
AEDY: Another part of it, says the historian Frank Bongiorno, is about not being British.
FRANK BONGIORNO: I think it's something we don't talk about, or at least don't talk about as much as we should. So we take class for granted, we pretend that we don't have it, a lot of the time. When we do talk about it, we talk about it in a somewhat evasive way. We pretend to be talking about other things when in fact the subtext is about class. So I think it's partly to do with our British heritage. We've defined ourselves as lacking the kind of rigid class differences and distinctions and snobberies of British societies from which Australia came, but in fact we carried so many of them over and we never really, I think, threw off the taste for hierarchy and for class difference. But we've always been more reluctant to talk about it.
AEDY: And that's something we share with other countries. Novelist and critic, Christos Tsiolkas.
CHRISTOS TSIOLKAS: Richard, i think one of the reasons is because we are a New World country. Very conscious when I use that phrase; of course we're an Old World country in terms of Indigenous peoples' history here. But a New World in the colonial imagination. And I think – though I'm someone who firmly believes we've always had class here, we've had it from the First Fleet, and you only have to read [Robert] Hughes's The Fatal Shore to understand that – class in Australia is very different to class in Europe, very different to class in the UK, very different to those old, established nations. And I think that's where the idea of classlessness comes into our history because, unlike Europe and unlike large parts of Asia for example, where caste plays a huge role in determining opportunities and the future for you, there was a level of trans-classness, if you like, in the New World nations, that has given us that lift. It's no accident that I think if you go to Canada, if you go to the United States, and you cross over to New Zealand, that question of what is class is framed in really similar ways to the way it's framed here.
AEDY: But interestingly – and I've spent time in all of those countries – in all of them there is class, and in America I think it's very profoundly in your face now.
TSIOLKAS: Of course, of course. Look, if I gave you the impression that I believe that there's no class in these nations, that's completely not what I believe. As I said, I think there is class, but it is inflected differently. The relationship to class is very, very different to the European and I think the Asian experience. That, for me, has always been the fascinating thing about trying to understand class in the New World nations. To give you an example, because examples are always best, I was just having this conversation with French friends on Friday night, about how, in France, the idea of being working class is still about being a white, French-speaking, French-born, long-generational French person. He was saying in his country they don't talk about second- and third-generation migrants as being part of the working class, which I think is – for someone like me from a country like Australia, that within one generation, I have not only become Australian, that that's what I call myself, but that I've moved from a working class migrant history to another class.
AEDY: Writer and journalist George Megalogenis has his own hypothesis.
GEORGE MEGALOGENIS: I've got a little theory on this. I think it's because we had such a problem at the turn of the 20th century. We almost were literally at class war. Pretty much from the first day of the Federation we've been trying to avoid class conflict in Australia. And we've been able to manage it pretty well for a long time. Now, we don't have to have class conflict for there to be a class problem in Australia. I think we have a class problem in Australia; it's just that the definitions of class are changing as the world we live in has changed. So I tend to view it now, rather than your standard working class, middle class, upper class model – others use these phrases insiders and outsiders; I find them a bit too binary – I think there's something more fundamental going on here. We've opened the economy up. We're a global citizen. We're pretty good in the macro at handling global shocks. But is every member of the Australian population equipped for that world? And when I look at class divides in Australia today, it's between the cosmopolitan and the globally enabled Australian and the local-born and Indigenous and the refugee that may not have the tools to be members of a high-income society like Australia.
AEDY: Few people are as prepared to talk about this directly as the playwright Patricia Cornelius.
PATRICIA CORNELIUS: I see it as plain and in your face, and as clearly as any other time. It's amazing to me how many people think we are a classless society. It's ridiculous. i once had this great experience of being interviewed by Jon Faine, who got really irritable about the description of Melbourne Workers' Theatre, the company that I worked with, and about representing working-class stories. And he got really tetchy about class and said there's no such thing as working class any more. And I got pumped, and I just thought, alright, I'm going for it, "who cleans your house, Jon?" And there was this gorgeous silence. And of course, he did have a cleaner, which was lucky for me. And of course, cleaners are members of the working class. And we just forget. We forget that those people who are in privileged positions and are part of the middle class or the wealthy class just don't see it. And choose not to, obviously.
AEDY: That makes sense, especially in the context of everything else you've just heard. Not British. New World. Our own history. Thinking about class makes us uncomfortable. Chris Scanlon from the Swinburne University of Technology.
CHRIS SCANLON: I think Australians find class quite a confronting concept. And I think many people do; it's not just Australians. We don't really like to talk about class because –and we don't like to talk about it either in the spectrum – I think the reason for that is if you're at the top of the spectrum and you talk about class, then there's a suggestion that you didn't really get there under your own steam, that you had help. That might have been parents, that might have been education, that might have been the resources available to you. And at the bottom end of the pecking order, it suggests that there's maybe something, you know, that you're not up to it. It's a bit of a slur on people that they haven't worked hard enough. And that's not what class is really about. It's about saying that there are things beyond your control that explain your social position and your cultural position and your economic position in the pecking order. I feel it's a bit confronting for people. Because I think the dominant ideology, if we have one, is kind of, there are no limits; you can do anything. And that's very seductive to people. So if you're not doing so well, you've accepted limits, you've not tried. And people often feel that talk of class is a bit of a cop out, that I didn't achieve success because all of these things holding me back. And we don't really like to acknowledge that; we like to think that we're all free, we're all individuals, and we can do whatever we want.
AEDY: On Big Ideas, this is Class Act. I'm Richard Aedy. Despite all you've just heard, we understand class very well. And our storytellers use it all the time.
SCANLON: It comes up in our culture all of the time. If you think about the comedies that are big in Australia, in particular, we've got Kath & Kim. If you think about that show, the two other characters that they [Jane Turner and Gina Riley] play, Prue and Trude, the smug, middle-class shop owners...
CLIP – Kath & Kim
PRUE: You look tired, Trude.
TRUDE: Well I'm doing it tough at the moment, Prue. You know, Graeme's never home. He's up to his ears in boobs at the moment.
PRUE: Well I guess that's what you get for being married to Melbourne's most successful plastic surgeon.
TRUDE: Yes, you're right. Are you going away for the school holidays?
PRUE: Oh look, we were going to go to Falls, but there's no snow.
PRUE: No. So yeah, I don't know. What about you?
SCANLON: All of the comedy in that show is based around class distinctions, about people mangling the language.
CLIP – Kath & Kim
KIM: Back to me. I have got the concept for the kitchen. Very exciting.
KATH: Oh well you'd better tell me Kim, because I need to approve it, so shoot.
KIM: Alright. Brett and me have decided we want solid monogamy [sic].
KATH: Oh no, Kim. Monogamy's very old fashioned. You just need a veneer of monogamy, that's what people care about.
SCANLON: Wearing the wrong things; that's a part of that show. And if you think about literature, if you think about books like Loaded and The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, they're all about class. But The Slap, at the heart of that novel, is about a difference in value, about how you discipline children. And between middle-class and more working-class attitudes towards this. And these are kind of, they sort of bubble up in our culture in all kinds of ways. So although we might be reluctant to talk about them, they are part of our unconscious, almost the return of the repressed in our culture. They come up again and again.
CLIP – The Castle
DARRYL KERRIGAN: This is my backyard.
COUNCIL VALUER: Is that the runway there?
DARRYL KERRIGAN: Sometimes you think they're gonna land right on top of you. I reckon we're the luckiest family in the world.
DARRYL KERRIGAN: Oh Steve, can you move the Camira? I need to get the Torana out so I can get to the Commodore.
STEVE KERRIGAN: I'll have to get the keys for the Cortina if I'm gonna move that Camira.
DARRYL KERRIGAN: Yeah, watch the boat mate.
STEVE KERRIGAN: Yep.
AEDY: Also, things like The Castle, which is one of the most beloved Australian films. That doesn't make sense, in a way, unless you have a kind of understanding of class.
SCANLON: Movies like The Castle make absolutely no sense unless you understand class. Unless you can kind of position where these people live, the kinds of values they hold, the kinds of attitude to language they use, who they're engaged with, the interaction between the father and the judge, the lawyer, all of those relationships are about class. And the comedy comes through the misunderstanding. The other great example, of course, is Ja'mie: Private School Girl.
CLIP – SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH
JA'MIE KING: My name is Ja'mie. J-A-apostrophe-M-I-E. Weird name, I know, but "j'ou'll" [sic] get used to it. Yes, I come from one of the most expensive private girls' schools in the state. But I'm actually really cool. Please don't be intimidated by me. People always go, "private schools create better citizens." But I would say they create better-quality citizens. Studies have shown that students from private schools are more likely to get into uni and end up making a lot more money, while wife-beaters and rapists are nearly all public-school educated. Sorry, no offence, but it's true.
SCANLON: And the other character being Jonah. Those two opposites, in a way, but again talking about class, in really sophisticated ways, too. In some ways they're the absolute nth degree, because it's the comic effect, so there's obviously exaggeration, but I think all of us look at them and go, "oh, we can kind of see bits of this. We kind of understand this." And the comedy wouldn't work unless we did have an understanding of that, unless we saw that as part of our social reality. Otherwise we would just look at these things and go, "I have no idea what this is talking about." It just wouldn't resonate with anybody.
CLIP – SUMMER HEIGHTS HIGH
JONAH TAKALUA: There's a difference between bullying and joking around. I'm joking around with him, Sir. He doesn't get it. It's not my fault.
TEACHER: That may be– it may be how you see it, it may be how you see it.
JONAH: I could tell him a knock-knock joke and he'd start fucking crying, he's a homo.
TEACHER: Well that's– Well I've got to tell you, it's not appropriate. Now–
JONAH: It's not appropriate because he's a homo. We were trying to have a fun time on the way before school.
TEACHER: Was it fun for Ben?
JONAH: Yes. He just didn't get that it was fun. We weren't even bullying him, Sir. We just Punk'd him.
THOMAS: We were just playing around.
JONAH: He got Punk'd afterwards and he didn't even get it.
AEDY: Yeah. And I wonder if one of actually the most obvious one, most explicit, is Upper Middle Bogan, which has been a huge hit, and everybody understands what's going on. One of the things that's in Australian is that, although there's a difference in economic circumstances between the two families, or the two fractured parts of the same family, it's not that so-called bogan family don't have money; they just have different values and they spend that money in different ways.
SCANLON: Yeah and I think this is an important one about, if we think about the masking of class and it's whether you engage in conspicuous consumption. Because of course, in times gone by, the wealthy have flaunted their wealth. There was this very showy kind of wealth in fact, parading what they had. And that's kind of changed. Now we have the phrase "cashed-up bogan", the bogan who – or I should say, the person who – has money and they might have got a bit of a windfall, but they don't really have either the social connections or the cultural awareness to carry that off. So they're still, in their cultural attributes and their social connections, they're still very much working class. So I think that's an interesting cleavage that you see. And it's again, ripe for comedy and ripe for cultural productions, because you can really give into that and play with that.
AEDY: The bogan has come up a few times now. ANU historian Frank Bongiorno says there's a reason for that.
BONGIORNO: The term "bogan" seems to have emerged in the mid-1980s. And it seems to me in Australia to operate as a way of talking about class. I think a more post-industrial setting, you know, after manufacturing has declined, but while pretending to be talking about something else. So you know, you pretend to be talking about something else, you know, taste, or style, how people dress – as if that's simply a matter of choice, and hence you have the term "millionaire bogan" or "cashed-up bogan" as if you choose to be a bogan. But in reality, that is an Australian way – an evasive Australian way – of talking about class. It's softer, I think, than the rough, very rough British equivalent, which is "chav". If you call someone a chav in Britain, it has a much nastier edge. And indeed, it seems to carry centuries of class snobberies in Britain. Bogan is a softer term, but it is still, I think, an evasive Australian way of talking about class.
AEDY: Pauly Fenech isn't being evasive at all. The comedian's TV shows are all about class. He's the maker of Bogan Hunters for 7 and Housos for SBS.
PAULY FENECH: I don't know what's going on in the ivory tower of Australian mainstream media. I mean, I can't stand all of these real kind of fairyland, constructed, so-called reality cooking, cosmetic, marriage – they just perpetuate a, what would you call it, almost a 1950s pop culture fantasy of life. And there are no real Aussies on TV. And I always thought the role of the filmmaker or the TV maker was to make stuff that related to real people. But it seems like the complete polar opposite at the moment.
AEDY: Bogan Hunters is a reality show about finding Australia's biggest bogan. Housos is a comedy set in disadvantaged suburbia. It's unlike anything else.
CLIP – HOUSOS
CAST: We hang down on the block. This is where we live and we just don't give a fuck. Cause we don't have a job. Some scam, and others rob. We wear thongs bro. We do AVOs. We wear uggs bro. Where'd me kids go? And if you come in after 7, you'll have to deal with Kevin. Why? Cause we're Housos, Housos, Housos. Housos, Housos, Housos. Housos, Housos, Housos. Neighbours getting to be good friends. Yeah, fucking come down to Sunnyvale mate.
AEDY: His fictional characters are poor, and their lives aren't easy. But they don't lack agency.
FENECH: It's funny, because I get to meet so many people, doing the live aspect of my comedy. And look, there's so many funny, crazy stories you hear from people in that "bogan" world if you want to call it, or that "houso" world. They're not, what’s the word, they’re not inert people. There's a lot of crazy chaos that comes from being in that part of Australia. And most of the stories I write in anything I attack; they're true stories usually. I'd say about 60 per cent of it is based on a true story. So, particularly if you're a houso, say. There's a lot of crazy stuff that goes with living in those kinds of areas. They're not just – I think actually middle-class people have a tame life; they go to work, come home, see their mates on the weekends or whatever. But if you're a housing commission person, you haven't really made a choice to be in this area; the government put you there. There's all of these other people who haven't chosen to be there. There's lots of issues, craziness. Anyway, they're very chaotic kind of areas, really.
AEDY: The people in his reality shows might seem to be down, but they're not out.
FENECH: I'll be honest with you; that's what I find. Like, we did a show called Bogan Hunters, for example, and some of the people in that; if you read their bio on how their life is, you'd go, "god this person's got a terrible life, they must be depressed." But they're actually not. They're really vibrant kind of people in life. Even if they're going out, getting pissed, causing trouble or whatever they're doing, they have a very sort of happy, positive outlook. Obviously that's not the same for everyone. There are probably a lot of people who suffer all kinds of mental health issues that don't have a happy life, but I guess I sort of look for the fun in it all, but I do like to portray the reality that I see.
AEDY: Your stuff is the only stuff I could think of where people talk about Centrelink, that's not a documentary or a news story.
FENECH: Well it's true and it's such a big deal for a lot of people in the country. I mean, if you're on any kind of pension, you have to deal with Centrelink, and it's a big part of your life to deal with them and manage all of the kind of paperwork and bureaucracy that they throw at a vast majority of Australians. But you're right; you don't see it on TV. It's crazy.
AEDY: Pauly Fenech's a comedian. His work's affectionate. Even celebratory. Playwright Patricia Cornelius's approach is more unrelenting.
CORNELIUS: We are just dreadful and we never look at ourselves. The theatre industry as well; we don't look at ourselves. I'm a dramatist. And the whole notion of actually finding the stuff – in a play or in any art form – that absolutely grabs you by the throat, that absolutely shakes you out of the notion that we are all not so bad; we're not as bad as somewhere else. I think we're shocking. I just want to kill somebody sometimes. And I love the work that takes us on. Why do we have so few Australian works written by Australian playwrights about ourselves in the theatre industry? Why do the mainstream constantly import work? And I'm not being nationalistic about this stuff, because I think it's fantastic that we get a taste of work from around the world. There's so small a number of plays that are actually produced by our mainstream companies that actually do receive public funding, it's appalling. And you can't help it, when you're as old and cranky as me, that there's some sort of censorship going on. There's some sort of not wanting to hear what your local artists have to say about the country we live in, and be critical of it. We used to be quite good at being able to be critical of ourselves, but now we're more and more flag waving. And anyway, it's just appalling.
AEDY: Patricia's work has made the Australian underclass front and centre.
CORNELIUS: I think you might be referring to a play that I wrote that's called Shit. And it's a play that's about three young women that look more like 40 and who have been "through the mill", as they say – who've been in foster care, who've been poorly treated in foster care, who've had drugs, who've been in the sex trade, who've just held on, probably from generational unemployment, and are tough. And the greatest thing for me, with work like that, is to be able to get into those voices. Because those voices are not necessarily – well, they're not educated, and they're not necessarily articulate in the way that we expect most theatre characters to be. But that's fabulous stuff for me, to investigate how language gets corroded, how language becomes full of the vernacular – that is amazingly powerful and political. But I was interested in it because there's something so tough about those women; they absolutely garner everybody's attention when they're wild in the street. And part of that attention is a kind of anger at the world. But part of that attention is also a kind of warding off any dangers that might be bestowed on them. And so it's just lovely, in-your-face stuff at the theatre, and about a class of people who are totally ignored by the theatre.
AEDY: Tony Moore, who teaches media and communications at Monash University, agrees. He says that people who tell stories about Australia are increasingly from one class.
TONY MOORE: What we saw in the 40s, 50s, 60s, is so many working class people entered the mainstream media. Your Graham Kennedys. Your Paul Hogans. People who were good at comedy, music, sport. Just, were smart. They became journalists. There were these low-level entry points. Many occupations had the office boy or tea maker up to editor of a newspaper, for example. Those have been eliminated. At the same time, a university degree, or even a Masters' degree – what we call credential creep, has said "you must have this credential to get into these jobs as a bare minimum." The growing precarious or outsourced nature of the work means that people who are after security to buy a home, to buy furniture, a car, the things all young people want to do – if they've come from a low-income background, or a background without a lot of financial capital – aren't going to take that risk. The people who will take that risk are the people that always did. And they are the people that maybe are from well-off backgrounds and have a higher sense of cultural capital, and can do the student radio, student journalism, do the interning, have connections anyway – maybe their dad was in the game. There's another element to it as well. There's a kind of "people like us" element. As there are fewer jobs and the stakes are higher, you assemble the team rapidly to make culture: a show, a program, you tend to go to people you know. And the people like us are often people brimming with entitlement out of their own upbringing and their cultural life of their family. What we used to see is the working-class background was seen as an asset of value. Whereas now, they're often portrayed as charity cases at best, or people that are politically incorrect, even. So the diversity is shrinking. At the same time as, ethnically, it's going wider, we're probably picking bourgeois people who can do it in the right way, and not people who do it in a different way.
AEDY: This is Class Act on RN, the ABC Listen app, wherever you get your podcasts. I'm Richard Aedy. As you've been hearing, we don't talk about class, even in code. But we will listen when other people do. Indeed, class is in the middle of our popular culture. But how much do we really know about the classes we're not in? How much simpatico is there? Adelaide writer Shannon Burns.
SHANNON BURNS: It's strange. I went to the football last year. And I'm a Port Adelaide guy, grew up barracking for Port Adelaide. But I was born in Elizabeth, that's a Central Districts group. So if you're thinking of them in broad class terms, Port Adelaide is working class, Central Districts, the Elizabeth area, that's got the taint of the underclass, of the unemployed class. And you can hear the language between the groups when they're in a hostile environment, the way that they talk to each other. So the Port Adelaide supporters will say "go back to your public housing and your disability pension" and all of that sort of thing. So that plays out. There's a real hostility between classes. But those two classes are interesting as well. Because like migrant groups and poor, white Australians, they are pushed together to an unusual extent, I think. Both the lower, lower class and the working class have to live among one another. I wrote that essay partly just because I was surprised that the people around me didn't seem to understand anything about working-class people and people who are lower-class people. And I think that I'd just assumed that there was some kind of working knowledge available to them. But I have been surprised at the almost illiteracy when it comes to imagining yourself in to that social group.
AEDY: Social researcher Rebecca Huntley.
REBECCA HUNTLEY: Class now becomes about a range of economic, but also social and cultural choices. If you spend time in the inner city, on paper, in places like Newtown, these people may be about as wealthy as the people who might live on the periphery of Sydney, but they see themselves as completely different – completely different ethical, social, moral values. And even though, in terms of class, in terms of the money that they earn, or whether they rent or own their own house, completely the same. But they would consider themselves to be a totally different class of people. And in fact, the only time they may ever encounter each other is by having arguments on Twitter.
AEDY: So the differences between classes are important to us, but our egalitarianism means we tend not to mention them in public. Peter Whiteford's in the Crawford School of Public Policy at the ANU.
PETER WHITEFORD: It's quite interesting. My partner's English, so I can remember when I first went to England, about 30 years ago, I was really struck by the greater salience of class in England than I was in Australia. The egalitarianism in Australia is something, I think, that Australians have valued for a long period of time. But it's a sort of egalitarianism of manners, I think, as much as inequality of incomes. The differences between inequality of incomes in Australia and the United Kingdom are not massive, actually. So I think class, it's obviously a different concept than income; income is an important part of it, but I think in Australia we have this assumption that class differences shouldn't count. We may have the assumption that they don't count in some way. But when you look at intergenerational inheritance of advantage and disadvantage – so they look at what happened at young men compared to their fathers when they were the same age – so there is quite a degree of inheritance of both advantage and disadvantage in Australia. Certainly not as great as there is in the United States or the United Kingdom, but there's a lot more immobility than there is in Scandinavian countries, for example.
AEDY: The myth of meritocracy – that everyone more or less gets what they deserve – has a logical conclusion. Tim Winton.
WINTON: Poverty has become an expression of character. That's the assumption. It's about what you are. It's about what you deserve. It's about what you've left undone, all your sins of omission. And it makes no allowance for social origins. It makes no allowance for race. It makes no allowance for geography. I mean, there are so many factors in determining – even before you step out the door – what your trajectory is. Your life isn't completely predetermined by all of those factors of origin; you still have agency, up to a point, but I think it's just this inability to own the fact that where you're going to end up, you can really statistically read it in terms of where you grow up, where you start. Where you start can determine where you finish.
AEDY: Not being able to see this is storing up problems. Independent labour market researcher Ian Watson.
IAN WATSON: It's partly because when you're part of a privileged elite, you will not necessarily recognise where your privilege comes from. We have the concept of the meritocracy, that everyone works hard and they get to where they belong. Now, once you have that perspective, you can't see that your advantages are brought at the expense of other changes in society that have left others behind. So the modernisation of the Australian economy in the 80s or 90s – something that really suited the professional middle class, the managerial elite – that was bought at the expense of a large number of working-class people losing their jobs, becoming long-term unemployed, or moving in and out of casual and underemployed jobs. And now, as that situation starts to change, this class cluelessness is going to catch up with the managerial elite, because they're going to have a lot of problems.
AEDY: So what sort of problems?
WATSON: Well, they're going to find, for example, a lot more militancy from the trade union movement. I don't think it's any accident that the kind of trade unions went along with enterprise bargaining for many years, despite that being one of the sources of the problem that the working classes faced, it's come undone now. The enterprise agreements are not being renewed for some workers. They're falling back onto an award system which has been gutted. So the safety net is no longer secure as it once was. The trade unions are aware that membership is at an al-time low: 15 per cent of workers, about 10 per cent in the private sector are in unions. If they don't start to now actually become much more militant around winning wages, they're going to face situations where they're no longer in control of the situation at all. So I think that, in a way, we're looking at a lot more discontent. We're looking at the sort of thing that happened in America with the Occupy movement. We're going to look at people no longer voting to go along with what the political elite wants, as happened with Brexit. We're going to get discontent spreading more widely in Australia.
AEDY: So this is where we are with class. We know it's there, but we don't talk about it. Most of us don't have much understanding of the classes that aren't our own. And we don't have a lot of sympathy either. We cleave to a myth of meritocracy which blames the poor for being poor. And inequality is getting worse. So what can we do? Andrew Leigh's the Shadow Assistant Treasurer. As an economist, he's been studying inequality for decades.
ANDREW LEIGH, SHADOW ASSISTANT TREASURER: I think the Germans have done especially well in reducing unemployment by maintaining high-quality apprenticeship systems. I think the Canadians have managed to innovate very cleverly in different provinces, and done some very creative things in boosting women's labour force participation through their provision of early childhood. Certainly the Scandinavians' approach to education I think, has got much to recommend it. The way in, just a generation, Finland went from a tier-school performance comparable to Australia to tier-school performance that greatly outstrips Australia by raising the status of the teaching profession. So there's a lot to be learned in the egalitarian project from looking around the world.
AEDY: Are there other things that we should do – indeed that Labor wants to do, should it win government?
LEIGH: One of the things that I think is very important is making sure that we're rigorously assessing social programs. So there's been a revolution in social policy over the course of the last couple of generations towards randomised policy trials. And the rigorous assessment of social programs isn't an ideological notion; it's a practical one. Let's look at what works, apply the best evidence, throw out the programs that are unsuccessful, and boost the programs that work best.
AEDY: But there must be other things that you want to do, Andrew, should you become part of a Shorten Labor Government, that will address the– this is a long-held concern of yours; it goes back for two decades, at least.
LEIGH: Look, absolutely. I think we need better enforcement of competition laws. I am really worried about the fact that it's not just in banking or supermarkets and telecommunications, but also in industries such as cardboard box manufacturing, beer, baby food, where we see significant market concentration. That market concentration can drive up prices for consumers, but it can also drive down wages for workers, because a few firms can dominate the hiring process. We have less research and development and we have a labour market in which wages are stagnating. In the early childhood space, I think there's a lot to be done to look at high-quality early childhood interventions. The literature there is suggesting there may be ways of improving nurse home visits, high-quality early childhood, particularly from the most disadvantaged communities. And we do strongly support putting more money into schools, because we recognise that boosting teacher quality is at the heart of ensuring that we get equality of opportunity in Australia.
AEDY: Economist Andrew Charlton has a different perspective.
ANDREW CHARLTON: There used to be a school of thought that it was really all about education and training. That, over time, there was a greater premium to people with education, as jobs became more sophisticated, people needed to have more skills, and as long as we gave everyone more skills, then the rising tide would lift all boats. I think in the last decade, economists' views have changed. And many are seeing deeper problems in the economy that are structural forces, driving inequality. Lack of competition. Entrenched wealth. Privilege being passed from one generation to another. Big differences in educational outcomes, based on who your parents are. All of these things mean that equality of opportunity is diminishing and injustice and inequality can become entrenched, irrespective of the quality of education that someone might get.
AEDY: Economists are famously imaginative, creative thinkers. Are there economic approaches to accommodate this?
CHARLTON: I think there's a burgeoning new literature looking at ways to really tackle inequality in a meaningful way. Some of the ones that excite me most are some of the ones that utilise new technologies. It isn't so much about old-style redistribution, though that is a part of it, but more about getting much better at supporting people to have real opportunities. For example, technology that is able to identify students who are struggling, able to identify social health disadvantages in young people very, very quickly, in family and community situations, and be able to identify much more quickly and tackle those problems through targeted interventions and help people before they get into trouble. This is a school of thought about fences at the top of the cliff, rather than ambulances at the bottom. How do we prevent inequality before it gets entrenched, rather than trying to deal with the consequences?
AEDY: We have the inequality already, of course. But the writer Helen Razer, who's very much of the left, is surprisingly positive about the future.
HELEN RAZER: Capitalism has cycles. We don't remember anything seemingly before, say, 1950, when the white middle class grew. Other people didn't grow, other nations didn't grow. Much of the world was still mired in poverty. But a lot of our speaking about class and whether it's absent or present is entirely predicated on white, Anglophone, western nations and how much we had in the 1950s through to the 1970s, which was the beginning of the neoliberal era, and the beginning in most western nations of wage stagnation. So, what has happened now, is we have this really big class. We have this young bloc of voters and activists who have been told for all their lives the lie of a fictional, classless society, which is "you're special and you can make it if you try." And then they get to 18 and they're forced, very often, into tedious vocational study. They've finished that vocational study, which is now much more expensive, and they find that there's not even a job in that arena, and they're forced to do a Masters' degree, and they accumulate debt, and they still live with their parents, and their lives do not look like anything of the promise of a classless society. They also grew up in this sort of ultra-tolerant sphere, which is wonderful. You know, they're very careful about checking their homophobia, for example. They're very careful about respecting others' identities. And when you take those two things together, their experience – their very hard experience of living in the so-called access economy, i.e. not having a job, or having any rights at work – plus the fact that many Australian millennials were born overseas, you get this group of people who are actually reasonably nice to each other, cultural difference notwithstanding; in fact, difference is not something to be borne, but at worst considered to be inevitable and at best, considered to be special. So they're cranky with the unequal distribution of wealth and they're cranky with the unequal distribution of cultural privilege. So if you get those two things together, my goodness, they're a dangerous and a truly disruptive – not in the Silicon Valley sense – demographic.
AEDY: At the beginning of this program, you'll remember, I likened our class system to Fight Club. The first rule of the class system is that you do not talk about the class system. The second rule of the class system is that you do not talk about the class system. And if you do, you'll be punished. Former Treasurer, Wayne Swan.
WAYNE SWAN, MEMBER FOR LILLEY: I'm Exhibit A. If you would care to go back and see some of the headlines from 2011 and 2012 when I, as Treasurer of Australia, was making these points, I was rained on from a great height, by many elements of what I'd call an overpowered and overpaid corporate and financial class, for pursuing a "class war agenda." So the winners from this trickledown economics will always be out there, using their allies and public megaphones to suppress people raising these issues, because they see it as a direct threat to their dominance and their behaviour.
AEDY: So News Limited and Macquarie Network, is that what it is?
SWAN: Well, News Limited and a range of other outlets. But they can't stop this discussion. The rise of Donald Trump is what happens when rampant wealth and income inequality, which causes immense despair across working classes across the world, leads to such disillusionment with the political system that it pushes it in a neo-fascist direction.
AEDY: If anyone mentions class, they're accused of being elite. But writers and journalists are hardly that.
TSIOLKAS: No. I think that is actually a mistake that we keep doing. And it's unfair, and it doesn't get us anywhere to recognising how real power and political power works. You know, that clearly it's the really wealthy, it's the capital-owning class – they're the ones that can pay for ads on television when their interests are being threatened by government policy. It certainly isn't artists that can do that. That has to be clear because, as you know, I'm with Bill Clinton there, it's about the economy. It's the economy, stupid. And people may say that I'm an old-school socialist, but I'm proud to be that, yes. I think it is about money, it's about wealth, it's about the way wealth circulates, it's the way profits are made, how they're extracted – that's the real source of power for me in society.
AEDY: Increasingly, artists are talking about inequality, and what's behind it. Tim Winton.
WINTON: We're now, I think – we have this sort of strange valorisation of the individual and individual success, and this narcotic effect that it has on everybody else, i.e. if he can make it then the system can't be that bad. And that's just a lie. Because we got sold this pup about trickledown economics and after about three decades it pretty obviously doesn't work, and yet we persist with it like a child playing with a broken toy. You just push it along, it's got no wheels. It doesn't really work, but you pretend it works because you've forgotten about all of the other toys.
AEDY: Playwright David Williamson.
DAVID WILLIAMSON: It's been more and more realised that it was a bit of a neoconservative con trick to tell us that class, economic class, was not important anymore. That it was in our best interest to ensure the rich grew richer at the fastest possible rate because it would then trickle down to all of us and there would be always a vast middle class, so economic class, according to the neocons had disappeared from the agenda. Well it certainly hadn't. It's come back with a vengeance. It's given rise to Jeremy Corbyn in England, to Bernie Sanders in America. A lot of people are realising that they've been duped, tricked, and dudded by the neocon happy future philosophy that economic growth was wonderful and would carry us into a vast, middle-class future.
AEDY: What's interesting is the re-emergence of the phrase "trickledown economics". This was the mantra of the 80s and the early 90s, then it went away. Wayne Swan.
SWAN: Well, I went back and re-read my maiden speech in Parliament. I shouldn't say maiden now, I should say first speech. And in that, I railed against trickledown economics, but I think it's true to say that even myself, through the period that went on in the aftermath of that, never much used that term. I did use it, but I didn't use it consistently. And it's coming back with a vengeance. It's coming back because of the failure of post-war economic policy to fairly distribute the product that has come from the peoples of advanced economies more fairly across their societies has led to increasing concentrations of wealth and income among fewer and fewer people in many countries. When the GFC came along, and many people were thrown out of work, it shone a light on that inequality and people started to go back and to reassess just how pernicious some elements of trickledown economics had been – not just for society, but for lower and less quality economic growth.
AEDY: And perhaps the increasing awareness of inequality is leading to at least the beginnings of a new class consciousness. Historian Frank Bongiorno.
BONGIORNO: Well in a sense I think we are confronting class in a post-Global Financial Crisis world, because we're having it thrust in our faces in a way. Some of the social inequalities of our present time are expressed as those between the old and the young and there is a generational issue that is very powerful. But I think there's also a growing realisation that very large numbers of people in fact haven't done well out of the changes that have occurred, and I think particularly over the last 10 years. So Australia has, certainly by international standards, done very well over the last quarter of a century, but nonetheless, there are growing concerns about the impact of inequality on things like housing, on opportunities for education and for secure employment. I think we're becoming increasingly conscious of a problem we're storing up for the future, that people won't have enough income on which to live reasonably well in retirement and older age. So there's a sense in which some of the big economic problems of our times – not confined to Australia – are confronting us with this issue of class once again, in a way that, in some ways, takes us back to the late 19th and early 20th century, when class and class inequality was central to politics. And it may be that we're heading back in that direction now. And we're moving into a, I suppose one might call it a post-1980s order, one where we're perhaps less comfortable with conspicuous consumption, because we're aware of the ways in which it sustains inequality and of course all sorts of environmental degradation and other problems as well.
AEDY: Peter Lewis, who runs the polling company Essential, says we can use class as a lens to make sense of what's going on in the world.
PETER LEWIS: I think class is a really useful way of looking at what's going on in the world at the moment. So the short class story – the 30 per cent of us who see ourselves as working class feel we're going backwards. The majority of us that see ourselves as middle class feel that we're unrepresented, the sense that there is strong power behind the very small cohort who are the upper class. That actually gives you a roadmap that's a lot more useful than just saying, you know, we're racist or the politics of hate are defining our politics. And I think one of the real learnings from the failure of the Democrats in the States is that identity politics is a recipe for conflict between those class bases, whereas a unifying story on class, which says, "hey, if we want to have a good, cohesive society, we need to look after the people who see themselves as working class and make sure they're not falling backwards. We need to have a voice for the middle class. We need to hold the upper class to account." It creates a more coherent and civilised way of organising our politics.
AEDY: The problem is that it's hard to talk about without people being accused of the politics of envy. The Coalition doesn't want to talk about class at all; News Corp, as soon as anyone says anything about it, there's kind of a collective jumping-on.
LEWIS: Yeah and the politics of envy is a really clever rhetorical tool to stifle the conversations that people want to be having about the way the economy's not working for them anymore. It is much easier to say, "oh, you're envious," than say, "oh, we have a corporate sector that's exploiting the tax system, we turn our back on family trusts that are sucking all of this money out of the system." So I think you've got to call the politics of envy for what it was, which was a very effective rhetorical tool.
AEDY: Historian Judith Brett isn't so sure that class is coming back.
JUDITH BRETT: It's a really interesting question, Richard, is "what sort of consciousness will re-emerge with this?" Because I think it'll take a little while. I see it as more of a generational consciousness. There's quite a lot of resentment that comes through against baby boomers. I'm a baby boomer; we had a pretty good run. We bought houses when they were pretty cheap. We've had windfall capital gains on their houses. We got jobs easily. Our kids and our grandchildren are going to be facing very different world. So that's where I see there being a shifting in consciousness. Whether it will re-emerge in terms of people understanding it in terms of class, because class was essentially about what your position was in the labour market – whether you were in a manual job, or whether you were an owner – and I don't know whether that sort of structure is going to help us understand the shifts we're moving into. I just don't know.
AEDY: It's complicated. And George Megalogenis says there's at least one more layer.
MEGALOGENIS: We're also looking at an ageing society. So then class becomes an age-based question as well. The only parts of Australia that are dynamic, that are growing, are the big capital cities at the moment, with big migration programs. So Melbourne or Sydney is actually getting younger than it was 10 or 15 years ago. This is certainly the case in some parts of the UK and in Europe. Other parts of Australia, the population is actually ageing rapidly. So when I look at a map of Australia, I'd want to draw up across the country a class ladder, but I'd also be interested in the regional disparities. I'd be concerned about the places where there aren't enough kids. I'd be concerned about the places where all government does is care for people in retirement. Because you'd be concerned about whether those communities have the capacity to look after their old folk. And I'd also be concerned about, within cities, the golden centre versus the rest. So the inner city versus the rest. So it's a matrix now, it's not just your old class ladder.
AEDY: Australia's a very successful country. But it's not a perfect one. For many of us, it's a great place to live. It isn't great for everyone. We have a class system. Inequality's getting worse. And we have problems to solve. It would help if we faced up to them and talked about them more.
Thanks to everyone you've heard from today. You can find the entire series on the RN website at abc.net.au/radionational. Class Act is produced by Kate Pearcy. Our sound engineer is Judy Rapley. I'm Richard Aedy.
Authorised by Noah Carroll, ALP, Canberra