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From California to Canberra: the real class war

By John Muscat - posted Monday, 11 June 2012

These workers have cause to be worried, if they glance across the Pacific. In his close analysis of the California crisis, U.S. demographer Joel Kotkin starts with the premise that “California consolidated itself as a bastion of modern progressivism”. Drawing on extensive evidence, Kotkin exposes the suffocating influence of radical environmentalists, progressive high-tech venture capitalists, Hollywood moguls, and civil rights attorneys, who have given California escalating energy costs – 50 per cent above the US average and rising – and dwindling fossil-fuel energy exploration and production, America’s sixth highest tax rates, also rising, coupled with proposals to skew the tax system in favor of the super-rich against microbusinesses, the third heaviest tax burden on business out of the 50 states, enormous subsidies and tax breaks for solar and other renewable-energy producers, and complex labour laws.

“California’s green policies”, says Kotkin, “affect the very industries – manufacturing, home construction, warehousing, and agribusiness – that have traditionally employed middle and working class residents”. With reason, Kotkin calls these developments ‘The New Class Warfare’ There is indeed a class dimension to discontent in the United States and Australia, and it has nothing to do with the confected class-war rhetoric coming out of the Obama Administration – “we must all pay our fair share” – and the Gillard Government – “spreading the benefits of the [mining] boom”.  

John Black, a demographic profiler and former senator, points out that since Labor came to power in 2007, “public administration, education, and health sector jobs have accounted for almost six out of ten of the 760,000 jobs created, instead of the longer term two out of ten.” The health industry alone has grown by 260,000 jobs in four years, a figure that equates to some 2.6 per cent of the whole workforce. Over those years, manufacturing, which accounts for 8.3 of total employment, lost close to 100,000 jobs.


Last year, “health care and social assistance” replaced “retail trade” as the largest occupational category profiled by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, while “manufacturing” along with “agriculture, forestry and fishing”, traditional blue-collar hubs, were the only categories to contract. "Education and training" and "public administration and safety" ranked higher than "transport, postal and warehousing" and "wholesale trade".

Job-shedding by a succession of manufacturing, retail and construction firms have dominated recent news bulletins. According to Black, if not for growth in the publicly funded sector, the employment rate would be closer to 7 than 5 per cent.

If Gillard and Swan are to be believed, such shifts are beyond their control. In a major address on the economy in February, Gillard explained that “the level of the dollar – and the pace of its rise – has broken some business models and forced economic restructuring”. Displaying Marie Antoinette levels of indifference, she declared “these are powerful, economy-wide transformations, perhaps best thought of as ‘growing pains’”. If you thought this posed a complex challenge, think again. “The equation is simple”, she said, “skills brings jobs, and skills bring job security”.

Here Gillard genuflects to the progressive dogma that education is the answer to every economic problem. It’s hardly surprising that a movement dominated by academics, researchers, educators and university administrators should claim ownership of the path to salvation. But Gillard has it back-to-front. In activities like manufacturing, economic growth brings jobs, which bring skills, not the other way around.

It’s true that the mining boom and Australia’s safe credit rating have driven the dollar to near or above parity with the greenback. It’s also true that this has exerted pressures on the export and import-competing sector. But government action has intensified these pressures. Labor is ideologically committed to social gentrification and expansion of the white-collar professional classes, particularly in social services, even if this means transferring resources from productive industries that will slow down, stagnate, shrink or vanish.

While Gillard and Swan would never be so candid, their allies in Australia’s bulging university system, the public sector unions and the Greens aren't so inhibited. Nor are Labor figures like former Prime Minister Paul Keating, who criticised the Opposition’s attack on the carbon tax in these startling terms:


…in this country, 80 per cent of people work in the tertiary economy, in services, in the industry like – as we are tonight, in the service economy. And, the new industries, the green industries, are service industries, not the old manufacturing. Manufacturing’s moved to the east [meaning East Asia]. It’s the service industries that are the new growth industries. So, to turn your back on the mechanism which allocates the capital out of the old industries and into the new ones is to turn your back on the future.

If Gillard Labor cared about blue-collar and other routine jobs, not to mention the small business sector, they would switch to policy settings that spur growth in industries like manufacturing, retail, transportation and logistics, construction and forestry. Cutting spending, reducing company and other business taxes, junking green taxes and green tape, withdrawing from the debt market and liberalising industrial relations would hand employers more flexibility to cope with the high dollar and low cost competitors in Asia.

Clearly, this isn’t the government’s priority. Instead they have introduced a carbon tax and a mining tax, and in last month’s budget dropped a proposed cut in company tax, they are throwing at least $2.7 billion at various green schemes, not including the “winner picking” $10 billion Clean Energy Fund, they have adopted a Renewable Energy Target of 20 per cent by 2020, they are pouring vast sums of money into higher education to the tune of $5 billion a year including an additional $5.2 billion in the budget, some of which will find its way into a maze of “sustainability institutes”, they have lifted the cap on university places and embarked on a radical plan to expand the proportion of 25 to 34 year olds with a bachelor’s degree to 40 per cent by 2025, they have re-regulated the labour market and imposed a system which, according to the chairman of BHP-Billiton, “is just not appropriate and doesn’t recognise today’s realities”, they have laid the groundwork for new multi-billion-dollar programs in aged, disability and mental health care, employing tens of thousands of new carers, and they have endorsed an industrial tribunal decision that boosts the pay of these workers by up to 65 per cent.

California here we come.

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About the Author

John Muscat is a co-editor, along with Jeremy Gilling, of The New City, a web journal of urban and political affairs.

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