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Who are the 'working families'?

By Nick Dyrenfurth - posted Thursday, 28 February 2008


We’ve been hearing a lot about “working families” over the past year. Earlier this month the Reserve Bank raised interest rates for the 11th consecutive time. Interest rates are now at their highest point in 12 years. Ongoing inflationary pressures mean more rises could follow.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and his Treasurer Wayne Swan pre-empted the latest increase, describing the pressure on working families from mortgages and other financial problems as acute. After the announcement Rudd was at pains to express his sympathy, while blaming the former government: “after ten interest rate rises in a row, this one will really hurt.”

On Tuesday he was at it again. Responding to the Business Council of Australia’s admonition of the inflationary policies of the previous government, he declared that his proposed tax cuts would be implemented because “working families are under financial pressure … [they] are finding it difficult to balance the family budget and we understand that”.

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Who are these working families? And why are we hearing so much about them? Even before the Rudd ascendancy, then Labor leader Kim Beazley was talking of the “fairer, more prosperous future” that “working Australian families deserve”. Similarly the ACTU’S successful anti-Workchoices campaign focused on “working families” rather than merely “workers”. Rudd Labor’s election campaign was awash with references to them. Labor made much of then PM John Howard’s confident declaration that under his government “working families had never been better off”. In the October 2007 leaders’ debate with Howard, Rudd mentioned these families an astonishing 21 times.

There’s a corny line from the 1989 American movie Field of Dreams that helps us understand the political logic behind working families. At one point the protagonist, Ray (Kevin Costner), hears a strange voice whisper to him, “If you build it, [people] will come”. Ray immediately sets to work building a baseball field in his cornfield. The next summer, several famous deceased baseball players do indeed come to play on his field.

Political rhetoric such as working families works in much the same way. Ultimately politics is about convincing electors to imagine themselves as a member of a group holding shared values and interests with people they haven’t and are unlikely to ever meet and to vote accordingly. If the 2007 election is any guide, Labor’s creation of the working families’ constituency was a successful attempt at doing so.

In fact 'working families' is the latest in a long line of rhetorical appeals to the middle ground or swinging voters of the Australian electorate based upon the politics of grievance. As Opposition leader Howard cultivated his anti-Keating set of “Battlers”. Howard’s political hero Robert Menzies famously appealed to the “Forgotten people” in the face of post-war Labor’s alleged socialism. (Before working families Beazley unsuccessfully deployed Middle Australia.)

“Battlers” and “Forgotten People” are, of course, not meant to be “battling” or “forgotten” once a leader has been in power for a while. Howard and Menzies eventually dropped such references.

In the late 1990s Howard spoke of a new but decidedly less romantic grouping called the “aspirationals”; aped, unsuccessfully, by Mark Latham. Yet when Howard abandoned his previous policy pragmatism and implemented the unmandated WorkChoices in 2004, Labor’s talk of working families somewhat predicably filled the void. On top of the WorkChoices threat to their living standards and family time, Labor’s working families allegedly faced rising interest rates - despite assurances that they would be kept at record lows - together with rising grocery and petrol prices.

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Some have suggested that Labor’s cultivation of working families is merely a crude import from America via the ACTU’s campaign adviser, the pollster Vic Fingerhut. They are wrong. Labor’s appeal to this cross-class grouping is as old as the party itself. It reflects the reality that Labor has always had to appeal to a constituency wider than a narrow band of manual workers while at the same time not alienating that base.

When the Labor Party was in its infancy, endless populist appeals were made to the “struggling woes” of “the people” or the wealth “producers”. In 1910 for example, Labor argued that a Liberal victory meant that big business would “continue their grip on Australia, on the throats of the working class, and on the producers generally”. Indeed there was a large body of opinion in favour of calling the emergent party “The People’s Party” rather than “Labor”.

The political beauty of such rhetorical appeals is that their meaning is very much in the eye of the beholder. Virtually anyone can think of themselves as battlers or as holding aspirational values or as producers. So it is with working families. Working families crosses the divides of class, age and geography. It encompasses the single income family of a white-collar manager and a double income blue-collar family. Perhaps the better question to ask is who isn’t a working family?

And that is precisely the point. In a modern society where an old fashioned sense of class identity holds less sway, Australian politics has, to an extent, been turned upside down. One of Rudd’s great successes since becoming Labor leader - and here he was deeply influenced by David McKnight’s 2005 publication Beyond Left and Right - was to paint the Liberals as ideological radicals, at least in terms of industrial relations. Labor and the unions became the conservative defenders of the status quo - defending working families against the excesses of unregulated free markets. Whatever their veracity, such claims seemed to resonate with the electorate.

As with the battlers and the aspirationals there are risks with cultivating a constituency through the politics of grievance. Once a government has been in office for a period of time grievances naturally build up. Working families won’t expect to be hurting during the second term of a Rudd government, or their woes sheeted home to the failings of a long-forgotten Howard government. As Paul Keating once observed, from the moment they are elected governments are slowly dying: working families, or whatever they are next known as, are the crucial voters who will pronounce the government dead.

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About the Author

Dr Nick Dyrenfurth is the co-editor of Confusion: the Making of the Australian two-party political system (forthcoming with Melbourne University Publishing).

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