Everybody Loves Ordinary Australians


Over the last week, it has become apparent that "ordinary working Australians" are the political equivalent of baby pandas frolicking on a slide. Everybody coos over them; politicians of all stripes ooh and ah about their adorable values.

But what happens when the pandas stand up and fight?

The recent crop of polemics against the Greens drew heavily on tropes from the ALP’s historical relationship to blue collar workers and their unions. Labor, we were assured, stood shoulder to shoulder with such everyday folk: yes to Joe and Jane Suburbia on the assembly line; no to over-educated know-it-alls campaigning for carbon atoms to get married.

Now, if you look up "ordinary working Australians" in an encyclopedia, you’ll find a picture of the picket line down at Coles’ National Distribution Centre in the northern Melbourne suburb of Somerton, where several hundred low paid employees from multi-ethnic backgrounds are currently campaigning for basic workplace rights.

Even accepting the debased terminology of the Australian political lexicon, no-one could seriously suggest the men and women protesting through the cold Melbourne night for a decent enterprise bargaining agreement are elitists from behind the latte curtain. So who, then, represents them and the values they’re fighting for?

A few days ago, an editorial in The Australian argued, in a splendid piece of concern trolling, that Labor must "address the core of its identity crisis". That meant, it transpired, that the ALP should embrace calls by BHP chairman Don Argus and Treasury economist David Gruen for cuts to government spending, further deregulation of workplaces and a drive for increased productivity.

"We need to accept," The Oz continued, "that over time the least efficient companies could close, and ideally their staff and resources will migrate to more productive opportunities."

Here, apparently, was the program to revive Gillard’s fortunes: the PM should explain to unwanted workers that, like exotic birds, they should prepare for regular migrations in search of jobs. "Nothing," the editorialist concluded, "could be more relevant to Labor’s core purpose or its mainstream constituents".

In one sense, that’s a manifesto straight out of crazy town. The ALP formed out of the maritime and shearers disputes — and those unionists did not see the party’s "core purpose" as making it easier for bosses to sack them.

Yet, in another respect, the editorial’s entirely correct. Certainly, the agenda described seems tremendously relevant to the "mainstream constituents" in Somerton — because they’re currently feeling the sharp end of precisely those policies. The picketers provide services for Coles but they’re actually employed by the Toll Group, in a contracting arrangement that nets them $4 an hour less than other supermarket employees. Behold a "deregulated", "productive" and "efficient" workplace — a place in which ordinary working Australians (remember them?) get casually screwed over.

Toll, by contrast, seems to be doing very nicely. Last year, The Australian noted the company reported "a better than expected 3.7 per cent rise in net profit to $294.8 million for the year ended June 30, struck on an 18 per cent increase in revenue to $8.23 billion".

Last year, Julia Gillard distinguished herself from The Greens by explaining "Labor’s delight at sharing the values of everyday Australians". Now that, in Somerton, everyday Australians are indicating that what they value is not being exploited, should we expect an outbreak of delight from the NSW Right? Will the apparatchiks collectively lambasting Christine Milne for fringe loopiness now spring to the defence of some of the salt-of-the-earth employees they claim Labor represents? Or are they, in reality, rather keener on precisely the policies the Toll workers are fighting 
 the neoliberal platform articulated by the Australian?

And what of the Greens themselves? In the political unconscious of the Right, they loom as the embodiment of radical zealotry, a terrifying mash-up of Joe Stalin and the Manson Family. Back here on Earth, however, the Greens’ relationship with the union movement has traditionally been quite tentative, even equivocal.

Bob Brown yesterday denounced Labor’s orientation to the "Big End of Town". Right now, the small end of town can be found taking a stand in Melbourne’s north, just as an important by-election comes to a head. Will the Greens lend their support to those workers and their picket?

Yes, everyone loves ordinary working Australians. Let’s see who’s prepared to stand alongside them.

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