Politics Needs An Ideas Boom, Not A Good Old Fashioned Class War


Our Prime Minister is still fighting a battle that privileged men like him won years ago, writes Professor Carl Rhodes.

Malcolm Turnbull may well accuse the opposition of waging a class war, but he’s the one drawing the battle lines and recycling the politics of the 1980s.

The class war that Turnbull accuses Labor of fighting is a very old idea he is borrowing from Karl Marx. Of course, Marx’s theory was that the inequalities created by capitalism lead to a conflict between workers and the owners of capital. At its extreme this would lead to revolution.

It’s unlikely that Turnbull is afraid Australia is in imminent danger of a communist revolution. More possible is that he wants to tar the Labor party with the brush of socialism, thinking this will channel votes his way.

But is it the case that by accusing the Labor Party of class warfare he is hiding the fact that he the true class warrior of old?


Growth for who?

Turnbull is playing a regressive game of politics that hasn’t really moved on since the 1980s. As an arch-neoliberal, he puts all of his faith in free markets, competition and corporations.

Turnbull’s ‘jobs and growth’ campaign is rooted in blind faith that if business is left to flourish, the economy will grow and everyone will benefit.

The policy framework this demands is one focussed on liberating corporations from state interference. Witness a budget built on corporate tax concessions. Observe a policy debate based on avoiding public scrutiny of finance industry practices.

Innovative? At play is a straightforward re-hash of Reagan-era trickle-down economics. But this is not 1981. We know now that those policies have only achieved widening levels of inequality, both here and internationally.

Former US president Ronald Reagan. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)
Former US president Ronald Reagan. (IMAGE: Gage Skidmore, Flickr)

In Australia the top 20 per cent of wealth holders has grown to being 70 times that of the bottom 20 per cent.

We also know that inequality is associated with slower and less durable economic growth. Do we know this because of research done by the radical left? No it is the result of research conducted by the International Monetary Fund.


Boom, Boom!

Australia’s future, a la Turnbull, is an economy shaken at its core by an ‘ideas boom’. More recycling. There is little different here from Bob Hawke’s 1990 invocation of Australia’s need to be a ‘clever country’.

Worse, when Turnbull turns up the volume on innovation it’s like listening to Thatcher talking about enterprise circa 1980.

Then there is the union bashing. According to Turnbull, it is trade unions, not tax dodging corporations or widening inequality, that threaten the future prosperity of Australia.

This is another old battle that’s already been largely won. There may have been a time when union membership in this country ran at about 60 per cent, but since the 1980s it has fallen to today’s level of 15 per cent.

We are once again transported back to the 1970s and 80s and the notion that the ‘politics of envy’ was a neo-liberal catchcry used to dismantle the welfare state. Then, as now, concerns for social justice and equality are mistranslated as the poor being jealous of the rich.


A future for the wealthy

This is a class war that has been won by those who, in the past 40 years, have benefited financially from neo-liberal reforms. Turnbull is still fighting it.

What should happen if young people in Australia can’t enter home ownership? Turnbull’s answer is that parents should “shell out for them”.

Not all kids have parents like Turnbull who own seven properties. The message to Australia’s youth is clear. If your parents aren’t wealthy then you can forget it. You were born into the wrong class.

(IMAGE: Phillip Capper, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Phillip Capper, Flickr)

What are the alternatives for kids who don’t come from wealthy families? They’re certainly not going to be able to afford a house at the Australia’s median price of almost $660,000 if they are employed as Turnbull’s $4 per hour interns.

Why not get an education instead. Good opportunity. But if your parents can’t afford to pay your fees then you start your working life with the weight of debt on your back.

With the budget slashing funding to the Higher Education Participation Program by over $150 million, university participation for those from disadvantaged socio-economic groups is clearly not a top priority for the government.


Where is the political innovation?

In today’s Australia, Turnbull seems to be saying it is only birthright that gives you a good start in life. All of this amounts to Turnbull fighting a class war that has in fact already been won. And it’s been won by people like him, for people like him.

At a time when we need new thinking, Turnbull’s is old and tired political ideology whose time has run out. Times have changed, Turnbull has not.

As if lost in the 1980s he is fighting for a politics that has led to the progressive entrenchment of inequality in Australia.

Turnbull is right when he says Australia needs innovation. But not his sort of innovation. It needs political innovation that will lead to prosperity for all, not just for the few.


Carl Rhodes is Professor of Organization Studies at The University of Technology, Sydney. Working in the disciplines organisation studies, critical management studies, and business ethics, his current research investigates the ethics and politics of contemporary business and the attendant implications for society. This work endeavours to contribute to the rigorous and critical questioning and reformulation of what the purpose of business and corporations in the context of democracy.