Workers Online
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  Issue No 17 Official Organ of LaborNet 11 June 1999  

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Interview

Class Consciousness

Interview with Peter Lewis

Long-time ALP member Michael Thomson has thrown a few grenades with a new book arguing that middle class trendies have taken over the ALP.

 
 

Barroom Philosophy

You argue that Labor lost the plot in the Whitlam era by embracing the middle class. How would the party look today if this hadn't occurred?

I just think there would be more concern given to what the working class are about and their aspirations. I'm not arguing that Gough Whitlam shouldn't have broadened the Party, without that we wouldn't have had a subsequent Labor Government. But I just think that in doing that we lost sight of the concerns and aspirations of working people and the Party would be different if there was more a blending of the middle class concerns and the working class aspirations.

How do you in the 1990s define "working class aspirations"?

Their aspirations are basically a job and a future for their kids, their values are around the traditional family, independence and hard work. I don't really see those have changed too much over that period.

You're particularly tough on the middle class intellectuals. How are their aspirations different?

I think they have different values; their concerns are not the bread and butter concerns of the working class. They are quite secure financially, they don't have to worry about that so they can look at other issues. Now, I'm not saying those other issues shouldn't be looked at, but there's an ideology behind those issues, call it post-modernism if you like, that doesn't fit with working class people.

What about the social justice issues that have been promoted by the ALP in the last 15 years?

If you mean feminism, environmentalism, land right, I think they're compatible with the working class's idea of a fair go ...

So what are the ideas that aren't compatible?

I don't think it's the ideas so much. I mean, equality for women, tolerance for people from non-English speaking backgrounds are totally compatible with working class values. But the way it's been put into place, with anti-discrimination legislation and tribunals, I don't necessarily think that fits in.

Why not?

Because I think they are coercive. You can have that tolerance without coercion. You have to persuade people and I don't think these people are interested in persuading. All the time you hear about the need to 'educate' people. you educate intellectual and moral inferiors, you don't educate equals, you persuade equals by putting arguments, about how a policy is good for the country and getting out their and arguing it. I mean, Bob Hawke was happy when the political elites of both sides agreed on what multiculturalism should be, against the will of most of the people. For so long you couldn't debate multiculturalism without being considered a racist.

One of the realities of the information age is that the decline of blue collar working class and the rise of service workers and those processing information. Given that that change is occurring, wouldn't a working class part become a party that will only be a rump as then economy changes?

I think if you define working class as blue collar or manual it would become a rump. But the contemporary working class in Australia includes more than that, it includes many of the low-paid white collar, particularly women. If you like at the statistics, that makes up about 70 per cent of the working population of Australia. That's what I see as the working class today, it's those who have jobs, rather than careers.

Do you argue that the economic change of the last 15 years should have been handled differently?

I think we had to have the economic reforms initiated by the Hawke Government. You can say we didn't look after the losers well enough, there should be more thought to the transition, but we had to have those reforms. You really have to look at what the alternative would have been; and it wouldn't have been standing still; I think the alternative would have been a loss of more jobs.

How do your ideas converge with the notion that the ALP is moving away from its trade union roots?

I don't know how much it's moving away from the trade union base; but I think what is happening in the ALP is also happening in the trade unions. You get less people off the shop floor now and more people bouncing out on university, bouncing into a trade union then bouncing into a political career. You've got unions now that are just major bureaucracies by any criteria and that is losing the working class support in the unions and that just compounds the Party's loss.

But didn't free education mean that the talented working class kids got an education, whereas in an earlier age they would have been the talent you bring into unions from the shop floor?

The class backgrounds of universities has changed bugger-all since Whitlam. Free tertiary education hasn't changed it by and large. The people coming in to unions now tend to be from middle class background coming in and taking the industrial officers' jobs.

Why's that bad?

I don't think its bad, we do need educated people in the unions,. But when they come in, take over those unions or have a strong influence in it and the views of workers are not considered as much, and the workers can see it's just a career path into politics, then they become very cynical and leave the union. I mean, unions don't have the people at the top anymore who would know what the workers' concerns are. I honestly don't know how unions are going to resolve that.

You're someone who now has a successful career in the law. Why chose now to stick your neck out like this and write a book?

My background was as a builders labourer, I worked there for 15 years. Now I left school at 14 and went to university under then geriatrics scheme at 30 years of age and picked up degrees in law and economics, so I'm not opposed to the union officials having an education, but I think when it gets to the stage where you have this bouncing from university to unions to a political career, I don't think they know what the workers are really about and I don't think they want to know what the workers are really about. I did work for Peter cook and Peter Baldwin, so I have worked within the Labor party and I would work for a future Labor government full-time, but there are some things that need to change.

I just got fed up with the working class being stereotyped as rednecks. I mean,. we're the racists, the sexists, the homophobes, that's the code for the working class now -- and that's my mother and father sand their parents. And those people are not racists and sexist and homophobic, they're decent people that have worked and raised their kids under incredibly difficult circumstances; my father fought in the Warm, by grandfather did too; they came home and had to start their lives again -- and I don't think they deserve that. they don't have the education to fight back. I do, and I've just had a gutful.

Are books like those by Latham and Tanner part of the equation?

Well Tanner, not so much Latham, I've got no idea what Latham's on about there's so much jargon in it. Tanner is a part of that, in the whole book I don't think I read the words "working class" anywhere. It could be there, but I can't remember seeing it. He was talking about splits in the party between the old constituents and the new constituency. He was explaining who the new constituency was, but there was no mention of the old, he was just covering it up. However, you define the working class, nobody in the Labor Party wants to lose their vote and I'd accept you can't win government on that vote alone. But you don't want to just pretend they no longer exist.

But the economic realists would say the working class will whither and die?

You get that vibe from Tanner, but my response is you are only looking at a very narrow definition of working class. For the past 20 years the working class as I describe that has been 70 per cent of the working people. It is only be defining working class in a certain way that you can mount that argument.

What would be some signs from a Labor Opposition that they hear what you are saying?.

A major start would be education. Free education hasn't improved the prospects for working class kids since the Whitlam era. You talk about the changes of the Information Age, your access is predicated on your education. I would think the first thing that Labor must do is set as one of its priority goals getting working class access to higher education. Because without that access, where's the future for their kids?

So how do you want to see the working classes regarded?

Its about the attitude. You can call the working class whatever you like, but the attitude has become a derogatory one. The word Noel Pearson uses is "dog whistling". It's a code, but everyone knows that when you say rednecks, you mean working class and when you say redneck you mean racist and homophobic.

It's about the moral superiority of these people I refer to. And part of that is them not worrying about material issues and being more concerned about the environment, or whatever. The working class has got to worry about material issues, they have no choice, they're ooking over their shoulder to see where there next dollars coming from That moral superiority seems to me to be predicated on one or two things; one, they don't care about the financial because they are financially secure. Secondly they see the working class as separate from them.

Does that invalidate the notion that we should be creating a society that isn't racist or sexist?

Not at all. As I said, working class values of a fair go are fundamentally compatible with equality for women, tolerance for other cultures,. For Christ's sakes, I grew up in Balmain in then late 40s and 50s, that's where the migrants came to. We shared our jobs and our suburbs with those people: not Louise Road, Balmain today. None of these middle class people shared that, the working class people shared that. To the extent that the fact of multiculturalism - as opposed to the agenda - is a success, it's down to those working class people.


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*   Issue 17 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Class Consciousness
Long-time ALP member Michael Thomson has thrown a few grenades with a new book arguing that middle class trendies have taken over the ALP.
*
*  Legal: Reith¹s AWAs Dealt a Blow
ASU v Electrix rules that AWAs can't be a take it or leave it proposition.
*
*  Unions: Survey Misses the Point
Last week's attempt by the Australian newspaper to rank trade unions contained some fundamental flaws.
*
*  History: The Light on the Hill
Fifty years after his seminal address, Ben Chifley's words still ring true -- and still challenges Labor.
*
*  International: Child Labour: Kerala’s Recipe
Of India’s 55 million slave children, not one is to be found in the state of Kerala, in the south of the sub-continent.
*
*  Review: Bazza Mckenzie Holds His Own
Tony Moore on perhaps the greatest Australian movie ever made.
*
*  Women: Equal Pay - We've Come A Long Way
Thirty years have passed since women around Australia raised their fists in victory at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission's historic equal pay for equal work decision.
*
*  Activists: Throwing Off the Chains
Thirty years ago, Zelda D'Aprano was so incensed by the lack of progress in achieving pay parity that she twice chained herself to public buildings in Melbourne.
*
*  Labour Review: What's New at the Information Centre
View the latest issue of Labour Review, a summary of industrial news for trade unions.
*

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Columns
»  Guest Report
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»  Sport
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»  Guest Report
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»  Piers Watch
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Letters to the editor
»  US Fan Mail
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»  Chippo Politics Tunes In
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»  GST Rally june 21
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»  Employment Conference for Newcastle
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