tip off

The slippery and convenient concept of ‘class warfare’

Class warfare” is a confected term sprayed about across the nation’s newspapers of late to shut down policy debate. But funny how it only applies to the rich …

At times, it’s easier tracking what’s not “class warfare” than what is.

You’d be well aware the government’s proposal to require people earning over $100,000 per year from retirement savings to pay 15% on the amount over that threshold is “class warfare”, according to both the opposition (Mathias Cormann) and the commentariat (Robert Gottliebsen). Even Simon Crean, self-anointed guardian of the consensual, Kumbaya-singing Hawke-Keating era, thinks the government’s super changes are “class warfare”. And Treasurer Wayne Swan’s criticism of mining magnates engaged in campaigning against the government, too, was called class warfare, including by sources that were anonymous at the time but that now look very much like the miners’ former friend-at-court, former resources minister Martin Ferguson.

But you need to be aware that “class warfare” is far broader than that. For example, the mining super profits tax was “class war”, according to Andrew Forrest, (although Business Spectator’s Stephen Bartholomeusz disagreed and thought it was a “civil war”).

There’s class warfare everywhere in education. Christopher Pyne claimed in 2008 that asking publicly funded private schools to reveal financial details was class warfare. The schoolkids’ bonus was, according to Pyne, also class warfare. The Gonski Report itself, according to right-wing education activist Kevin Donnelly, was class war. The Fair Work Act, too, is class warfare, according to Ken “independent contracting” Phillips, and it is destroying the mining boom.

Trying to reduce the cost of the private health insurance rebate is also class warfare, said Peter Dutton.  Attempts to close the massively rorted Medicare Chronic Disease Dental Scheme were declared by noted pharmaceutical expert Piers Akerman to be class warfare.

Even mentioning that Opposition Leader Tony Abbott hailed from north of the Harbour in Sydney was, according to The Australian’s journalists, class warfare.

What journalists, commentators and politicians are referring to when they say “class warfare” is actually “attacks on the wealthy”, although “class warfare” sounds better — and we’ll get to that. Not to mention that “class war” traditionally has meant mass slaughter, rather than asking high-income earners to pay the same tax as low-income earners. Few commentators have called the Coalition’s plan to scrap the Low Income Superannuation Contribution “class war”, despite being targeted at people on incomes below $37,000. Few have termed the government’s shift of single parents onto Newstart “class warfare”, despite being targeted at some of the lowest income earners in the country.  And no one has called the government’s refusal to countenance a lift in Newstart, which even peak business bodies have called for, “class warfare”.

But more to the point, it delegitimises any debate about government policies when the benefits disproportionately flow to the powerful and wealthy …”

The flexible and nebulous character of the term reflects its confected nature. And despite the Kevin Rudd camp embracing it in internal exile, a quick count of media commentary shows who’s doing the confecting: since the beginning of 2012, Smh.com.au has run seven articles that discussed the government’s “class warfare” and “class war”, in addition to reporting of the use of the term by Coalition and Labor figures and other contributors to public debate. The Australian Financial Review, a reliable critic of Labor under its current management, has run 10 articles that discuss “class war”, aside from reportage, in that period. The Daily Telegraph has run 21 pieces on “class war” during that time. And The Australian has run 77.

Use of the phrase peaked during both The Telegraph and The Australian’s 2012 budget coverage, even before Tony Abbott used the phrase in his budget reply, although as we now know, Abbott consulted with Telegraph editor Paul Whittaker about his paper’s coverage on budget night. But it’s had a resurgence in March and April this year.

The co-ordinated use of the term by the Coalition and some editors is a tactic borrowed from the Republicans in the US. As early as a few weeks after President Barack Obama was inaugurated, he was being targeted for “class war” policies by the Right in the US, and mainstream media outlets were reflecting its use. It’s since become a staple of both Fox News coverage and GOP talking points that Obama is engaged in “class war”, not to mention socialism, communism and a “war on wealth”.

The reason the term is so appealing to critics of the government, both those without and, like Martin Ferguson and Simon Crean, those within, is because it comes loaded with negative connotations. To accuse someone of class war is to suggest a rigid ideologue, someone motivated not by the national interest but by mere jealousy toward those more hard-working/intelligent/business-minded than party apparatchiks, even if a Gina Rinehart inherited the bulk of her wealth and then enjoyed the accident of an historical boom in Chinese demand.

But more to the point, it delegitimises any debate about government policies when the benefits disproportionately flow to the powerful and wealthy in a way that never happens in debate about government policies that benefit the poor. There is something bracing and rigorous about the demand that welfare recipients feel the discipline of the market rather than enjoy the support of the taxpayer; in contrast, it is “sickening class warfare” to wonder why superannuation tax concessions costing billions flow to high-income earners who will never go on the age pension.

The term thus serves a purpose. Whenever “class warfare” is invoked, you can be sure that disproportionate or unjustified benefits for high-income earners or large corporations are under threat, benefits they would prefer to keep hidden.

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  • 1
    Achmed
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

    The superannuation change has been well misrepresented to the point that 46% are unhappy that less than 1% will be paying more tax. And yet as stated by Bernard there is little commentary about the Abbott plan to attck the lowest income workers by removing the $500 a year contribution.

    As Bernard says….any move against the wealthy is class war.

    But any move against the poorest is fiscal responsibility

  • 2
    negativegearmiddleclasswelfarenow.com
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Middleclass welfare, particularly the billions that are transferred annually in the form of private school subsidies and the private health rebate, to those already privileged is little more than theft from those taxpayers unable to take part.
    It was Margaret Thatcher who said that middleclass welfare is an insane extravagance driven by a selfish, self destructive ideology. Those who advocate this form of welfare trot out ‘choice’ as a screen that allows the stealing to hide behind an ideological cloak.
    That is the theft from ordinary folk, the real casualties in this war, trying raise a family on a $50000 income.

  • 3
    Saugoof
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    It’s this year’s “Un-Australian”….

  • 4
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Saugoof - I am pretty sure I have seen an article describing “class warfare” as “unaustralian”!

    I find it amazing that papers like the HS and Tele who pitch themselves at the battler are constantly defending the wealthy and against cutting back any form of middle class welfare (although I get the impression that once the libs get in they will be all slashing and burning anything they can get their hands on.

    Yesterday the Sun actually had an article saying how the benefits of the mining boom had been wasted but then laid the blame squarely at Wayne Swans feet despite all the damage being done by the Howard govt (plus the 2007 tax cuts promised by both sides).

  • 5
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    .

  • 6
    drovers cat
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

    perhaps the use of ‘class warfare’ should invoke a separate version of Godwin’s Law

  • 7
    soglad
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m quite ready to vote for anybody willing to take some class war back to the rich parasites* and Coalition voting idiots who back them against their own interest.

    * The second word purposely excludes those wealthy who actually make their money work in the economy and don’t cry poor when they pay tax according to their footprint. They exist.

  • 8
    bluepoppy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    It is as you have observed a tactic to cut down debate whether it be about disparity or government’s kowtowing to the big end of town. Much easier to bring out the ‘class warfare’ or ‘tall poppy’ diversion to avoid addressing some really important issues. At least there is Occupy to cut through some of the bull.

  • 9
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Blue poppy - if you are relying on occupy to make a change you will be disappointed - nobody even remembers them any more.

  • 10
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    Blue poppy - if you are rel ying on occupy to make a change you will be disappointed - nobody even remembers them any more.

  • 11
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    But aren’t the poor a sub-class so they don’t matter?
    It’s only when the wealthy are having their welfare looked at, that it turns into “class warfare” - like your fairy media-father playing with ‘is pumpkins?
    That’s just from what I read between the lines of the Limited News we get?

  • 12
    David Coles
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    There is nothing more Australian than a good class war. What a pity we aren’t having one. The budget would be back in surplus in no time if we seriously cleaned out the largesse that Howard visited on the rich end of the society.

  • 13
    Daniel Maurice
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    Bernard: “…Not to mention that “class war” traditionally has meant mass slaughter, rather than asking high-income earners to pay the same tax as low-income earners”.

    The top 1% of taxpayers pay 10% of all income tax. The top 10% of taxpayers pay 50% of all income tax. The bottom 10% of taxpayers pay 1% of all income tax. I’m sure high-income earners would love to “pay the same tax” as low-income earners as you claim they should.

  • 14
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Daniel Maurice - Nice figures - now can you give them some context by supplying the amount of income earned by the percentages you supplied - also how much the top income earners have been able to reduce their income by through the use of trusts and contributions into super etc

  • 15
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Daniel Maurice - Nice figures - now can you give them some context by suppl ying the amount of income earned by the percentages you suppl ied - also how much the top income earners have been able to reduce their income by through the use of trusts and contributions into super etc

  • 16
    klewso
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    How much does a loaf of bread cost, or the rent?

  • 17
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink

    Daniel Maurice - Also a lot of the measures the ALP has brought in aren’t aimed at the top 1% or 10% but those earning over $150k a year and were still getting govt assistance. Those who are rich enough to be looking after themselves and earning more than double the average income.

  • 18
    mr monkeyboy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Eat the poor!

  • 19
    Paddy Forsayeth
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    Daniel Maurice cannot fool us with his stupid sleigh of hand. The rich do not pay anything like the rate of personal income tax that the rest of us do. Its plain BS which, when examined closely, is meant to cover up the obscene greed which characterises the rich. If the rich paid their proper tax rate they would not be so rich.Its astounding that the likes of Clive Palmer can look you in the eye and assert he ‘earns’ as much as 36000 millionaires or 360000 workers on $100000 p.a. Last year in the UK the top 18 billionaires paid Eu 17.6 million, i.e. 0.1% tax. Daniel, I simply don’t believe you.

  • 20
    Rohan
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Class Warfare is the new Political Correctness.

  • 21
    mr monkeyboy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    tall poppy?

  • 22
    Gratton Wilson
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    Work Choices” was real class warfare. Lack of public transport is class warfare. Money spent on weapons of aggression is class warfare. Putting illiterate children in prison is class warfare. Poker machines in poor suberbs is class warfare. Subsidised golf, cricket, tennis, horse and motor racing facilities is class warfare. The grandeur, pomp and ceremony of religious institutions is class warfare.

  • 23
    Achmed
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Daniel Maurice - they would the millionaies like Tinkler whose “taxable income” last year was under $10,000.

    Or going back sometime Alan Bond in his heyday was “earning” so little his daughter was eleigible for Austudy.

  • 24
    Holden Back
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

    ― Warren Buffett

  • 25
    DMX PRIME
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    If even half of the nonsense Abbot spouts about Labor where actually true, I’d be a much happier commie.

  • 26
    DMX PRIME
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

    Er, Abbot and the Media, rather.

  • 27
    DMX PRIME
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 3:34 pm | Permalink

    Present company excluded, Mr Keane.

  • 28
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Achmed - I had to laugh when Tinkler was claiming he only received money “at the discretion of his wife” because his wife was the trustee of the trust all his money was held in.

  • 29
    Achmed
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Could this be an arrangment of convenience to prevent creditors getting their money from him if he was declared “bankrupt”? He has “no” money, its all with the wife

  • 30
    Peter Fuller
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    Jimmy & Achmed,
    His reputation doesn’t suggest that NT is the sort of bloke you’d characterise as hen-pecked, but I guess the “ball and chain” has ordered him to give up his hobby of owning and breeding race-horses.

  • 31
    Achmed
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Peter - I don’t think my comment inimated he was “hen-pecked”. More about shielding his wealth from the creditors by not having any money of his “own” and placing it in the “care’ of his wife who is not a part owner/partner etc in the business

  • 32
    Damien McBain
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Class Warfare” is just one of many pieces carefully constructed emotional political rhetoric. Still, its use (even in the negative) seems very effective at bring you dopey Trot’s out in droves.
    If there were no high income earners there would be no Australia because the low income earners pay very little tax. All we’d be left with is a hole full of poker and cigarette vending machines and a big drive through bottleshop attached to a tote.

  • 33
    Andybob
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

    I propose a cap on total government benefits and concessions. Let’s say something like $150,000. After that amount you are no longer entitled to a benefit or tax concession you might otherwise receive.

    Or is that class warfare ?

  • 34
    Achmed
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 4:44 pm | Permalink

    Damien - and if there were no low income workers who would work in factories etc of the wealthy?

    I have no problem with wealthy people - good on them. But to perpetuate the lie that they provide the “tax” backbone of the Govt is just reinforcing the wealthy deserve more than the poor rhetoric from the right wing media and Liberal suchophants

  • 35
    Jimmy
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Damien McBain - Who says we don’t want high income earners? My only objection is that we have high income earners who constantly talk of how hard it is to make ends meet while demanding govt assistance and dodging paying tax.

    Look at the article and see some of the things that have been classified as “class warfare” basically anything that has better targeted govt spending so that those who need it most get it and those who can fend for themselves don’t somehow get’s classified as class warfare when in reality it is just the way a society should function.

  • 36
    freddy mac
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

    these tax arrangements which benefit the wealthy is what australians want, this is what australians vote for.

    let them eat cake.

  • 37
    Achmed
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

    Look at Abbott’s Parental Plan. He will tax business an extra 2% to pay for to begin with while at the same time ranting about the tax regimes of the current Govy…hypocrisy springs to mind.

    The policy would allow Rhineheart, the Tinklers, the Turnbulls, the Palmers, Murdochs etc to claim $75,000 for 6 months. While the stay at home Mum gets zip

  • 38
    shepherdmarilyn
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    And the Tele has the poor writing in to protect the rich while they fail to notice they are being screwed.

  • 39
    Sharkie
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Ahh Class warfare, the robbing of peter to pay gina.
    It’s amazing how many useful middle class and working poor idiots the mega rich have managed to garner in support of their class war on the poor.
    Australia is now just like the USA, where the lower middle class think they are about to become millionaires, if only the government would, “get off their back”, “cut the red tape”, and “stop taxing the average joe til he bleeds”.
    Wake up bogans, the only thing that stops you getting right royally screwed is government regulation and public services.

  • 40
    Achmed
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:15 pm | Permalink

    shepherdmarilyn - as it shown by the way the Liberals and the right wing media have “informed” the masses of the superannuation changes. They have continued the “attack on the ordinary Aussie taxpayer superannuation” mis-truth ad nauseum.

    If they told the real truth - that tax is paid on superannuation earnings above $100,000 and that tthe first $100,000 was still tax free and that the system is indexed. (It not a tax to be paid if you have only $100,000 in super.) So as the years go by that first $100,000 that no tax is paid on increases. If you have $1 million in superannuation your super fund would need to return more that 10% in a year before you would have to pay tax.

    I have a problem understanding why people would rather see Abbott attack the lowest wage earners, mainly women, part-time workers and under-employed by removing the $500 contribution

  • 41
    Mark from Melbourne
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of logic to it but it has definitely taken over from “big new tax” as Lib/Nats’ favorite drum to beat. And the media seem to be happy to join in…

  • 42
    TheFamousEccles
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

    What amuses me is that anyone questioning the norm and musing about how good it would be if taxation was levied equitably is labled a “trot”. C’mon you rightard, surely you can do better than that? Or maybe you cannot, surely fabricating numbers and “playing the man” can’t have drained you of all your creative bile?

  • 43
    Pedantic, Balwyn
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    Taking action to ensure that the wealthy pay their fair share is, of course, class warfare. Whilst removing concessions or benefits for the low paid is, no doubt, social justice, according to the Abbott way of thinking

    The poor don’t deserve any help; so it is justifiable to remove any concessions. I wonder how Abbott explains his thinking to Cardinal Pell, or is he a kindred spirit?

  • 44
    Mike Smith
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    It’s 100,000 earned, not capital, of Super returns, not overall income. Just how much capital are we looking at for those figures? Current cash rate, about 4-5 million? Hmmm.

  • 45
    Sharkie
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

    class war” reminds me of the new “freedom of speech” paradigm. Does anyone else remember when “freedom of speech” meant the right to criticise the government and other powerful institutions without retribution? Now (thanks to the shock jocks and right wing hack columnists) “freedom of speech” simply means the right to vilify minorities and engage in racist behaviour without some do-gooder calling you an ar8ehole.

  • 46
    Mike Smith
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:28 pm | Permalink

    @Pedantic: I think Abbott would sue for defamation for that comparison with Pell.

  • 47
    David Hand
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    This whole debate has Wayne Swan’s inept politiking all over it like a rash. Bernard, I’ve got to give you credit about your skillful portraying of the issue with him somehow invisible. You could have mentioned his essay in the Monthly in March 2012 headed, “The 0.01 Per Cent: The Rising Influence of Vested Interests in Australia” in which he unloaded on Reinhart, Forrest and Palmer, 3 Australians whose billions are absolutely tied up in huge wealth-creating ventures employing thousands of workers and generating a large slice of our GDP. But of course, you didn’t.

    Paddy, some simple arithmetic for you mate. A 0.1% tax on a billionaire’s $1b is a wealth tax, not an income tax.

  • 48
    David Hand
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    Ah, you did mention Swan.
    I missed it because you treated him as the victim.

  • 49
    Harry Rogers
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    Personally I think the tax paid in Aiustralia is reasonably fair. The complexity of it is ludicrous and every time a government touches it it adds another 100 pages of complexity.

    The greedy will always want more money and the poor will always cry poor.

    The biggest problem with government is the allocation of resources. Surely there must be a limit to the number of departments it can create and number of people that can be on government largesse.

    It appears not as every time we have a new government within 12 months the size has continued to escalate.

    I dont expect this to be fixed as the human condition is pretty much innate.

  • 50
    Steve777
    Posted Tuesday, 16 April 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    This might be an example of class warfare: “Australia’s richest person, Gina Rinehart, has issued a stern rebuke to those jealous of the wealthy: start working harder and cut down on drinking, smoking and socialising.”

    (The Australian, 30/8/2012)

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