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Journalism

Apr 16, 2013

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 ...

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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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