When I was in grade five there was a vote in class. We were asked, who do you want to win the election, Hawke or Fraser? Only one child in that working class school in Hoppers Crossing voted for the Liberals, such was the hope and desire of working class families for political change. I was ten, and most of my classmates were 11, but we understood that this was a turning point. Yet, what our families wanted in terms of economic change from Hawke and the ALP was not what we got — no matter the stories being told in the obituaries and today’s hagiography.
In the decade before Hawke’s election there were five recessions in Australia. Each recession shed more jobs in Australian manufacturing than were recovered in the aftermath. Profits and prices were increasing, and the money in workers’ pockets was not. Unemployment and inflation were on the rise. Unions had been fighting — hard — and strike days were at their historical peak, but wages were not keeping pace with inflation. Into this situation arrived Hawke and the Accord, promising to ‘bring Australia together’.
For me, the idea that this was a period of consensus is smoke and mirrors. This was a period when Australian workers and their trade unions were brought into line politically. A period where trade union militancy was crushed, never to recover. A period in which wages of Australians were cut significantly in real terms, and it was a wage suppression better than Thatcher and Reagan achieved contemporaneously. It was a period in which financial systems were ‘deregulated’ [or re-regulated on neoliberal lines], public assets started to be privatised and free higher education was ended. And it was the time when those ‘great’ ALP reforms of Medicare and superannuation were introduced — when the promised Medicare system was created on a largely private fee for service basis, and retirement security was built on a mostly privatised and high risk basis in the form of superannuation (and in the process the public pension was undermined).
As you may know, this is my area of academic expertise. I have researched and written on these issues for most of the last decade. Importantly though, I also lived through this period in a working class family that was counting every dollar. My Dad kept his job in the Hawke era, and when he was made redundant thankfully found other work — most older ‘unskilled’ men like him didn’t. My mother returned to work after raising a family, and took many jobs to make sure ends would meet. Having left school at 14 she was also lucky. I can remember working three jobs while I was in year 12, and 17 years old, because money was tight. But all in all, we were the lucky ones — parents with work and a family who kept their home (just).
I titled my book How Labour Built Neoliberalism not simply to be provocative, but because political activists and unionists today need to come to terms with how the ALP and the trade unions oversaw these changes. We need to understand how the trade unions and the ACTU backed a project to constrain workers’ activity and suppress their wages, creating real pain for working families. As I say at the end of my book:
“The neoliberal era was a defeat for labour in Australia, as it similarly was in other advanced capitalist countries. There are important consequences, however, in the strategic choices made in a period of setback. The failure to break with the Accord, and with the state-led neoliberal transformation implemented under successive Labor Governments, has had deep consequences. The effects are even more important to recognise given, thirty years after it was implemented, the social contract remains lionised within large sections of the labour movement and the academy despite its failure. We must ask why many still assume the Accord process to be positive, given it was central to incorporating labour into neoliberal restructuring. … Far from simply urging criticism of organised labour, I hope to open up discussion—in particular amongst those active in the labour movement—as to how we deal with a central consequence of neoliberalism: the profound disorganisation of trade unions and the working class and labour’s role within that.”
Some links to my work on the ALP and neoliberalism:
Photo is of former ACTU heads Bill Kelty (left) and Simon Crean (right), and Bob Hawke, at the Prices and Income Accord 30-year anniversary. Photo by Renee Nowytarger. Source: The Australian.