Some blame Paul Keating. Our last working-class prime minister, a self-educated man who left school at 15, introduced economic reforms that gutted Australia’s manufacturing sector. Factories closed, and thousands of workers were forced on to unemployment lines.
In the decades since, the nation that once prided itself on being a working man’s paradise became a land where – on government policy documents, at least – the working class did not exist.
“Over the last 20 years there’s been an increasing tendency to conceive of low-income groups only as disadvantaged,” says Monash Associate Professor Mark Gibson. He and his colleague in the communication and media studies department, Associate Professor Tony Moore, are investigating how the working class are depicted in the post-industrial age – particularly how they make and consume media.
“We don’t want to deny that some people are disadvantaged,” Dr Gibson explains, but only looking at communities in terms of what they lack “can lead you to overlook positive resources that they may also have”.
Historically, in Australia, “the working class were seen as the agents of progress and modernity, of making the world not just fairer, but run better – because they ran everything, they made things”, says Dr Moore.
In parallel, working-class characters in stories and on the stage helped shape our national identity. Dr Moore points to writers Henry Lawson and Frank Hardy (and Hardy’s Logie-award winning sister, Mary), TV comics Graham Kennedy and Paul Hogan, and rock bands such as AC/DC and Cold Chisel. But now, he says, the working class is “seen as marginal, and not so much to the centre of what we are, except when we think back historically”.
In the mainstream media, some working-class characters live on in comedies such as Upper Middle Bogan, and the TV series created by Paul Fenech (Pizza, Housos, Swift and Shift, Bogan Hunters).
But in recent years it’s become harder for working-class people to find a toe-hold in a tough media landscape that’s been disrupted by the internet. Once, good journalism jobs could be found out of high school, but in 2018 “credential creep” prevents candidates without degrees from pursuing media careers.
Finding a voice
Dr Moore grew up in the Illawarra, where his father was a metalworker and his stepfather was a coal miner. He’s made documentaries on the effects of the Keating reforms on the district, and has seen the effects of long-term, intergenerational unemployment in his own family.
While he’s keenly aware of the damage the economic reforms have inflicted, he observes that people’s ability to express themselves is as strong as ever it was – and he’s keen to investigate what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.
He and Dr Gibson suspect that working-class people are finding an outlet on social media, where they’re writing blogs and posting videos on YouTube.
“One of the little windows into this was [former] senator Ricky Muir, who was very much a working-class politician – unusual, because there are very few,” Dr Gibson says.
Although Muir looked deeply uncomfortable in his early television interviews, before his election as the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party candidate he made videos on four-wheel-driving and posted them on the web. “There’s a whole ecology there of people making media in this new, non-professional media space,” Dr Gibson says. “Swapping yarns about what they’ve been doing four-wheel-driving, or dirt-bike riding, or cake decorating.”
They aim to investigate and report back on what’s going on. Although it’s possible to make a living by posting on social media, it’s also rare, Dr Gibson says. “There are vast numbers of people who are trolling their wares, and very few people watching their videos.”
A tricky definition
According to polling by Essential Media, 30 per cent of Australians still self-identify as working class. But what does this mean? Since the Keating reforms, many working people, including skilled tradespeople, have thrived economically. And an underclass has also emerged of long-term unemployed, serial contract workers, and people who are on the margins because of illness or family breakdown. In contemporary Australia, defining class is tricky, says Dr Gibson.
“There’s the discourse, for example, about the cashed-up bogan, who has money but not taste in the middle-class sense. And there are people on very low incomes with a middle-class cultural background – the unemployed PhD students.”
The working class may no longer have a strong media voice, but they do wield political influence – and can surprise the establishment. US President Donald Trump understood that “blue-collar people have net roots as well as grass roots”, says Dr Moore, and he encouraged his blue-collar supporters to use their social media clout to build a network of support from the bottom up. “He said, ‘We built a movement’.” In the US and Britain, class has again become part of the political discourse.
“Class is reproduced over time. If you just stop time, it’s a layer cake. And people are in different layers, due to their income. Its reproduction in families, schools, workplaces and communities has much to do with culture. So class is more than just the economics, it’s a way of life.”
In Australia, the political potency of the working class is acknowledged each election cycle when the voters of western Sydney take centre stage for their ability to make or break governments – and also for their unpredictability.
Compulsory voting means that Australian political parties have long had to appeal to voters across the classes if they want to form government. Gough Whitlam deliberately pitched to the progressive middle class as well as the working class when he became prime minster in 1972. Liberal prime minister John Howard tailored his message to aspirational working people, the so-called “Howard battlers”, while simultaneously intensifying neo-liberal economic policies, globalisation and manufacturing’s decline.
Examining the 'outsiders'
Dr Moore says the class research will include “an ethnography of particular regions, areas, of the specific media practices, but also the wider culture that goes with that”. Both he and Dr Gibson have a longstanding interest on the influence of “outsiders” in Australia. Most recently, they’ve been researching through an ARC Discovery grant the links between fringe, independent, and avant-garde cultural production and the mainstream. The outcome is a book, Fringe to Famous, that will be published next year (with co-authors Chris McAuliffe and Maura Edmond).
Their investigations into the media practices of Australia’s working class are being developed for an ARC Linkage project to be carried out with Macquarie University media professor Catharine Lumby, Essential Media pollster and social researcher Peter Lewis, and Per Capita Fellow and former Gillard government speech writer Dr Dennis Glover.
“Class is reproduced over time,” says Dr Moore. “If you just stop time, it’s a layer cake. And people are in different layers, due to their income. Its reproduction in families, schools, workplaces and communities has much to do with culture. So class is more than just the economics, it’s a way of life.”
The Recovering Class project produced the recent chapter 'Recovering the Australian Working Class in Mike Wayne and Deidre O'Neill's (eds) Considering Class: Theory, Culture and Media in the 21st Century, and featured on ABC Radio National.