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Issue #1548      23 May 2012

The real class war

In response to Julia Gillard’s recent declaration that Tony Abbott should leave his electorate in Sydney’s north shore, and visit some “real” families elsewhere, he declared that she had launched a class war.

Gillard’s statement was unbelievably insulting and stupid. There are probably a million people living on the north shore. Gillard ignored the fact that many of the families living there are working class (and in many cases struggling), that the resident population also includes those who could be classed as allies of the working class, and that in any case all families, rich or poor, are real and deserve fundamental respect as human beings.

Moreover, people’s class allegiance can change or contradict the norm. Even the richest families have members who have rebelled against the greed and injustice of their relatives’ behaviour, and taken up a progressive, left-wing, or even Marxist-Leninist political position.

The conservative press has been quick to publicise the angry reaction of families living on the north shore to Gillard’s remarks. Her tactic has now virtually guaranteed the return of conservative candidates in north shore electorates.

For his part, Abbott continues to delight in having TV cameras film his visits to factories and other workplaces. His appearances often include patronising but inept attempts at carrying out the work of employees. After Gillard’s statement he declared that his own origins were working class, implying that this makes him a defender of the rights of ordinary working people.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Abbott’s stage-managed interaction with working people is solely intended to achieve power for his party in the federal government, in order to serve the interests of the ruling class, in particular the owners of the major corporations.

Class distinctions

Abbott’s reference to class war has stimulated a wide range of comments on the same subject, many of them inaccurate or deliberately deceptive. Some notable examples were included in an article written by Jac Nasser, chairman of BHP-Billiton.

Referring to the conflict between the government and the mining companies over the resources rent tax, as well as the current industrial relations system, Nasser commented: “It’s … personally disappointing to me that part of this debate has become one based on class divisions”.

However, he then revealed his own class allegiance very clearly by declaring: “Generally, the people who have done well in Australia have done so by their own toil. They have created great companies, thousands of jobs and often led the world in what they’ve done – people like Lindsay Fox, Frank Lowy … and yes, so have Gina Rinehart, Andrew Forrest and Clive Palmer.”

Well no, actually those people have “done well” by exploiting the geologists, miners, truck drivers, builders, mechanics, engineers, mineworkers and all their other employees whose work has created the wealth of these companies – i.e. the working class.

Nasser declared that the government should deregulate the industrial relations system and alter the taxation regime in order to improve the “competitiveness” (i.e. profitability) of Australian corporations. Repeating the recent tactic of mining magnate Clive Palmer, he then alluded to his father’s participation in the Second World War alongside Australian soldiers. Who was it who said: “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”?

Opening a barrage

BHP-Billiton and Mitsubishi are engaged in a series of titanic struggles with employees over pay and working conditions in their jointly-owned giant coal mining operation in Queensland. It’s a classic battle between two opposing classes. However, BHP-Billiton representatives blame the antagonism not on class antagonism, but on the current industrial relations system, which they hope to change for their advantage.

Nasser commented: “An IR system that pits labour against capital can never lead to an efficient and productive workplace. … The government’s review of the Fair Work Act is an opportunity to move the pendulum back to a more appropriate balance.”

BHP-Billiton is campaigning for a return to an industrial relations system under which they would be able to negotiate directly with employees. The company believes this would give it a better chance of brow-beating its employees into submission.

However, blaming the current IR system for class conflict is a total red herring. The antagonistic relations between working people and the owners of capital are built into the political-economic system we know as capitalism. Businesses will always be intent on handing back as little as possible of the wealth created by their employees, and labour will be constantly pitted against capital because of their opposing interests.

The greed that drives BHP-Billiton and all the giant minerals companies operating in Australia is evident in their bitter resentment over the minerals resource rent tax. They refuse to accept the principle that they should pay the people of Australia for the minerals they rip out of the soil.

The company has recently threatened to cancel major mining operations and has even hinted at moving its operations off-shore. This is nonsense. The company may change the sequence under which it launches new projects, in order to increase profits and/or to exert pressure on the government, but that alone would not justify abandoning the projects, nor moving the company off-shore.

It’s true that other companies have moved off-shore, but their situation was entirely different. James Hardie’s relocation to Holland was an attempt to avoid the potentially massive financial impact of legal action by asbestos disease sufferers.

Australian manufacturers of clothing and other commodities have moved off-shore, but the resources they require may easily be obtained overseas. In contrast, the resources on which BHP-Billiton depends are located in vast quantities beneath Australia’s ancient soil. The company is hardly likely to relocate from the landmass that contains its most enormous source of wealth.

BHP-Billiton’s threats are intended to pressure its employees and the government into accepting a series of changes that would maximise the company’s profit line.

And that involves screwing as much as possible out of BHP-Billiton employees, who are all members of the working class. Like it or lump it, the political system under which we live is all about class warfare.  

Next article – Yes I can! – First Aboriginal graduates in Cuban literacy Campaign

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