QUARTERLY ESSAY 83 Top Blokes

 

Correspondence

Rachel Nolan

TOP BLOKES

Correspondence


Rachel Nolan

In Top Blokes, Lech Blaine applies his intellect and kind-hearted curiosity to an essential current of Australian identity, the myth of the larrikin: the anti-establishment figure (invariably male) who employs a “reckless collectivism,” bringing mates together in the face of injustice.

Lech is from Toowoomba, but that’s a conservative, uninteresting place. His worldview arises from the cultural identity of Ipswich, the working-class city his late parents came from and of which Lech’s cousin Allan Langer remains the most celebrated son.

I’m from Ipswich, and as no one’s written about the city since the now ageing poet Thomas Shapcott, Lech’s interest in the place makes my heart sing. The story of Ipswich is the story of class, identity and labourism in Australia.

The Labor Party was born in Barcaldine in 1891, but before that, in 1888, Australia’s first Labor MP emerged from Ipswich when Thomas Glassey, a coalmining unionist describing himself as “independent Labor,” won the seat of Bundamba in the Queensland parliament.

In 1899, the region contributed members to the world’s first Labor government, that of Queensland premier Anderson Dawson.

From 1915 to 1948, the workers of Ipswich were represented by Frank Cooper, an eight-hour-day campaigner who became treasurer in the reforming government of William Forgan Smith. Elected in 1932, that government rejected the austerity of the Premiers’ Plan, rebuilt Queensland in Art Deco style and entrenched the state as the highest wage, highest-taxing jurisdiction in the country. As premier himself in 1942, Cooper stood by Labor prime minister John Curtin through World War II.

Ipswich produced Queensland’s first Labor woman MP when Vi Jordan was elected member for Ipswich West in 1966. She was backed by mining and rail unions, all-male workforces. Years after her death, Vi Jordan’s son told me about the atmosphere of the times, how Gough Whitlam would stay with the family when visiting the city as federal Opposition leader, and how the house would be filled with excited and erudite conversation as unionists, directly influenced by the more radical British socialist movement, envisaged a program of industrial relations reform, free public health and free tertiary education.

In 1977, Bill Hayden, a working-class policeman from Ipswich, became leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. Hayden had already built the structure of Medicare as health minister before seeking to salvage economic policy as Whitlam’s last treasurer. As Opposition leader, Bill Hayden built the foundations of the modern Labor Party, socially progressive but economically robust. He was replaced by Bob Hawke on the day writs were issued for the 1983 poll, with Hawke winning the election Hayden himself said “a drover’s dog” could have won.

The Hawke and Keating years coincided with, but didn’t cause, Ipswich’s deindustrialisation. From the 1970s, coalmining moved to the Bowen Basin, and electric trains didn’t require local workshops employing 3000 men. Ipswich people resented economic liberalisation and were suss on Paul Keating’s Zegna suits. The politics of class shifted from economic to cultural identity.

After Hayden’s preferred successor, a working-class boy and Rhodes scholar named David Hamill, missed out on federal preselection in a shonky factional stitch-up, the ALP lost the Ipswich-based seat of Oxley to Pauline Hanson in 1996.

She remains our gift to the nation.

By the 2000s, unionism in Ipswich had collapsed. The Labour Day march was a shadow of its former self, and the Trades Hall, the original building with its wrought-iron verandahs having been replaced by a jerry-built concrete block in the 1980s, gradually became empty.

With the city becoming a commuter satellite of Brisbane and its working-class identity adrift, the political void was filled by populism. The new mayor, Paul Pisasale, developed a classic larrikin persona, taking the longstanding resentment of class and directing it towards an “other” defined by geography rather than income. Pisasale’s schtick was that Ipswich people should be proud of where they came from, sticking it to sneering outsiders, including those from Brisbane. He was making Ipswich great again.

As a member of the ALP, Pisasale neutralised Ipswich’s only potential source of organised political opposition, but did little for the city or working people. As his cult of personality grew, Pisasale was re-elected with as much as 87 per cent of the vote, making him the most popular politician in Australia. Under his mayoralty, property development became Ipswich’s boom industry, the city sprawled and the CBD became derelict. He’s now serving seven years for official corruption related to taking cash from developers and for sexual assault.

While Pisasale’s populist cult is an extreme example, the truth is that every one of Australia’s large former industrial cities has seen some kind of scandal combining elements of populism, sex, property developers and/or larrikins.

In Wollongong, a sex-for-development-approval scandal contributed to the downfall of the last state Labor government. The Newcastle mayor, a property developer, resigned after he was caught funnelling secret donations to Liberal MPs, and Geelong Council has just emerged from administration after the council, dominated by a former paparazzo turned larrikin, was sacked for bullying and failing to provide good government.

Once, the local politics of these places would have been defined by class, with an active civic culture characterised by unions and Labor activists on one side and chambers of commerce and service clubs on the other. Lech is right to say Australia’s working-class towns have held together better than Trump’s Pennsylvania or the Brexit-voting north of England, but it’s a near-run thing. There is, as the councils have shown, a constant vulnerability to shysters.

Lech Blaine’s thesis is a simple one: that Anthony Albanese, with his working-class authenticity, may neutralise the culture wars through which conservatives separate educated Labor representatives from their working-class base. Perhaps, he says, by staying mum on coal and Instagramming photos of tinned peas and corn on his plate, the dinky-di Albo can defeat ScoMo, an entirely confected character whose feigned interest in rugby league disguises a puritanical rah-rah from the Eastern Suburbs.

I hope, of course, that Lech is right. Surely Labor can defeat a government that has systematically suppressed wages while delivering tax cuts that most benefit the rich, that has endangered our economy and security by stirring up China while dropping the ball on critical relationships in Southeast Asia, and that caused half the country to be needlessly locked down for months through its incompetent management of the vaccine rollout?

Not having a crystal ball, I don’t know if it can. What I do know, having spent a good part of my working life representing Ipswich, is that the cultural markers as they’re currently defined are hard to cut through. I was never so shameless as to feign passionate interest in rugby league, but my earnest commitment to social justice and good economic policy was no competition for the vacuous identity politics of the uber-larrikin Pisasale. A solid voting record on IR reform, public education and public health is harder to sell when there’s no sense that class is an economic phenomenon and justice can only be achieved through collective action. The term I decided I didn’t want to run again was the term I bought an Alfa.

It must be possible for Australia to get beyond the mindless and divisive identity wars that lure working Australians to vote against their own economic interests and for a smaller, meaner country. We can do so either by seeking, as Albanese has, to neutralise the most shallow of cultural markers or by elevating the elements of cultural identity that unite us in an expansive vision: the Olympic team, an affinity with the landscape, the music of Paul Kelly.

That musician is, in my view, the great storyteller and unifier of Australian popular culture. In 1998, as John Howard was turning his back on Aboriginal reconciliation, Kelly wrote “Little Kings,” a song about how power is exercised, how lies told as history can alter our sense of identity and about how, everywhere, warning bells ring out across the lucky country:

In the land of the little kings, justice doesn’t mean a thing and everywhere the little kings are getting away with murder.

Rachel Nolan

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 83, Top Blokes. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 84, The Reckoning.


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