Prepare for the blinding fanfare of hi-vis and politicians cosplaying as blue-collar workers: Federal Election is almost upon us.
With both parties struggling in the polls, it’s the triennial occasion where politicians put on a facade of caring for the working class to try and snare their votes.
It’s a ridiculous, although effective, culture war. The Coalition paints the Labor Party as out-of-touch elitists who’ve abandoned them in favour of the inner-city intelligentsia, a reasonable assessment of Trendy Labor and the New Puritanism. However, weaponising issues like climate change, tax-loopholes and even the rollout of electric vehicles – and presenting them as a mortal threat to workers’ hip-pockets – helped Morrison peel off enough of their votes to scrape back into office in 2019.
But how does the government respond to a proposal that will actually benefit the workers most at risk from hardship?
Recently, Victoria’s Labor Premier Daniel Andrews announced a two year trial scheme that will provide sick-leave for some casual employees. An Australian first, the trial will see about 150,000 casuals in hospitality, supermarkets, aged and disability care, security, cleaning, and retail made eligible for sick or carers leave of AUD20 an hour or AUD750 a week. The Victorian Government will cover the AUD245 million price tag for the first stage of the trial, but if made permanent, the scheme will be funded by a levy on business.
The Coalition, both state and federal, went ballistic.
Federal Industrial Relations Minister Michaelia Cash slammed it as a ‘tax’ while her Victorian counterpart David Southwick vowed to scrap it if the Opposition won November’s State Election. Predictably employer groups weren’t too keen either, with the Australian Industry (Ai) Group and the Council of Small Business Organisations both claiming it would act as a handbrake on growth and deter investment.
For all their criticism though, none bothered to mention the main reason behind it.
During the height of the pandemic, casuals would often turn up for work while feeling sick or showing symptoms – sometimes in high risk settings like abattoirs and quarantine hotels – because they simply couldn’t afford not to. A lack of sick pay and job security was forcing casual workers to put themselves, their families, and the broader community at risk.
The failure of the Coalition and business to grasp this is surprising, given it was they who complained longest and loudest about the extended lockdowns that resulted from outbreaks in heavily casualised industries. It’s also odd that a political party that champions small business can’t see the benefits of employees not making customers sick.
The Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s Paul Guerra demonstrated this ignorance when he told The Guardian that the trial wasn’t needed because the pandemic was over (newsflash Paul: it isn’t) and that the 25% loading casuals receive in lieu of sick pay was sufficient.
This hoary old argument ignores evidence that many casuals don’t actually get a 25% loading at all and even for those that do, the rising cost of living, surviving paycheque to paycheque and the unpredictable nature of getting sick, can still mean financial hardship if they have to skip work.
But as this episode reveals, the Coalition aren’t interested in genuinely wooing the working class at all. Rather, they’re seeking to redefine it on their own narrow and selective terms; terms that leave casuals, especially those in hospitality, aged care, security, retail, and cleaning (so basically, many women, immigrants, and minorities), on the outer – an emerging ‘under class’ who are falling under the radar.
But for the Coalition, the working class is restricted to the old blue-collar industries of mining, manufacturing and trades. Not only are these dominated by men, but men who used to vote Labor and whose incomes and lifestyles have seen them swing towards the Coalition.
And Morrison is known to have a particular interest in stopping them swinging back.