The Triumph of the Bogans – Penbo Using the Working Class as a Weapon against Sneering Hipsters

Penbo Doesn’t Have Soft Hands – He’s a Champion of the Working Class.

Those folks down at News Limited have had their fun over the last few weeks, prognosticating on why the ALP is doomed and why they will be beheaded in an election some eighteen months away. The latest to reply to the “stacks on” call is David Penberthy, letting loose on The Punch. His piece on the weekend whipping up a bit of confected class warfare, pretending to be a man of the suburbs is worth a look. As ever, his words are in italics.

Cashed-up bogans will have the lethal last laugh on Labor

The origin of the excellent Australian term “bogan” has been the subject of intense debate but its definition has always been clear – a blue collar person, usually from an outer suburb, who earns little money and has a limited education. The more conceited uni-educated types have laughed smugly at the bogan, tut-tutting at his love of the parmigiana, Cold Chisel, bourbon in a can and trackie-dacks, things which for many of us are the makings of a pretty good night.

Already the simplistic battle lines are drawn. Uni-educated “types” with a smug laugh. I’m assuming this “type” excludes Mr. Penberthy himself, who studied at a university. His definition of “bogan” is a bit questionable, but it suits his purpose to characterise such a group as poor, working class and hence the victim of the “smug” people who studied at university. A simple, clean straw man. He sides himself with these people through declaring his love for bourbon and coke in a can and parmigianas – clearly we are about to see him pop up at Penrith Panthers or the Settlement Pub in Cranbourne soon. Of course, this is coupled with an image from one of Paul Fenech’s unwatchable, terrible SBS programs which did nothing more than highlight how out of touch Paul Fenech is.

There's a lot to celebrate…

The bogan has also been derided by the trendies as an ugly blight on the social landscape, someone who refuses to tread lightly on mother earth, spending the baby bonus on a second-hand speedboat, an Acca Dacca box-set or the biggest plasma screen they can find, generating a distressingly large carbon footprint in their McMansion with their 12-speaker home cinema, eight-burner barbie and three cars in the driveway.

The trendies. Another easy term to throw about. Accompanying it, a range of expressions I have never heard or seen written anywhere. I don’t know many “trendies” who don’t like ACDC or don’t own a large screen TV. Besides, 12 speaker home cinemas and eight burner barbies aren’t particularly damaging to the environment if used sparingly, which they are. As for the three cars, I have heard some criticise the dependence on cars in outer suburban areas – but when it is explained to people living in the inner city that public transport is non-existent in outer suburbs, there has been, for almost all I have spoken to, greater understanding of the situation. Penberthy is also showing little tolerance for those who may question how we use our finite resources. In Penberthy’s world, it seems questioning lifestyle choices should be forbidden.

It’s time to stop sneering, hipsters. Something remarkable has happened in Australia. The bogans have won. They are officially and seriously cashed-up. There is now a stronger link between having a university education and earning lower wages, than being skilled in a high-demand trade and handsomely rewarded in the blue-collar sector.

Sneering. Penberthy should know about sneering, because that is what we get for the rest of the article. First, he is addressing these “hipsters” who have dared to question the way we do things, telling them that the “bogans” earn more money than them – therefore they have won. Apparently, money is the measurement of happiness and success in this equation. Also, he is triumphantly declaring that a university education is virtually a waste of time – why bother when it earns you less money. I take it Mr. Penberthy isn’t referring to his own education.

It is true that many have written negatively about “bogans” – me included. These comments, though, are not mainstream and are generally limited to sections of the internet and Twitter. In the case of the people involved with Things Bogans Like, they are fading to an extent in any case. But my comment – and the comments of others – about these “bogans” has been more about an entitlement culture and an intolerance towards unemployed and disability welfare recipients and refugees than anything else. Not about the working class or a lack of a university education. I’ve met many people who hate the carbon tax, love middle class welfare and believe refugees should go home who have had a university education. Personally, I am still looking for a better expression to define this attitude of selfishness, entitlement and intolerance that was sung about succinctly by TISM in their Phillip Ruddock Blues. Maybe I should call them Ruddocks. But back to Penbo.

The rise of the affluent blue collar sector has been a nation-changing transformation. It has only taken about 15 years. And it has turned politics on its head, as these were the people who were once uniformly loyal to the Australian Labor Party but are now anything but that. If anything, they are more likely to be individualists who have an intense dislike of taxation and welfare, believe passionately in reward for effort, have an in-principle problem with punishing people for getting ahead, and want government to limit itself largely keeping the budget in the black and interest rates down.

This paragraph is one of the more outstandingly silly in an article with many competitors for that title. “Blue collar workers” were not uniformly loyal to the ALP for many years – electoral results in the 1990s were proof of that. If it wasn’t for the GST in 1993, blue collar workers would have punished Keating for interest rates and various other concerns then. Throughout the Howard years, these “individualists who have an intense dislike of taxation” who “believe passionately in reward for effort” were delivered a range of welfare benefits, such as family tax benefits, un means tested baby bonuses, private health care rebates, increased support for independent schools. These “rewards” were paid to everyone, whether they worked hard or not. These payments helped make the rugged “individualists” dependent on the welfare as well as hardened supporters of the Liberal Party. So much so that the current government is too scared to do anything more than tinker around the edges of these unnecessary drains on taxation receipts. To exclude reference to this middle class welfare demonstrates a wilfulness on Penberthy’s part to paint the loss of these “blue collar workers” to the ALP as purely the ALP’s fault – an ALP that presumably contains these “sneerers” of which he speaks.

It is also an odd logic where Penberthy claims that the ALP “lost” those blue collar workers who run successful businesses because they want governments to keep the budget in the black and keep interest rates down. Interest rates, that constantly present boogie man, are lower now than they were in 2007. The budget was put into deficit in order to stimulate the economy during the GFC. That move has been praised by the World Bank, that group of sneering hipsters. In addition, the ALP have not been sneering at the bogan / blue collar / working class person with their policies. Keeping most of middle class welfare is one example, as is their increased funding of schooling, sporting clubs, roads, whatever things that Penberthy’s “bogans” like. If anything, this group are more prosperous now than they had been during the Howard government. That isn’t the perception, though – and that can be sheeted home to a variety of reasons.

Just in case you missed the data I’m basing this on, I’ll recap here at some length, as it’s quite incredible. This week saw the release of official figures showing blue collar workers have overtaken white collar workers as the highest-paid people in Australia. Not just in the obvious sector of mining but almost across the board, with tradies, utility and construction workers taking home more money on average than those with soft hands.

More sneering at those with “soft hands” – I take it Mr. Penberthy’s hands are rugged and he uses Solvol to wash them. This assertion that a university education and a professional career is somehow a bad thing is curious – in that I can’t imagine that most university educated people would sneer at those from the working class. He perhaps should sit next to me whenever I have conversations with a variety of people near my workplace and home – no sneering on my part there, despite my university education. Or when I go to Giants games with these blue collar people. Perhaps I should start sneering at them in order to conform to the terms of this article.

The Suncorp Bank Wages Report showed that blue-collar workers earn an average $1229 a week, which is $144 a week more than those who sit behind a desk, with six of the 10 highest-paying industries are now blue collar. In order, this is how weekly salaries now stack up: mining $2173, utilities $1597, finance $1375, media $1365, science $1353, construction $1307, public safety $1270, wholesale trade $1252, transport $1219 and manufacturing $1145. The lowest three industries were the female-dominated hospitality, arts and retail sector, earning less than $500 a week.

Figures like this are out of place in terms of the social argument Penberthy is making – that somehow blue collar workers deserve to be taken seriously because they are earning more money. A quick examination of the ALP’s policies and actions would show that they take the working class very seriously. But Penberthy, I think, is confusing the ALP with a smattering of people at inner city dinner parties he attends and those who go up to Joe Hildebrand in the street and tell him he’s a wanker.

Another interesting side point to the salary stats is that highly unionised industries such as transport and warehousing experienced the lowest wages growth, up 60 per cent in the past 15 years, compared to the 177 per cent increase in utilities and 102 per cent increase in mining, sectors where workers are more likely to operate as independent contractors or on non-union agreements.

This is there to show that there is good blue collar and bad blue collar in Penberthy’s estimation. Bad blue collar are in “highly unionised” industries – where wages growth is slower. Perhaps this more shows how effective unions have been in working with their employers to control wages growth to within reasonable boundaries. The good blue collar are on individual contracts. I can almost see an argument for Work Choices creeping back in (perhaps he is getting ready to start spruiking it for after the 2013 election). He also makes reference to mining, which is at odds with his general argument about “bogans” in the outer suburbs. Miners make up a very small proportion of Australia’s workforce and are less likely to live in these outer suburbs of which Penberthy speaks.

Now, start thinking about all these employment statistics in the context of the mountain of polls forecasting the wipe-out of the Gillard Government. Reflect on the election results in suburban Brisbane and Sydney at the Queensland and NSW state elections this year and last, where blue-collar seats which were only ever held by the ALP are now comfortably in conservative hands.

This excludes the chance that outer suburban seats are big swinging seats. State Labor were lucky to hang onto power in 2007, where Work Choices and Peter Debnam conspired to keep a struggling government in power. Same in Queensland, where a weak opposition helped them in the past. This was borne out with the incredible turn around in poll numbers that occurred with Campbell Newman took over as opposition leader. It is also sloppy political analysis to draw lock step parallels between the performance of parties at a state and federal level. The fact that through the Howard and Carr years, the Federal Liberals held Hughes (in the “Shire”) while the state ALP held Menai – in the very same area – undermines Penberthy’s presumption to an extent. It doesn’t always follow.

What it all suggests is that the event which sounded the death-knell for Labor in 1996, when it lost the emblematic western Sydney seat of Lindsay to John Howard not once but twice in a subsequent by-election, was in no way an aberration but the beginning of a nation-altering trend. What was once the safest of Labor seats fell to knockabout suburban mum Jackie Kelly, derided by smart-asses as “Trackie Dacky Jackie” for her love of leisure wear and her daggy demeanour. When Labor knocked her off on a narky constitutional technicality and forced a by-election, Kelly ran again and smashed the ALP to bits. She held the seat at the 1998 GST election, at the 2001 national security election, the 2004 Latham v Howard election.

Most discussions about “bogans” and “blue collar” and the rest seems to settle on Lindsay – the electorate in which I lived for a long time and still live near. In many ways, it an emblematic seat to journalists seeking a narrative for the Howard era. It is, however, also an aberration. As a person who had swapped in 1994 from supporting the Liberal Party to the Democrats, I was moderately surprised by the victory of Jackie Kelly – but not as surprised as Kelly herself. Hence the fact she didn’t resign from her government job before running. That victory, though, was more a reflection of a vast dissatisfaction with Keating as PM (as Kelly herself said to me once – “voters were in a dark mood – they marched in just to vote Keating out”) than any kind of social shift. It also reflected the virtual invisibility of the MP who was voted out, Ross Free. To people in Lindsay, visibility and approachability is important. Free didn’t have that, Jackie Kelly did. She really was one of the people and had no ambitions for higher positions, unlike Free, who was a member of the NSW Right faction.

The ALP continued to misunderstand the Kelly factor and ran a sequence of poor candidates against her – friendly, local but dull Labor machine people. Kelly had a considerable personal magnetism that helped her stay in, even in 1998 – an election Kelly herself considered an impossible one to win (that three hours I spent next to her outside an electoral booth last year was very instructive). Those who disliked Kelly from other areas would dislike many from the west – I know Ed Husic and Michelle Rowland are similarly laid back and “westie” like Kelly. In addition, it’s curious for Penberthy to focus on her dress sense. Kelly knew how to dress for parliament and elsewhere. I never once heard her being called “Trackie Dacky Jackie” by anyone – I do, however, remember her love of yellow jackets, though. It an example of Penberthy pigeonholing outer suburban people as much as these “hipsters” of which he speaks. On a wider scale, though, Penberthy’s argument lacks the context that is required in order to understand the factors that kept Kelly in the seat through the period.

In NSW Labor circles there was a wildly hopeful view post-1996 that Lindsay was a one-off, the last venting of voter anger at the Keating era. If it was a one-off, it was a one-off that kept happening.

John Howard was always of the view that the Lindsay victories were not an accident and that blue collar voters were up for grabs. He wanted to make those people his own, and he supported Kelly because he regarded her as being genuinely of the area, someone who epitomised local aspirations (or to use that over-worked term, the local “aspirationists”). Kelly became a bit of a vain and loose-lipped liability towards the end of her career, and lost her seat against the vile if comic backdrop of a fabricated pamphlet campaign against a non-existent mosque, but she was an immovable force for more than 10 years. As Howard always said, Kelly’s many victories, and those of other conservatives in blue-collar seats, showed that voters these days are less tribal, less rusted on, and will certainly not cop what he called “head office identikit candidates” being parachuted into suburbs which were 20km way from the inner city share house they called home while doing their Bachelor of Arts.

There is a grain of good sense in these comments, but only a grain. The sneering about the Bachelor of Arts is needlessly harsh. As I pointed out earlier, it is true the ALP’s strategy in Lindsay was poorly formed – and I believe it still is the case. David Bradbury, I think, was entirely the wrong candidate for Lindsay. But not because he is a stereotyped “inner city share house resident” – the ALP have rarely had those in outer suburban seats as far as I can recall. I think, however, the seat needs a local person that is willing to be visible in the electorate, as well as a warm presence, in order to be successful. An Ed Husic type, rather than a Ross Free type, trying to climb the ladder. When the ALP lose Lindsay, it won’t just be because of the cocktail of toxicity that swirls around the government. I would say, however, that the “head office identikit candidates” aren’t the entire preserve of the ALP. Though it is telling that a local resident and daughter of the owner of a local motor parts company – Fiona Scott – was preselected before 2010, if a little hastily. It shows that the Liberals were looking for another Jackie Kelly. Though Scott is quite different from Kelly in manner, background and approach.

Lindsay was won back by Labor in 2007, and held narrowly in 2010 due to the indefatigable and workaholic ways of the local member David Bradbury. But it will never be a safe Labor seat again, even though it is by definition a blue-collar seat.

I really don’t know how many times Penberthy visited Lindsay during the campaign, or how many people he had on the ground in the electorate. His comments show to me that he didn’t visit and didn’t have many people telling him what happened. Bradbury was fortunate to hang onto a seat in which he wasn’t seen. Even ALP people I know commented on his lack of visibility before the campaign. He also managed to lose Green preferences – one of the few Federal ALP candidates to do so. The swing across NSW did not indicate that Lindsay would go in 2010 – and it has been said by many that the late preselection of Scott was a crucial error. In addition, Scott herself, despite being friendly and approachable, was an ineffective campaigner – not appearing at community forums and the like – and the campaign material that ran in a stream through my letter box in Lindsay focused more on Abbott than it did on Scott. It is also inaccurate to characterise Lindsay as an entirely “blue collar seat” when it includes suburbs like Emu Plains and Lapstone / Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains. It is a bellwether seat because it’s a mixed seat. There are people are work for unionised factories, university graduates, business owners, tradies, doctors.

This is the nightmare scenario for Labor, where the next election becomes a nationwide collection of Lindsays as the party is no longer seen as representing the fluoro-vested interests of a so-called working class that earns more than the middle class.

There the article ends, with its argument that the ALP are sneering at the working class made good and that Lindsay represents the whole country. It leaves out chunks of the truth. The people of Lindsay are annoyed not because of people sneering at them. There is a lack of services, public transport, a decent road taking them into the city, a perception of people getting more than them. None of these things are mentioned in the article, because Penberthy is being just as patronising towards the people of Penrith and surrounds as those “sneering hipsters” of which he speaks. He sets up the idea that Penrith is Jackie Kelly. That it’s all blue collar workers who made good. That only tells a section of the story of a place with a symphony orchestra, a university, art gallery and people living in share houses studying Bachelor of Arts degrees.

To say that the “bogan” is winning against sneering university graduates says a lot about the agendas and style of David Penberthy and other writers for the tabloid newspapers. It is an act, an artifice, designed to position them as one of the “people”, out there fighting against a constructed “elite” who sneer at the ordinary man. “Penbo” likes his JB and Coke, Chicken Parma and ACDC – therefore he’s an ordinary bloke (though someone needs to tell him that the people of Penrith tend to prefer schnitzel over parma – parmas are more a Melbourne thing). That he goes to inner city parties and hears people sneer about blue collar bogans – and then adopts the position that this represents the views of everyone who doesn’t live in the outer suburbs. Hildebrand adopts the same pose. There are those of us who actually live in the said outer suburbs can see the artifice.

Ultimately, this is not an article designed for the people so neatly boxed up by “Penbo” – people in the outer suburbs without a university education know they are doing pretty well, better than university educated people, who work largely for the public sector. But these same blue collar workers are good mates with public servants, nurses, teachers and other uni grads who live in the same street. They don’t feel this artificial divide that writers like Penbo create and conflate. Articles like that are designed to sneer at the sneerers. It’s a crude trolling exercise, hoping for the sneerers to sneer in comments about the article.

That manner and style speaks volume for a media that seems to revel in such negativity, rather than constructive commentary. It is a good thing that there is a fluidity of social groupings. That hard working people who own their own business can be a success. As the son of a working class man who made his money hiring plants to banks, I think it’s a wonderful thing. But it is another thing entirely to then say that they are “better” than university educated people just so a journalist can use them as a weapon against people in his social environment.

It is true to an extent that people from the working class who have made good have the ear of political parties. Maybe more of an ear because they swing their votes more. It can’t be said, however, that that ALP are “sneering” at these “bogans” and therefore losing their votes because of that reason. Nor can it be said that these “bogans” are Liberal Party forever – especially if Joe Hockey ever wants to dismantle the middle class welfare state that John Howard built.

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