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Beware the anger of South Australia's forgotten battlers

Opinion

Like their counterparts around the world, South Australia's battlers feel betrayed by the major parties and a reckoning is coming, writes Malcolm King.

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Unease is growing among Adelaide’s working and lower middle classes as more factories close and unemployment and under employment rises.

These men and women hark back to a time – real or imagined – when job security was assured and progressive politics focused on worker’s rights and social and economic stability.

They believe people and jobs come before six figure executive salaries and exorbitant power and water bills. They say, “we built your cars, toiled in your factories, cleaned your houses and offices and now you want to replace us with foreigners and robots. Like hell!”

The forces of perpetual social, economic and technological change are drawing together people from around the western world, who share a sense of historical betrayal.

Consider this restlessness in the context of the Trump election and looming elections in France and Germany, where extreme right wing parties are tipped to do well (in the Netherlands last week, the party of right winger Geert Wilders didn’t do as well as predicted, but right-leaning parties increased their hold on the Dutch parliament). The stage is set for radical upheaval.

As reported in the Huffington Post recently: “The fear and anger of those who feel most aggrieved by rapid, uncontrollable change are redefining the political landscape. Politicians peddling mournful nostalgia and narratives of a lost identity are exploiting these emotions. As globalization marches forward, along with seismic demographic shifts in the developed world, the seductive pull to look backward and inward will intensify…”

Reactionary nostalgia has two plot lines: a return to a hallowed past and a narrative which explains why that past was lost. Governments, immigrants and multinationals take the blame.

It’s hard to disagree with some of their complaints. People are not economic units to be moved, managed and manipulated. Most people’s needs are simple: work, love, food and a home. We’ve allowed the kings of capital and financial speculators to turn our society in to an economic ant farm, where the workers are under the thumb.

Many blame poor leadership. After all, we’ve had five prime ministers in nine years. What kind of politician would stand by and watch tens of thousands of jobs go offshore without fighting to keep them here?

Do you think our politicians on North Terrace get this? Of course not. The faces of the front benches are unclouded by thought. It’s a puppet show, where the factional deals and alignments of the Liberals and ALP ensure a terrible orthodoxy and paralysis.

Between March 2014 and December 2015, the percentage of residents with a low income Health Care Card in the federal electorate of Grey, in the state’s north and west, jumped by 50 per cent to 1849. In the northern Adelaide electorate of Wakefield, it rose by 40 per cent to 2977, in Port Adelaide by 29 per cent to 3443 and in the southern suburbs seat of Kingston by 29 per cent to 2664.

ABS figures state that between 2014 and 2015, the number of people relying on Newstart leapt by 20 per cent in Wakefield, 15 per cent in Port Adelaide, Grey and Kingston and 11.5 per cent in the northern Adelaide electorate of Makin.

For 30 years these “battler” communities north of Grand Junction Road and south of O’Halloran Hill, have declined dramatically. An extraordinary 22.8 per cent of SA’s adult population gets some form of welfare and this will rise as the population ages, according to the ABS.

This social and economic decline has been tapped into by Pauline Hanson and to a more sophisticated extent, Nick Xenophon. Xenophon said he will focus on traditional Labor seats in Adelaide’s northern suburbs in the March 2018 election – but he’ll have to do more than offer rhetoric. Riding the whirlwind of anger and resentment is a risky business.

Blue-collar workers who own a house and who have lost their job (or are about to lose their job) don’t have the money to move. Many can’t sell the house because they’ll make a loss – if they can sell it at all. Men in their 40s and 50s are sized up by private recruiters as being too old to employ. So not only are they trapped, their dignity is traduced.

In the first budget under Jay Weatherill’s leadership, then Treasurer Jack Snelling promised: “South Australia will be a very different place in a few years.” It’s different all right. It’s a basket case where the real state of the economy is hidden by scores of media advisers bending the truth like plasticine, where FOI requests are not processed and where a co-opted public service bloats like a tic.

The Labor Party is no longer a force in working class politics as tens of thousands of blue-collar workers have had their jobs blown to kingdom come. It is no longer the party of Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam or Dunstan; it is a party of pawns pushed by factions in a game where every move ends in stalemate. The Labor Party used to be the party of combat. Now when people complain, they are told by the State Government not to whinge.

The state Liberals are wallflowers who, instead of fighting for the right to lead the state, are secretly hoping the Weatherill Government will implode or abdicate, thereby avoiding anything as nasty as an election.

‘You haven’t provided a solution!’ cry the lobbyists as they lift their snouts from the trough, and read critical articles such as this one. We’re knee deep in solutions but there is scant action. It reminds me of the famous lines from a WB Yeats poem.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Community, fellowship and shared patriotism do not come from buying and consuming goods together. They come from individual independence and shared effort. We need permanent jobs that lets a person say to his community, to his family and country: “I helped build this country. I am a participant in great public ventures. I am somebody.”

The reactionary nostalgics are focused like a laser on jobs. Their time is coming.

Malcolm King, an Adelaide writer, works in generational change and is a regular InDaily columnist.

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