Labor’s man of the ’50s

Just like John Howard, Martin Ferguson wants to take us back to the future.

MARTIN Ferguson, the federal Labor frontbencher and former ACTU head, argues that to win power, the ALP must re-embrace its core working-class constituency: the shrinking pool of blue-collar workers and the great majority of Australians employed in routine jobs.

Most working women are employed in such routine jobs, but Ferguson (who outlined his case on this page on 14 June) restricts his explicit discussion of women to those who ``choose not to enter the paid workforce during important parts of their lives’’. Like the battlers, Ferguson contends, these women have been forgotten by Labor.

Ferguson’s view of Labor’s future embraces the coalition’s successful deployment of US-style ``wedge’’ politics. His recipe for political success intimates that Labor ought to pursue coalition-established electoral divisions between battlers and special-interest groups, between forgotten mothers at home and middle-class tertiary-educated femocrats.

Nice world view – pity about the facts. The world I live in is one in which distinctions between blue-collar and tertiary-educated job-seekers and keepers are fast disappearing. Not only is a university education no longer a ticket to a good job, it’s no guarantee of any job. Graduates cobble together several McJobs, try their luck overseas, or join their ``social inferiors’’ in the dole queue.

Among those with jobs, the distinctions between blue-collar and ``privileged‘’ are even more blurred. Both groups complain of having to work harder than they used to, with less job security and fewer benefits. Both lack adequate planning advice and savings schemes for retirement, predictable working hours, a cap on the number of hours worked, compensation for overtime, adequate staffing levels to do the job properly, paid maternity/paternity and parental leave, and on-site child care – to name a few. If Ferguson had been paying attention, he might have noticed that some higher-paid workers are seeking to redress their concerns in a manner similar to their ``blue-collar’’ counterparts: by unionising.

In Ferguson-land, forgotten working-class women ``choose‘’ to remain outside the workforce. They feel unrepresented by ``femocrats’’ interested in equality of opportunity, sex discrimination legislation, child care and other issues of sole concern to the educated middle class.

Again, reality rudely intrudes into this antiquated when-men-were-men-and-sheep-were-nervous view of Australia. More than half the women in the labor force are ``working class’’ (employed as clerks, saleswomen or personal service providers), and many are mothers. Forty-eight per cent of women with children under five have a job, or want one. Once their children reach school age, 60per cent of mothers are in the workforce. They, like all women, want high-quality and affordable care for their children, a fair day’s wages and a safe working environment.

In future the proportion of working mothers in all income levels is likely to skyrocket. A recent survey of 39,000 young Australian women found those from lower-income backgrounds aspire – to almost the same extent as those from higher-income backgrounds – to professional, para-professional or managerial positions. Given that longitudinal studies consistently suggest that young people’s estimation of their future paths are almost always on the mark, these figures signal a big shift in future working patterns of lower-income women.

As lower-income women begin fulfilling their aspirations for more professional work, the number of babies they have is also likely to decline. This will lead to a contraction in Ferguson’s forgotten heartland of women outside the labor force, given that women without children will have fewer reasons to stay at home.

A recent marketing survey of more than 1200 Australian mothers found that while women with good employment prospects were happy staying at home, those who felt their chance for paid work was poor were dissatisfied with life as a full-time mum. This latter group experienced motherhood as a sacrifice, and their sense of powerlessness makes them soft targets for the ``good mummy/bad mummy’’ wedge-style advertising and politics so successfully exploited by the coalition at the last election and now enshrined in the tax package.

Globalisation has not only made the needs and aspirations of countries more similar, but has homogenised the needs and aspirations of an increasingly global citizenry. Such similarities will increasingly cut across old distinctions between classes and between women.

Labor doesn’t need its own version of John Howard: a man so enthralled by the conceptual categories and values of yesteryear that he is unable to see today’s Australia or fathom the pathway to tomorrow. Labor needs a politician brave and aware enough to see the present, and bold and clever enough to use this understanding to shape the future.

Martin Ferguson is clearly not their man.