Australian Social Attitudes: The First Report edited by Shaun Wilson, Gabrielle Meagher, Rachel Gibson, David Denemark and Mark Western.

Reviewed by John Frow

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Questions focused on in this response:

1. Have Australians embraced economic reform? by Michael Pusey and Nick Turnbull

2. Are Australians open to globalisation? by Ian Marsh, Gabrielle Meagher and Shaun Wilson

I’m writing this review in the week in which the Howard Government changed the shape of industrial relations in this country irrevocably, dramatically, and for the worse. We have now cast off all but the last shreds of a centralised arbitration system that guaranteed a rough parity of wages between workers and gave a cover of procedural fairness to the system of wage fixing. Its dismantling began when the Hawke and Keating Accords with the unions traded enterprise bargaining against the broader protections of the social wage. Those protections are now a thing of the past, and what remains is precisely the system of raw industrial struggle, strongly weighted in favour of employers, that the arbitration system was designed to alleviate. The gamble that Howard is taking is that Australian workers have now or will soon become so accustomed to an individualistic sub-contracting relation of employment that older modes of collective solidarity will have become irrelevant to them.

The lever that the Howard Government used to dismantle what the authors of this book tend to call the Australian settlement was the laws relating to unfair dismissal – laws that their mates told them made it hard to achieve appropriate flexibility in hiring and firing. (‘Flexibility’ is perhaps the greatest of all the weasel words used by this government and its supporters in the media.) It’s a sign of the times, no doubt, that a government can come to power on a slogan of getting rid of protections against unfair dismissal, and it’s of a piece with the Welfare to Work legislation that accompanied the Industrial Relations Bill: legislation that, like the Poor Laws of nineteenth-century Britain, drives the unemployed to accept whatever degraded conditions they might be offered.

These bills are massively unpopular, of course, despite the $55 million advertising campaign that we kindly paid ourselves to read, hear and watch. Australians don’t pay much attention to politics, by and large; but they know when they’re being done. Michael Pusey and Nick Turnbull’s chapter which asks ‘Have Australians embraced economic reform?’ puts this in the longer perspective of a transformation of work as the economy has been remodelled along free market lines; this is a process in which the public sector has been heavily privatised, the economic (but not the social) role of government has been reduced, and national income has shifted over the twenty year period to the turn of the century, such that the wages share fell from 60% to 54% and the profit share rose from 17% to 24% (p. 164).

How do people feel about these changes? To put it very simply, we don’t like them, but we learn to live with them. Between 1987 and 2003, support for the full privatisation of Telstra and Australia Post fell from 39% to 9% and from 32% to 5%, respectively. Less than 10% supported the private ownership of the major utilities, and a substantial majority of the population believed that they should be in full public ownership. There was substantial support for the award system. Yet at the same time most people also supported directed pay negotiations between employers and employees: which is to say that ‘people in general support both flexibility and collective guarantees of rights without perceiving a contradiction between the two’ (p. 172). The widening income gap over the 1980s and 1990s generated quite clear condemnation: ‘Fully 84% of the respondents agree that the income gap between high and low-income earners is too large, and 42% of them say that it is much too large. Only 10% feel that the income gap is about right’ (p. 174).

All of this suggests, as if we didn’t know it, that Australians are conservative and that we believe deeply in fairness and some version of the common good. These values (but also, historically, those of racism and sexism) were underpinned by the institutions of the Australian settlement: ‘government ownership of major services and utilities, award wages, and protected trade’. Yet whenever these institutions changed (in the interest of international competitiveness, for example) Australians adapted.

The other context for these changes in the Australian workplace is international. The chapter by Ian Marsh, Gabrielle Meagher and Shaun Wilson asks ‘Are Australians open to globalisation?’ and again it finds rather mixed feelings. On the one hand Australians are resolutely protectionist. In a period when tariffs have been reduced, the dollar floated, capital flows relaxed, and labour and product markets at least partially deregulated, a strong majority feel that openness to foreign competition has affected job security, that multinational corporations tend to damage local businesses, and that tariffs should be used to protect Australian jobs. At the same time, however, we tend to recognise the benefits that the freeing up of trade has brought to consumers. Although Australians are more relaxed about cultural globalisation and are quite willing to entertain the idea that such things as pollution standards should be policed by global authorities, we are nevertheless, in relative terms, a good deal less cosmopolitan than most other OECD countries, even the United States. On three key measures – the restriction of imports, international enforcement, and cultural protection – Australia was the most protectionist of the 14 wealthiest democracies, and it is also, not coincidentally, the third least exposed to trade and has the third least social expenditure. Its settlement differs, that is to say, from that of the major European democracies, where an open economy is offset by a high degree of social protection. Instead, we opted for high industry protection and low social spending; and what we can now envisage is the worst of both worlds, an unprotected economy and an unprotected workforce: a social order geared to the production of winners and losers.

What this book brings us, of course, is not an analysis of the social order but an analysis of ‘attitudes’. It’s no news that this is a deeply problematic concept: ‘attitudes’ don’t exist out there in some singular social consciousness but are an artifice of the method that constructs them. The ‘opinions’ people hold are shaped directly by the questions asked of them and the format of the questionnaire; surveys do not reflect something that would exist, in a pure form, apart from their administration. Moreover, the very nature of statistical investigation, or rather of the ways in which sociologists translate numbers into a verbal and narrative form, tends to produce false unities of the kind that Hugh Mackay has turned into an art form: ‘Australians think’, or the ‘we’ that I have used above. This doesn’t mean that surveys of attitudes are entirely useless, but it is surprising that there is no reflection at all on these deep-rooted methodological problems; perhaps the editors felt that they are just too well known to merit further discussion. Another methodological issue, however, most certainly does warrant discussion. This is the almost complete absence of the category of class from the analyses in this book. The word is used precisely three times, and on those occasions social class has two members: the working class, and the middle class. What, one wonders, is above the middle? What’s being left unsaid? And why is this fundamental category of social explanation so invisible here? Admittedly it’s an awkward beast, and it’s more straightforward to stick with the simpler categories of age, sex, educational level, and income (race and ethnicity don’t get much of a look-in here either); but leaving it out deprives the analyses here of much of their critical edge.


Australian Social Attitudes: the First Report was published by UNSW Press, Sydney in 2005. ISBN 0 86840 671 6.

John Frow is Professor of English Language and Literature in the Department of English with Cultural Studies, University of Melbourne.

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