The collapse of n middle class wages and conditions and the western world phenomenon that has seen millions turn to politicians promising the panaceas of the past were first evident in the declining years of Paul Keating’s Labor government.
Cabinet papers from 1994 and 1995 released on Monday reveal a middle class under pressure as their salaries and conditions had unexpectedly started to be eroded by workplace reforms.
The change was recorded in reports to Cabinet on Labor’s $6.5 billion Working Nation program aimed at halving unemployment rate and reducing the long-term jobless rate.
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The finance minister in the Keating government, Kim Beazley, speaking at a press conference on the Cabinet papers last month, said Cabinet had not realised that the middle class was in difficulty.
“You see the Cabinet – or at least the government’s advisers – suddenly coming to grips with the possibility that the middle class was collapsing,” he said.
“The Department of Social Security was beginning to form the view that perhaps the economic reforms of the 1980s had started to bring into the equation an intractable element – the diminution of opportunities and earnings of the middle .”
The Keating government’s struggle to reboot the n economy following the reform years of the recently- abandoned Accord form the background to the release of cabinet records for 1994 and 1995 by the National Archives of on Monday.
Although three decades old, the records resonate with contemporary issues, including the early faltering responses to climate change, the purchase of new submarines, gay rights, the Native Title Act, the bedding down of the Mabo decision and foreign policy issues linked to security with Indonesia and French nuclear testing in the Pacific.
The archives’ consultant historian, Nicholas Brown, of the n National University, said Labor’s fifth victory on the trot had left the Liberals in disarray and it was not until John Howard’s arrival in January 1995 that the game changed.
“If short on policy detail, Howard would court ‘the battlers’ in marginal seats, growing wary of Labor’s reformism,” Professor Brown said.
Mr Howard’s “five minutes of economic sunshine” proved a politically devastating putdown of the Keating economic program, but Mr Beazley said the new Liberal leader’s deeper insight was his discovery that there was a class under pressure.
“When we’re talking of ‘Howard battlers’ there is this image in the public mind that he was pitching to the poor and underprivileged,” Mr Beazley said.
“No he wasn’t. Howard was going again on a contemporary version of Menzies’ ‘forgotten people’, which was essentially a middle class under pressure.
“Menzies ‘forgotten people’ were largely small business types from the right, Howard’s ‘battlers’ were skilled workers who had found themselves in position they were not used to … they were a class under pressure and now that is THE debate through most of the western world.”