It’s not hard to imagine the scene. Tony Abbott’s team are working on the press conference where they will make an announcement about the measly so-called government support for Holden workers who have found themselves out of a job thanks to their not-open-for-business government. ‘Let’s turn this into a positive’ someone suggests (probably Credlin or Textor). ‘Let’s remind the Holden workers that they don’t need that scummy job in a factory anymore, because now they are free to take up the myriad of new opportunities available to them. Free of their unionised workplace. Free of the constraints of the job they’ve been in since they were teenagers’. Textor probably clapped. Abbott smarmed. And Credlin preened. A short silence follows while they reflect on the beauty of their idea. In unison, they all say ‘liberated. Liberated to get on with the rest of their lives’. Bingo.
After the press conference, Abbott and his team feel satisfied. They feel they have atoned. Yes, they might have totally and completely stuffed up the Holden negotiations, putting off a decision, then making a decision, then daring Holden to make a decision, then standing back deer-in-the-headlights as Holden announced they were pulling out after Joe Hockey yelled at them. But they came up with a plan. Not just a pamphlet. An actual plan. And they believed it was perfect. But the obvious flaw in their plan was that it was completely offensive to Holden workers. The use of the word ‘liberated’, and their attempt at turning their Holden stuff-up into a positive, completely blew up in their face. And it would appear that neither Abbott nor his staff has any clue as to why and how they got it so wrong. Nor do they care.
The reaction on Twitter to Abbott’s ‘liberated’ remarks were eloquently summed up by Van Badham, who wrote personally about her father’s experience of being unemployed when she was a child. She explained that…
“We were working-class people, and so were my parents’ friends. When you’re a working-class person who loses a job, there’s no liquid capital on hand to buy your way into retraining or consider a business opportunity. There’s no powerful network of privileged mates who can offer you a consultancy, a designed position, a sinecure, or maybe offer up a $300k a year job just because they like you.”
I myself felt the loss of Holden acutely because I am South Australian. I know how important the car manufacturing industry is to my State’s community and economy, and I understand that it is now gone forever thanks to Abbott and his team’s incompetence. But to say I know how the Holden workers feel would be wrong, because I don’t. You see, my upbringing was far closer to the experience of Abbott’s than the lives of most of the people who will find themselves unemployed once Holden leaves Australia. And what I know about this background makes me well placed to be absolutely certain of Abbott’s ineligibility to make decisions on behalf of all Australians. Because I grew up with the safe comfort of privilege, as did Abbott.
I grew up in a world where everyone went to university. If they didn’t, it was because they already had a career mapped out for them with the confidence of someone who has been told from a young age that they have the connections and the social networks to do whatever they want with their lives. I grew up in a world where unemployment often meant international backpacking to ‘find yourself’ and returning from overseas broke, but with a large family home to fall back on and parents to lend you money, and a few career options to choose from, including a job at your dad’s mate’s company.
Luckily for me, I also grew up with parents who taught me from a young age that a society is more important than an economy, and that your contribution to your community is judged by the value you add to it, not the riches you can squeeze out of it. But most of the people I grew up with, like Abbott, have zero understanding or concern for the lives of people in their community who they are neither related to nor dependant on for something that betters their comfortable lives. Everyone outside of their privileged bubble is completely irrelevant to them. And these people for the most part vote Liberal.
Before the trolls start to attack, can I make it clear that I don’t think Abbott needed to have ever physically worked in a car assembly line to understand the situation Holden workers are in. And no, visiting with a pack of cameras to decry the carbon price doesn’t count as ‘working’. Nor was it necessary for Abbott to have lived through the childhood of someone like Van Badham who remembers the anxiety of her family’s breadwinner being out of work, when the weekly pay-cheque was all the family had to make ends meet. All Abbott needed is something he is obviously lacking, and incapable of acquiring through an obvious absence of emotional intelligence. It’s called empathy. And the staff and colleagues Abbott surrounds himself with are no help to him on this front, because they too just don’t get it either.
Using my empathy, I can guess that Holden workers are scared, anxious, disappointed and angry about their company leaving Australia. I would suspect that they will have trouble enjoying Christmas, with the worry about their futures and the knowledge that their careers are now uncertain, and possibly over. I can imagine that looking at job ads on the internet fills them with fear, possibly depression, knowing that they’re not qualified for just about every job being advertised. They might be thinking about options for retraining, but also worrying about the cost and time needed to retrain while they still have their jobs. They might be regretting their decision to go into automotive manufacturing in the first place, and blaming themselves for making a career decision that has damaged their family’s future. They will be thinking of their wives, their husbands and their children and hoping and wishing that something goes right for them soon. While Abbott and his family fly off to Europe to visit his daughter this Christmas, many Holden workers’ families will be wondering if the money they are spending on Christmas lunch should be saved for a day in the future when they’ll need it more.
I might come from a privileged background, and be lucky enough to have always enjoyed the safety net that comes with such an upbringing. But I know enough about life to know that the last thing Holden workers will be feeling is the wonderful emotion of ‘liberation’. If Abbott honestly believes these workers are better off without their jobs, he’s the last person who should be making decisions affecting the future of all Australians. From his narrow, un-empathetic, self-interested glass tower of privilege, he is therefore unqualified for the job of Prime Minister.