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Features & profiles

 

Australia's disappearing middle class

28 May 2000

Published in The Age 


"WESTPAC AND COLONIAL have already closed down in Mullumbimby,” says Greg Hubbard - barber and activist - from his phone booth-sized shop in the northern NSW town. “Now I want to start a community bank. We're not going to wait for the other bastards to leave us.”
 
As he styles hair (the region produces everything from short-back-and-sides to dreadlocks), Greg chats to Ray Conway - a man who now has some time on his hands. Until last week Ray owned Marshall’s furniture store next door. A sign on its door now reads, euphemistically: MARSHALLS HAVE MOVED.
 
"Our income dropped by 10 percent as soon as the GST came in,” Ray says. “Because of that - and because the people with whom I deal no longer have any money - I closed the doors.”
 
The hot topics in this barber shop are the callousness of city-based government and big business, and the disintegration of the region’s middle class. They’re the hot topics of the entire region.
 
Over recent years, from Mullumbimby’s main street, Greg, Ray and their customers - who include former butchers, former dairy farmers and their former employees - have watched booms, waited out J-curves, and absorbed assurances about a “new economy”. Now, as this fog of promises begins to lift, these once-proud people are beginning to make out nightmare images of themselves as the poor white trash of Asia.
 
Ray’s feelings about government and large corporations are simple: "I say sack the bastards. They just live in another world.
 
"The price of gas, which I retailed from the shop till last week, has gone up 60 percent in the last eighteen months. That's the oil companies for you. GST only added seven dollars a bottle,” he laughs.
 
You can call these people blue collar conservatives or anti-corporatists. Or even Hansonites - though Pauline Hanson merely rides on the movement’s very broad back. They also bring to mind those national income distribution charts, going back twenty years, which depict Australia’s “disappearing middle class”. These people now feel they’re Australia’s “disappeared”.
 
Greg has no time for the Government “spending millions on ‘equal opportunity’ areas such as Aboriginals and women’s festivals”, when ordinary small business people are in such trouble.
 
“After the regional women’s festival, I rang [local federal member] Larry Anthony and asked him for money for a men’s festival. After all, men round here need help. But I gathered there was no equal opportunity for white Aussie male heterosexuals,” he says sardonically.
 
Anthony is the amiable, hard-working member for Richmond, the most marginal seat in the nation. He would have been in trouble with even a slight Labor gain - let alone the wild card of a movement whose hallmark is anti-institutionalism. And, whatever you name it, its partisans have never been so vocal, so angry and so numerous.
 
The new movement is lining up against all major parties - and corporations are as much in the crosshairs as government.
 
“I tried ringing the ANZ about a local problem I was having the other day,” says Ray. “I dialed my bank's local number - and was connected to a customer help desk in Melbourne! What good’s that?
 
"During the recent floods I tried calling AAPT to get the phone back on. I rang for two and a half days before they reconnected me.” He shrugged. “That's globalisation for you.”
 
To Greg, just about any institution is suspect.
 
There’s international financial markets: “The dollar’s purchasing power is on the wane: that’s why we’re on a slide.”
 
And there’s government: “I heard on Allan Jones recently that a family of five can make $32,000 a year if they stay on welfare. Yet workers are not rewarded for working.”
 
There’s also the Aboriginal movement: “There should be a national thanksgiving day when the blacks thank the British Government for getting here before the Dutch or the Spanish. That would have brought race annihilation - not the race assimilation we have now. Look at South Africa and South America.”
 
"If these people came on without the racism," says David Lovejoy, co-owner of the local paper, The Echo, "they'd have done incredibly well. City-based economic rationalism has destroyed the economic base of the regions. But they don't see that the black or the Asian sitting next to them is equally a victim of that."
 
Lovejoy points out that this movement is far more broadly focussed than is generally thought. "Hanson only represents a fraction of it - though you'd never guess that from the big city media. In the WA election 30 percent didn't vote for the major parties. Roughly ten percent went to the Greens, ten to independents and ten to One Nation. Similarly, in Queensland Labor got 50 percent of the primary vote. It was a swing to Labor and a judgement on the Coalition, not a vote for Hanson."
 
And the ground is shifting in more than just electoral terms. Greg, Ray and the groundswell they represent have made irrelevant the old vocabulary of “left” and “right”. No minister even in Menzies’ cabinet would have dared give voice to some of their social views - yet much of their economics would not have been out of place in the old ALP left.
 
Other of their positions - such as reducing regulation and taxes for small business, and funding rail infrastructure to get trucks off highways - are embraced by the Democrats: yet their views on gun law would sit comfortably with the far-right American Rifle Association.
 
It’s little wonder that mainstream politicians feel their old paradigms are breaking down.
 
The only light on the horizon for the major parties is that such a diversity of views is also hard to keep under a single political umbrella: one reason that One Nation exploded after the 1998 Queensland election, and survives in a weakened state.
 

MID-INTERVIEW, A FRIEND pops in for some cigarettes. Greg has run out of his brand.
 
“Why don’t you order stock before it runs out?” the man asks querulously.
 
Because I haven’t got any money!” Greg shouts. It’s a hard point to argue: they both dissolve into laughter.
 
Greg believes he has no money simply because regional areas - and thus his customers - have declining incomes.
 
"There are three sectors in Australia,” he states. “City and rural: that's where the money goes, thanks to the ‘super-coalition’ between Liberal, National and Labor. And regional Australia, which has no money because it has no industry.”
 
Over-regulation of small business, and de-regulation of big business, are two reasons for this. “For instance restaurateurs pay eighty dollars a visit for the honour of being inspected by the Government, four times a year. Yet council’s forever trying to restrict al fresco dining.
 
"Lack of infrastructure’s another reason. There was a contra deal in the 1980s between government and the trucking magnates to fix the roads for the large trucks. That's why we don't have railways any more.
 
"Then you’ve got taxes and bank charges. I make a 6 percent margin on tobacco, and if I had an EFTPOS terminal - which customers want - I’d pay 4 percent per sale in EFTPOS fees!
 
"Forty businesses are up for sale in this town - including mine. That's most of them. Suicide and divorce are up. It's a good place to live, if you can afford to live here."
 
A local real estate agent says he has only 27 businesses listed for sale in Byron Shire as a whole. But he acknowledges that “people can’t easily sell their businesses here, because of the low profit margins”.
 
 
THIS IS A boutique depression. It’s unlike the broadscale, cyclic events of (say) the 1930s and mid-1970s. The beef and dairy industries are in trouble, and the unemployment rate in Mullumbimby would be one of the highest in the nation. But not everyone suffers. Fifteen minutes down the Pacific Highway, the tourist town of Byron Bay is booming.
 
Greg Hubbard concedes that tourist operators and “people with a degree are often still doing well.”
 
Sympathy for those who are not doing well is far from universal. Echoing a widely-held sentiment in this environment-conscious area, community development worker Maggie Brown says: “I happen to think that the beef industry going under is not the worst thing that could happen to the planet.”
 
In the Hawke era, the despair of the regions was even sent up in a song by “Mook and Shanto” - former Melbourne musicians Brendan Hanley and Julie Oliver. Their still-popular song was inspired from seeing a bumper sticker in Tamworth saying, “This is cattle country: eat beef you bastards”:
 
Eat beef you bastards,
The country’s going broke.
The bum’s dropped out of everything
And it ain’t no bloody joke.
 
Bob’ll have our arses
And Paul will have a stroke.
We’ll have to mine uranium
Or maybe bottle Coke.
 


GREG HUBBARD'S MIND, and tongue, are seldom idle, as he snips and shaves dozens of customers through each eight-hour day. The eyes and ears of the regional meltdown, he’s developed out of it an elaborate philosophy - which embraces re-regulation, raising tariffs, withdrawing government funds from certain special interest groups, and assistance for those prepared to work.


He’s formed one political party - the Small Business Party of Australia - and is working on another: Independents for Regional Australia. (“The IRA,” he smiles.) He recently ran unsuccessfully for Byron Shire Council.
 
Ray now spends a lot of time sitting in Greg's barber shop, passing the hours of his very recent, involuntary retirement from the retail sector.
 
The two men have a lot in common. Their shops - one closed, one on the market - are the present and the near future for many regional people.
 
Before he dashed out the door to do a haircut for a friend in the Mullumbimby hospital (which announces the withdrawal of some major service every few months), Greg passed a final comment on the present federal government - one every bit as baleful as the Queensland election result.
 
“The night John Howard won in ‘96, I went out and bought a bottle of champagne,” he said. “That champagne has now turned to vinegar.”


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