Tony Abbott’s “Don’t Work On Weekends” Comment Is Everything That’s Wrong With The Government

Tony Abbott doesn't think penalty rates are important because he's never had to rely on them.

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Because he doesn’t have enough vastly unpopular policies to sell, apparently, Tony Abbott has done a John Howard and raised the unsightly prospect of industrial relations reform. On Friday, word got out that on the government’s instruction, the Productivity Commission is going to conduct a wide-ranging review into Australia’s workplace relations laws, looking at things like the minimum wage, unfair dismissal laws and penalty rates.

Unions, the Labor Party and social media quickly began cranking up opposition to any workplace relations changes, raising the spectre of ‘WorkChoices 2.0’ and vowing to make it yet another issue to beat Tony Abbott over the head with come election time.

To be fair, the government has only ordered a review of IR laws, and has promised not to implement anything the review recommends until after the next election (assuming it wins office). But governments don’t order Productivity Commission reviews for no reason, and Abbott himself has gone on record saying he believes employers need to be given greater freedom to cut penalty rates to open their businesses longer hours on weekends.

“If you don’t want to work on a weekend, fair enough, don’t work on a weekend, but if you do want to work on a weekend and lots of people, particularly young people, particularly students would love to work on the weekend, you want to see the employers open to provide jobs,” Abbott said on a Sydney radio station on Friday.

Let’s ignore, for the moment, that a job is only worthwhile if it provides a living wage — McDonalds in the United States pays such low wages it assumes its employees have to work second jobs just to get by — and that cutting the minimum wage or penalty rates would put millions of low-wage workers in Australia on an even more precarious footing than they’re on now. This is not the first time the Prime Minister has appeared to be shockingly ignorant of things like poverty and financial precariousness; no one’s forgotten his infamous wink on ABC radio, but fewer remember the middle-aged woman who called in, forced into working for an adult sex line to make ends meet, that Abbott seemed to find so amusing.

Tony Abbott’s comments get the most attention, but he’s not the only member of the current government guilty of this — think of Joe Hockey assuming that “the poorest people either don’t have cars or actually don’t drive very far,” and comparing a GP co-payment to beer and cigarettes. Or Eric Abetz telling the unemployed to “apply for more jobs” that simply do not exist. Or Liberal backbencher Ewen Jones, who advocated cutting young job seeker’s Centrelink benefits for six months at a time because it would discourage them from eating Cheezels and “getting on the Xbox”.

When they happen often enough, comments like this shouldn’t be dismissed as foot-in-mouth moments, but should be recognised for what they are; genuine insights into the type of people running the government, and the way they think. I’ve met people with similar ideas before; often, but not always, young men from wealthy families. They’re often on the earlier stages of a conveyor belt that’s rolled them from an elite private school to a prestigious college at a sandstone university, and that will eventually take them into a high-paid position in a family friend’s business, get them a name on the door at a prominent legal practice, or a plum career in politics.

It’s a particular breed of person — and by no means does it include everyone who was born into money, or attended blue-ribbon higher education — that you learn to recognise extremely quickly when you encounter its members often enough. No one has stronger opinions on how other people should live than they do, and no one gives less thought to the possibility that their upbringing hasn’t exactly qualified them to know of what they speak.

They can’t imagine, for example, that the person serving them drinks at 1am on a Saturday night isn’t there for fun, but because rent is due on Monday morning and late-night bar work is the only way to afford it. Or that the girl bringing them brunch the morning after had to beg for the privilege of spending her Sunday waiting on hungover frat boys, because her bank account’s in negative figures and work has cut her hours back. They don’t work weekends when they don’t want to because they can afford to make that choice, and for whatever reason the idea that someone might be in a radically different situation just doesn’t sink in like it should.

Nonetheless they speak with absolute confidence that they are absolutely correct, because it’s easy to be confident when your every trivial success is taken as proof of your inherent brilliance and met with extravagant acclamation, and when your every obstacle can be magicked away with money granted you by the fortuitous circumstances of your birth. That self-assurance is founded on air, but it can be compelling; they believe in their own innate superiority so completely, they can convince others of its truth through sheer chutzpah.

Sometimes, if enough people indulge them in their delusions and don’t ask too many questions, these young men (and, less frequently in this government at least, women) go very far, ending up in positions of power and importance not because of any great talent or vision, but because immense privilege does not require much effort to turn into success, so long as you’re just good enough to hide your mediocrity. They were born a centimetre from the finish line, and the greatest achievement of their lives is that they managed to roll over it.

Hence how a private-school boy wakes up one day, and finds he is Prime Minister.

I disagree strongly with the government’s politics and with almost everything they’ve done, but their biggest problem goes much deeper than that. It’s that they shouldn’t be there in the first place, and they don’t even know it.

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