Brett Gale
Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Opening Comments: Thomas Frank in Conversation

Thank you all for coming here tonight.

The Chifley Research Centre is thrilled to be able to host this event in consultation with NSW Labor.

Before we start I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet the Gadigal people of the Eora nation and pay my respects to elders past and present.

Earlier this year Michael Wolfe’s book on the first year of the Trump Presidency – “Fire and Fury” was released to great fanfare.

Like many a person interested in politics I scooped it up when it first came out and read it ravenously.   And in reading it I understood the vicarious thrill of New Idea, or Daily Mail readers – even though you suspect most of the stories are made up or exaggerated you love reading the gossip.  Particularly if that gossip reinforces the low opinion you already have of the groper in Chief.

In a sense reading the book was a positive experience and gave one a great sense of schadenfreude that the Trump White House was as out of control as we thought it would be.

But truth be told it was a hollow sort of schadenfreude because, when one puts aside the captivating circus and the destructive car-wreck that is the day-to-day story of the Trump Presidency and looks below the surface what one sees is a structural fracturing of American life.

And it is a structural fracturing that has seen working class Americans lose for far too long.

That fracturing of America, that screwing over of the working class is one that Thomas Frank has been chronicling for a long time

Indeed, Thomas’ 2004 book “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”, is the seminal work on the great con that has been perpetrated on working class Americans over the last few decades.

In that book Thomas called out how Republicans won votes by transforming the overwhelmingly economic grievances of working people into generalised opposition to an ever‑present but vaguely defined ‘political correctness’.

Now that right-wing tactic should sound familiar to anyone who has had the misfortune to stumble across Sky News after 6pm.

As the intro to that book makes clear the fact that working people “getting their fundamental interests wrong” by voting for conservatives was “the bedrock of American civic order; it is the foundation on which all else rests”.

Unfortunately, not much has changed politically in the decade and a half since Thomas Frank first wrote those words.

And in many respects Donald Trump is not a break with the past of the Republican movement he is the logical extension of the angry zeitgeist that Republicans have been tapping into since Nixon.

In fact, Trump may have taken it a step further by not just talking about cultural ills but actually talking about the everyday economic concerns of the working class who have been left behind (even if he has no intention of actually fixing their problems for them).

What makes Thomas Frank unique as a writer though is not just his critique of this great Republican con.

It is the fact that he is not afraid to call out where the supposed party of the people – the Democratic Party – has also let down those who they claim to represent.

For those who haven’t read it, Thomas’ 2016 book “Listen Liberal” sets out in compelling detail the case that over the past 40 years the Democratic Party has transformed itself from a party of the working class into a party of the professional class and along the way has promoted and implemented policies that actually hurt the working class.

Or as Thomas writes in his latest book “Rendezvous with Oblivion”, about the economic trajectory of both parties over the last few decades:

Utilities were privatised to disastrous effect, the real estate bubble grew and burst, the banks got ever bigger, state governments declared war on public workers, and the economy went off a cliff”.

The effect of these political developments has been an ever-increasing inequality.

This situation is not unique to the United States, however.

In Australia we were fortunate to be sheltered from the worst excesses of the GFC by the great economic stewardship of our other special guest tonight – Wayne Swan

However, by all measures inequality in Australia is now on the rise.

So too is the threat of right-wing populism as a response.

People think the system is broken – because it is.  It is not working for all Australians particularly under the current Government.

That’s why at the Chifley Research Centre we take seriously our mandate to work on long term policy solutions to help fix that broken system.

We take seriously our mandate to deliver policies that will reduce inequality in Australia.

Personally, I am optimistic that the times and struggles we face will suit social democrats.

I’m optimistic that those of us on the left, and only those of us on the left can develop the policy responses that look after all Australians.

The key mission of the Chifley Research Centre is to promote a Labor culture of ideas.

That’s what tonight is all about – bringing together prominent thinkers from Australia and the United States to discuss our common challenges particularly the scourge of inequality.

That’s why I’m pleased that Chifley could bring Thomas Frank to Australia.

Its why I’m pleased that our new National President Wayne Swan can join us.  Wayne has been a passionate advocate for fighting inequality his entire political life.

And its why we are fortunate to have Senator Kristina Keneally as our moderator tonight’s discussion.  Of course there aren’t many Australian politicians who have as deep an understanding of both the Democrats and the Labor Party as Kristina.

So I’d now like to call on Kristina to formally ask Thomas to speak and to get tonight’s proceedings underway.


About Brett Gale:

Brett Gale is the Executive Director of the Chifley Research Centre.