The thin end of the wedge

Can the unions and community force a change in the rules?
October 20, 2017

In public debate “the thin end of the wedge” — the notion that once made, any penetration of the status quo will inevitably be followed by something greater — is an idiom invoked almost exclusively in the negative. It is an insufferable refrain of the perpetually fearful, the racist, the homophobic, the xenophobic, the Islamophobic, and the climate change-phobic.

It is one of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s favourite lines.

Abbott has been talking about the thin end of the wedge ad nauseam in recent weeks. In his tandem quest to place restrictions on love and remove them from coal, Abbott has fallen back on the thin end of the wedge argument regularly. He uses it whenever more detail, or more specific arguments are called for in support of his position, which is pretty much all the time.

Marriage equality is, according to Abbott, the thin end of a wedge that precedes all manner of societal upheaval. In an op-ed piece in the Fairfax press in September this year, titled “Why same sex marriage will fundamentally change the country”, Abbott presented his “case”.

In the piece he rambles on about the Aussie fair go and judging people by their character before hitting us with his killer arguments. He worries that Catholic adoption agencies might be forced to shut, that a Jewish school in Britain had its funding threatened after marriage equality was realised there and that a baker in the US once felt pressured to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

Not exactly Armageddon.

How the right uses the wedge

For Abbott and his mates, the wedge is what matters, not the strength of the arguments behind it. This applies to his and others’ scaremongering around energy and climate policy too. In this instance, the villains to be resisted are not same-sex couples, but the 97% of the world’s scientists who realise the world is on a trajectory towards catastrophic climate change and that continuing to burn fossil fuels in that context is a crime against humanity.

But not for Abbott. For him these pesky scientists are nothing but the thin end of a wedge forcing apart civilised society as he knows it, or remembers it at least. You know the lines — the lights will all go out, industry will grind to a halt, the South Australian-style blackouts will happen everywhere, people will marry dogs — no wait, wrong campaign.

It’s all rubbish, but that is not the point. It’s about the thin end of the wedge; it’s about what might happen; and it’s enough to drive fear, which is all many people need to be convinced that something is a bad idea.

The wedge then may be thin at the edge, but it is also very powerful. If it can be powerful in the negative, it can also be a force for good. Rather than being used as a tool to divide, the wedge can be the Stone Age tool to solve the 21st Century neoliberal crisis. That may be a stretch, but bear with me while I stretch some more metaphors to make the point.

The wedge can be a tool for forcing open gaps in the established order and opening up seams of opportunity: a people-powered wood-splitter cracking open pathways of opportunity for women in the workplace, more opportunities for Indigenous peoples in education and training, for marriage equality, and many more positive things.

Change the Rules campaign

Take the Australian Council of Trade Union’s Change the Rules campaign as a case in point. It is a campaign that seeks to drive an axe into an economic system that is failing too many of its citizens, rendering them onlookers to our national prosperity.

Neoliberalism is a system generating record profits for corporations and shareholders, while leaving millions of workers mired in low and static wages, no-rights gig economy “employment” and increasing housing, energy, food and health care costs.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus has been fearless in her prosecution of the argument that the rules governing the Australian economic system are broken and need to change.

Unlike Abbott, when McManus wants to disrupt, she can back it up with powerful and compelling facts.

Rules that allow workers on Enterprise Bargaining Agreements to be sacked and offered their jobs back at up to 40% less pay and reduced conditions are not fair rules.

Rules that encourage casualisation — up to 40% of the Australian workforce is now considered to be in insecure employment — and the use of “contractors” to avoid meeting minimum employment standards are not fair rules.

Rules that have resulted in a society where 1% of the population has more wealth than 70% of people combined are not fair rules.

Rules that mean 48 Australian millionaires and more than 600 corporations can pay no tax at all, not even the Medicare Levy, are not fair rules.

It is all but impossible for anyone to make a reasonable argument that those sorts of outcomes are indicative of a system bound by rules that are working. They clearly are not.

That is why the Change the Rules campaign is so compelling. Like the Jeremy Corbyn campaign in Britain, it forces a re-framing of the parameters of political debate, to include a series of truths so inescapable that even Dustin Martin (an AFL player) couldn’t fend them off. The campaign seeks to place the truths about the real, demonstrable, provable outcomes of 25 years of “prosperity” at the centre of the public debate, not the promises of economic theory.

In a sense the Change the Rules campaign signals a preparedness to reclaim ownership of the wedge, at least its thin end, and to use it as a tool for positive change. It would make Abbott as uncomfortable as a wedgy on a long-distance bike ride to think that he has lost his exclusive grip on the wedge.

[Richard McEncroe is a Melbourne-based writer and public policy consultant.]

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