Lech Blaine, Top Blokes: The larrikin myth, class and power (Quarterly Essay 83, 2021)
– plus correspondence in Quarterly Essay 84
About the time this Quarterly Essay was published (13 September 2021), two other books appeared on Scott Morrison: The Accidental Prime Minister (15 September 2021), a biography by Annika Smethurst; and The Game (1 November 2021) by Sean Kelly. Given that Quarterly Essay 79, The End of Certainty (September 2020) by Katharine Murphy, was in part a portrait of Morrison, no one could say Scott Morrison has avoided scrutiny. Judith Brett has a brief, elegant piece in the November issue of Australian Book Review discussing all four publications. It features on the ABR podcast, at this link.
The main thrust of this essay, as I read it, is that whereas in earlier times the ALP and unions were powerful voices to defend and promote the rights of working class people, they no longer serve that function, and working class voices in Australia – the voices of people involved in direct production and basic service work – have been marginalised. Instead, members of the political class take on cultural signifiers of working-class culture: there’s symbolic representation rather than participation. Memorably, the essay describes Matt Canavan’s selfies in soot-covered face and yellow jacket as the class equivalent of blackface. The argument is important, and urgent in its implications for the resistance to climate change action among mine workers: people who have the most at stake in the short term are unlikely to be persuaded by high moral argument, or even arguments about intergenerational justice, from people whose livelihoods and lifestyles aren’t obviously at immediate risk.
That argument is graphically presented in a history of the politics since Howard, interspersed with commentary from Blaine’s unreconstructed working-class friends and family on both sides of politics.
The issue is muddied by the whole larrikin thing. It’s one thing to describes Scott Morrison’s construction of an artificial persona that would appeal to a certain part of the electorate: ditching his love of Rugby Union and becoming a League fan, having his photo taken with a meat pie and a beer, etc. It’s quite another to say that this is larrikinism: on the contrary, the ‘daggy dad’, ‘ordinary bloke’ persona smacks of suburban conformity rather than nose-thumbing disruptiveness, which I would have thought was a defining feature of larrikinism.
I went back through the essay looking for Blaine’s definition of the term. I found this:
In the beginning, larrikins sinned on the streets of Australian cities. They lusted not after power but for moral condemnation from coppers. The capitalist class was trolled for sport. That didn’t mean the larrikin was impervious to the seduction of money and media spectacle. Life revolved around get-rich-quick schemes and dreams of widespread notoriety. ‘The term “larrikin” was used as a handy way for journalists and the authorities to label any apparently lowborn young person … who engaged in uncouth behaviour,’ wrote Melissa Ballanta in Larrikins: A History. ‘At all times larrikinism had a profound connection to unskilled labour.’(page 13)
That seems clear enough, but once the essay moves away from definitions, the word seems to be applied to any person, usually a man, who is solidly working class, and possibly raised in poverty. The essay discusses a wide range of individuals as exemplifying aspects of the larrikin, real and fake, including: Melissa Lucashenko’s father, an itinerant Russian migrant who was ‘extremely violent’; John Willey, who grew up in an orphanage, fought in World War II, was a solid unionist and helped build the Railways Rugby League Club in Ipswich; Anthony Albanese, at least in his early life, who was raised in public housing by a single mother a disability pension; Bruce, a FIFO electrician on a gas mine; movie-star and tax evader Paul Hogan; First Nations senator Lidia Thorpe; poet Omar Sakr; artist Abdul Abdullah; Indigenous All Stars captain Joel Thompson. The term becomes wide enough to embrace anyone who is anti-authoritarian: Grace Tame, Behrouz Boochani and Adam Goodes. That is to say, the word becomes close to mea,
The muddled larrikinism discussion aside, the essay offers important insights into the One-Nation-voting working people who feel themselves, with justice, to be ignored and silenced by the mainstream media and politicians.
Six of the eight correspondents in Quarterly Essay 84 – Jess Hill’s The Reckoning – are women.
Rachel Nolan, a former Queensland MP, notes that Lech Blaine identifies strongly with his family’s Ipswich connections, and she gives a brief, fascinating political history of the town.
Bri Lee amplifies the essay’s description of the way people with university degrees condescend to those who don’t, the way some people on the left believe in ‘the stupidity and wholesale inferiority of the right’.
Economist Alison Pennington does a sterling job of outlining the origins of larrikinism in the success of enormous struggles by working people, and having done some of the work that was missing from the essay, she gives credit where it’s due, calling it ‘one of the most engaging analyses I’ve read of Australian contemporary class relations’.
Literary critic Shannon Burns offers some fascinating reflections on ‘authenticity’, and somehow includes a description of Bogan Bingo, an entertainment in which white-collar workers have fun pretending to be ‘bogans’. She draws attention to an element of larrikinism that is missing from Blaine’s account: ‘He knows how to have fun and invites you along for the ride. A larrikin is playful when she is serious and serious when she is playful.’
Of the men, historian David Hunt challenges the essay’s identification of solid unionists with larrikins – historically the two groups have loathed each other.
Lech Blaine’s response to the correspondence is brilliantly un-defensive – a textbook example of how to respond to disagreement and criticism. He writes:
Flicking someone flippantly between historical scenes was meant to convey the mess of Australian national identity, and the way we frequently use the same descriptions and categories for people who are spiritually and politically opposed. I definitely should have provided a more succinct definition of what it means to be a larrikin, then and now, especially in a positive sense(Quarterly Essay 84, page 106)